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Tips for booking flights home from Europe now, airlines introduced fare caps

March 13, 2020
9 min read
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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.

We are living in unprecedented times. It's only been three days since President Trump announced that travel from much of Europe to the U.S. will be restricted for the next 30 days to help prevent the further spread of the novel coronavirus with restrictions that take effect tonight. With that announcement, there has been a scramble to book flights home from Europe before the restrictions take effect at midnight on March 13. While the edict doesn't bar U.S. citizens from returning home from Europe, nor does it include all of Europe -- countries outside the Schengen area are currently exempt -- flight capacity will surely be cut during this period.

Since the President's announcement, we've seen airfare prices from Europe to the U.S. rising, and on Thursday airlines started to introduce fare caps to keep prices under control in these unusual times. American Airlines capped its economy fares from Europe and the United Kingdom at 799 euros/pound sterling. Flights from the U.S. to those destinations are capped at $1,000. American says: "These fares include taxes and fees that are typically around $250 to $300 on transatlantic routes." These are one-way fares for travel through March 24. United and Delta followed American's lead and added fare caps on Thursday.

To clarify the travel from Europe that will be restricted or suspended, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad F. Wolf issued the following statement on Wednesday:

“Today President Donald J. Trump signed a Presidential Proclamation, which suspends the entry of most foreign nationals who have been in certain European countries at any point during the 14 days prior to their scheduled arrival to the United States. These countries, known as the Schengen Area, include: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. This does not apply to legal permanent residents, (generally) immediate family members of U.S. citizens, and other individuals who are identified in the proclamation.”

The travel ban does not include countries outside of the Schengen area, including the U.K. and Ireland. This new policy comes at a time when the U.S. Department of State – Bureau of Consular Affairs has raised its Global Health Advisory to Level 3, which suggests Americans reconsider travel abroad at this time due to the spread of COVID-19.

If you're planning on making a speedy exit to get back to the U.S. before these measures take effect, here are some tips for booking flights home from Europe.

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Time is of the essence, book your travel quickly

No matter how you decide to get home -- changing an existing ticket, booking an award flight or paying cash for a new seat -- you should make your plans immediately, whether using cash or miles. While we found good availability from many European cities back to the States on Thursday and Friday, those seats may be booked quickly by anyone trying to get here before the window closes.

In the graphic below, you'll see cash prices for flights from Paris' Charles DeGaulle Airport (CDG) on Friday, March 13 to various U.S. cities. In this case, the cheapest one-way flight options are into New York for $451, Miami for $526 and Los Angeles for $540. Price ranges for flights from places like London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Dublin, Lisbon and Frankfurt were similar. But -- keep in mind the cheapest prices are likely multi-stop itineraries.

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If you are looking for a nonstop flight, the prices can jump up tremendously to the tune of $2,500 each, unless you can get one of the capped fares on U.S. airlines

To check pricing from any city in Europe, go to Google Flights and type in the departure city and then "USA" in the destination field. You'll get this sort of map. Just be aware that the default will be to display flights that may require multiple connections.

If you do a search and see a flight that works, book it. Don't worry about booking a ticket directly to your home airport if you are having trouble. Book something to any city in the U.S. and you can then arrange for a separate connecting flight. Just get home with the least amount of stress, if possible.

Use cash if you have to as now is not the time to spend too much time price shopping.

Related: Myth-busting: Will a face mask keep you safe from viruses on a plane?

Book or change reservations online whenever possible

If you have an existing return ticket for a future date, try to change it online or on your airlines' mobile app. If that's not possible, call the airline; just know that you will probably be on hold for quite some time -- as in hours. You may have better luck simply heading to the airport, though those lines at major hubs in Europe may also be long. At TPG, we've already heard of some travelers who have just booked new tickets home as it was taking too long to get assistance changing existing reservations.

Most airlines have expanded their change/cancellation policies so you may not even pay a fee to change your flight, assuming you can get through to assistance or can do it yourself online.

The reservation and customer service phone lines of all the airlines are groaning under the weight of this crisis. Wait times are excessively long so your best bet is to try to book a return flight online. Here are tips for getting through to the airline as quickly as possible.

Related: Which airlines are offering the most flexibility for travelers affected by the coronavirus

Award availability is out there

We've been monitoring award availability from Europe to the U.S. all week from a few major European cities and found some options, but like with cash, nonstop options are disappearing and/or we are seeing the award price increase.

Checking on Friday morning, we found flights back from Paris to the U.S. area for 22,500 American AAdvantage miles one-way in economy for 22,500 AAdvantage miles as soon as Saturday, which is of course after the ban takes effect, but the flights do exist.

There is also British Airways availability from London to the U.S. Friday afternoon at the saver level in business class. You will be hit with some bigger fees on British Airways (often $400 - $600 when redeeming American Airlines miles), but the awards are there for the taking.

Using United Miles, you'll find connecting flights (one or two stops) from Frankfurt to Newark (EWR) for as low as 33,500 miles in economy on a variety of airlines including United, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines and SWISS.

While we found nonstop awards from certain cities like Geneva and Zurich to New York yesterday, that availability seems to have dried up. But, there are still plenty of connecting flights from both cities going for 33,500 miles for economy seats.

There is no availability from Paris to Atlanta today using Delta SkyMiles, though options can be booked for travel on Saturday and beyond.

Here are general tips for using your miles to get to and from Europe.

Related: Should I travel?

Use fixed-value points

If you need to simply book a cash ticket quickly, but don't have the cash budget to support the spur-of-the-moment purchase, keep in mind the options to use your points at a fixed-value as cash to cover the charge.

For example, if you've been stockpiling some Capital One miles, you can buy a ticket with your eligible Capital One card and then later use your miles to "erase" the expense -- coded as a travel purchase -- from your credit card statement at a rate of one Capital One mile equals 1 cent. You can do the same thing if you have Barclaycard points.

If you are working with Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards, you can go to the respective Chase or Amex Travel sites and book flights via those sites using your points at a fixed cash value. Both of those portals also allow you to pay with a combo of cash and points.

Bottom line

It's not fun or easy to make last-minute travel plans -- especially in an instance like this where a lot of people are going to try to book the same flights home under stressful circumstances. Now's the time to leverage your miles, points and cash and get home safe and sound.

Additional resources for traveling during the coronavirus outbreak:

Featured image by (Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)