Bewildering January airfares on Delta to Europe

I thought fares to Europe in late January would be rock-bottom, but when I couldn’t find anything reasonable, I figured that Delta didn’t get the memo explaining that’s the lowest period of low season.

My wife and I want to see our son, a pianist, perform with his symphony in Vienna and Bratislava.  The performance will be in the astonishingly beautiful concert hall of Bratislava, Slovakia, an hour by train from Vienna, on the evening of January 29.

Much as we’d like to spend a week in Europe, work and family duties prevent it. We must leave Saturday, Jan 26 (origin RDU), and we must land back home on Thursday, Jan 31.

One reason for the hard date return is that I am flying to Newark the very next day (Feb 1), and then on to Singapore on Feb 2 on SQ’s nonstop EWR/SIN A-350 to try their 18.5 hour flight (now the world’s longest) in Premium Economy.

Since the orchestral performance is in Bratislava the evening of January 29, we would not arrive back in Vienna from Bratislava until midnight, which would make a very early flight on Jan 30 challenging. Thus our return must be Jan 31.

I started first looking at Delta because that’s where my highest elite status is.

Thinking perhaps fares might be cheaper to Munich or Frankfurt than to Vienna (more competition), I checked from RDU to all three cities.  After all, trains leave hourly for Vienna from Munich and Frankfurt, and the service is fast and fun.

However, checking both paid and award seat costs on Delta, my research indicated hardly any difference among those three city destinations for the dates I needed.

More surprisingly, I was getting main cabin fares of $2300-2800 round trip per person on DL regardless of city, which seemed very high for late January.

Thanks to a trusted travel agent friend, I learned that Delta now requires a Saturday night stay to qualify for their least expensive fares to Europe, even in January, and it has to be on the ground, not in the air (as we would be leaving on a Saturday).  That restriction was in effect for decades on many airlines, but disappeared for a time. I was unaware it had been revived.

Leaving Friday, January 25, would meet the Saturday night stayover rule and lower the fare by nearly half, but it presented personal difficulties, so I decided to look at award seats leaving on our preferred date of Saturday, Jan 26.

Lowest Delta SkyMiles award seat mileage RDU/FRA was 58,000 (round trip per person) and to Munich or Vienna 69,500.  That’s regardless of routing or airline partner and regardless of whether leaving Saturday or Friday (in other words, SkyMiles award mileages in these markets are not subject to the Saturday night stayover rule).

69,500 miles? Heck, I know SkyMiles have been devalued like crazy, but still, it doesn’t seem like so long ago when I could get a business class award seat to Europe for less mileage than that.

And those high mileage and high dollar fares would only get us into main cabin, not into premium economy.

In fact, squinting at the website, it was hard to tell whether or not Delta is introducing real PE cabins on flights to Frankfurt and Munich by January, 2019.  Looking at paid fares, the website lists “Premium Select” (the Delta name for its PE product) for $2289 RDU/MUC, which is less than the $2842 it shows on the same page for Main Cabin.

Forgetting for a moment that Delta fares to Europe in January without a Saturday stay are absurdly high at well over two thousand dollars, why is Premium Select priced $600 less than Main Cabin in the same market?

Switching from “$USD” back to the “Miles” option in the same date/market inquiry, doesn’t show Premium Select class as an option, but rather the same old, dreary, uncomfortable, narrow Comfort+ seating on aircraft to FRA and MUC at 100,000 and 114,000 miles (round trip, per person), respectively.

Huh? Has Delta kept a few narrow Comfort+ seats on the airplanes used to FRA and MUC to shove award ticket flyers into, or do they really mean it is Premium Select at 100,000 and 114,000 miles?

Or is it the other way around?

Any way you look at it, it was too much money and too many miles for Europe in January for me to choose Delta. So I gave up on Delta and looked at my number two elite airline, American.

AA showed a decent schedule to and from Vienna for $1800 round trip in their new Premium Economy class on the RDU/LHR nonstop, which is once again a 777 aircraft (it was downgraded to a 767 during the Great Recession). But that means connecting at Heathrow to British Airways, and BA flights to the Continent are often very uncomfortable and trying.  Too, $1800 still seemed like a lot for January.

Then my travel agent buddy came through with an $1139 fare on SAS, and it doesn’t require a Saturday stayover.  True, it goes through abominable Newark, and true, the domestic portion is on abominable United. Connects through Stockholm going and Copenhagen returning. Notwithstanding those hurdles, at $1139, compared to $2300 or 69,500 miles, how can we beat it?

Lesson learned about Delta. It was my first choice, but mileage and dollar premiums made Delta my last resort for this trip.

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