Charter flights: big savings, but ask plenty of questions

Although the US economy may be sluggish this year, the annual summer migration of Americans flying across the Atlantic is anything but. With the dollar buying more pounds, francs, and marks than it has in years past, European travel in the summer of 1982 could prove to be more of a bargain than usual.

But just how many dollars you have to spend abroad can depend very much on how big a chunk the transatlantic air fare took out of your travel budget. Shopping around for charter flights, special fares offered by the airlines, and money-saving hotel and sightseeing packages that you can purchase along with your ticket can make a wallet full of difference. One budget option, flying standby, might be more problematic this year due to the predicted high volume of United States travelers to Europe, based on a large number of passport renewals.

Charter flights usually offer the biggest savings on air travel to Europe. Most such flights are offered by tour operators who charter planes from the airlines and then market their own special fares and terms to the public, often sharply undercutting what the airlines can offer. Other sources of charter flights are universities, museums, professional organizations, and other groups that offer vacation packages to their members.

Although charter flights can make economic sense, it is essential to ask plenty of questions before booking one with a tour operator. For example, what are the penalties you must pay if you have to cancel your reservation? Usually these can range anywhere from $25 up to the full price of the fare, depending on how much advance notice you give and whether or not the company was able to find a replacement. What kind of services offered in flight, what happens if the flight is canceled, and what kind of plane you will be aboard are all things that you should have clarified before any transaction is made.

Most tour operators give you the option of buying either a round trip or one-way ticket. Some offer one-way tickets at exactly half the cost of the round trip fare, while others charge $40 or $50 more. When you buy a round-trip ticket there are usually some limits placed on how long you can stay abroad, ranging anywhere from a week up to several months.

The following are a few of the tour companies that offer charter flights to individual travelers this summer and fall:

Travac Tours and Charters, 1270 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10001, (212) 563- 3303 or, outside New York State, (800) 223-1077. Travac Tours and Charters offers service to Paris, Zurich, Geneva, and Amsterdam from New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Miami. Round-trip flights between New York and Paris range from $490 and $530 depending on day of departure. Round trips between Los Angeles or San Francisco to Paris are $790. It is possible to book one-way flights or to combine a Travac flight to a European city with one returning from any of the three others. Children up to two years may travel free if held on the adult's lap, and there are a limited number of cheaper fares for children up to 13. Discount car rentals and complete vacation packages are also available.

Council on International Educational Exchange, 205 East 42nd Street, New York , N.Y. 10017, (212) 661-0311, or outside New York State, (800) 223-7402. A nonprofit academic organization that specializes in student travel, the Council on Inter-national Educational Exchange is offering charter flights to the general public to Paris and Amsterdam. The only direct flights to Paris are from New York, but the council also offers connecting flights to New York from Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The round-trip fare between New York and Paris ranges from $479 to $579, while the flights from the West Coast cost an additional $348. No advance booking is required, but whether you can get the departure dates you want depends on availability. It is also possible to fly one way at a cost slightly higher than one-half of the round-trip fare.

Value Vacations, 151 Main Street, Winstead, Conn. 06098, (203) 379-7508, or outside Connecticut, (800) 243-2848. Value Vacations offers charter flights from New York to Paris, London, Rome, and Milan. They also offer connecting flights to New York from Washington, D.C., Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston. The round-trip fares between New York and London range from $398 to Rome or Milan the round-trip fare ranges from $498 to $550. Passengers can fly to one of the cities and return home from another, or purchase one-way tickets that are no higher than half the cost of the round trip fare. Discount car rentals and vacation packages are also available.

GWV Travel, 162 Second Avenue, Needham Heights, Mass. 02194, (800) 343-7908. GWV Travel offers charter flights to Paris from New York, $398 to $498 round trip. It is possible to fly one way as well. For the lowest fares GWV offers, advance booking of 30 days and advance purchase of 21 days is required. Hotel and car rental packages are also available.

Tourlite International, 516 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10036, (212) 575- 8888 or (800) 223-7605. Tourlite offers charter flights from New York to London and Vienna on its own airline, Arista International. The round-trip fare to Vienna ranges from $499 to $599, while round trip to London is $399 to $449. Passengers can also book one-way flights. Tickets must be purchased at least 21 days in advance of departure. Vacation packages are also available.

Travel 2000, a division of Arthur Frommer Holidays Inc., is a New York-based tour company which accepts reservations made through travel agents only. Charter flights offered are from New York to London, which range from $399 to $449 round trip. A variety of budget tours in Britain are available in conjunction with the flights.

While fares on regularly scheduled airline flights are usually not as low as on charters, they often offer special packages and rates that should not be overlooked. And for those who have qualms about the complex regulations that sometimes accompany charter flights or about the older planes that the tour operators sometimes use, it is probably worth it to pay the extra fare.

On direct airline flights to Paris and London the lowest fare is usually the Super Apex, which often requires 21 days advance purchase and a minimum stay of one week. Currently the standard Super Apex fare from New York to London is $770 round trip on weekdays. From Chicago to London it is $990 and from Los Angeles $ 1,070. Weekend travel usually costs $25 more each way.

Icelandair is offering a savings on the standard Super Apex fare from New York to London of $87 to $137 for those passengers willing to fly to Luxembourg first and then take a one-hour connecting flight to London on Luxair. To do so, passengers purchase the Icelandair Super Apex round-trip ticket to Luxembourg for $599 and then one to London on the Luxair flight for $84. Icelandair also offers round trip budget fares from Chicago to several European cities, including Zurich ($674), Amsterdam ($614), Copenhagen ($820), and Athens ($835). All include a brief stop in Iceland, where passengers can disembark for duty-free shopping.

Capitol Airlines offers comparatively low fares to both Brussels and Frankfurt. Round trip fare from New York to Brussels is currently $559 and to Frankfurt $599. From Chicago the round trip fare to Brussels is $640 and to Frankfurt $660. Fares from Los Angeles to Brussels are $799 and to Frankfurt $ 819.

British Airways, while not offering fares to London that are lower than the standard Super Apex rates, does make some money-saving hotel and tour packages available to its passengers. The airline, which offers service to London from 12 US cities, has a program called ''Dollar Saver Holidays in London'' through which travelers can book hotel rooms in the British capital for as little as $38 a night double or $34 single. Discounted theater tickets, passes for transportation on London buses and subway trains, economical meal packages, and budget tours throughout Britain and the rest of Europe are available as well.

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