July 23, 2002 -- Americans get so little vacation, it's no surprise that many want to cover as much ground as possible in their precious few days abroad. If you're in a hurry, trains and buses just might not cut it -- but flying around can seem expensive and complicated.
Enter the airpass. Available in every corner of the globe, airpasses are ways to jet around for a flat fee per flight, usually somewhere between $70-$150. You usually have to plan your itinerary in advance and work with a travel agent to book the flights before you leave the US, but if an airpass's available routes jibe with yours, this can be a quick and easy way to cover a lot of ground quickly.
Jetting Around Europe
Why fly around Europe when the trains are so good? It depends on how much of a hurry you're in. Getting from Lisbon to Paris, for instance, takes two days on a train, or two and a half hours on a plane. If you want to get a quick taste of different European regions, or want to include Ireland in your European trip, traveling by air might be the best thing for you.
The simplest pass out there is from EuropeByAir (888/387-2479; www.europebyair.com). For $99 per flight, with no cancellation fees, change penalties, or advance-purchase requirements, you can bounce on small regional carriers between 30 European countries. We've recommended this pass before. Their route map is odd, but if you can fit your trip to their routes, they're a wonderfully low-stress way to fly. And their peculiar route map has hidden advantages: flying out of smaller airports means shorter lines and fewer delays, and you might see a few cities you wouldn't have stumbled upon otherwise.
Other airpasses have more confusing pricing schemes, but their route maps might fit better with your trip. The OneWorld Visit Europe Pass (www.oneworld.com/products/visit_europe.cfm) brings together British Airways, American Airlines, Iberia, Finnair and Aer Lingus for a strong European route map and flight prices as low as $65, but they'll hit you for $150 or more if you're taking a long leg across the Continent. This pass must be bought in conjunction with a transatlantic ticket on a OneWorld carrier such as the ones listed above.
We also like the SAS airpasses (www.scandinavian.net), which are especially good for trips to thinly-populated Scandinavia -- you can get most international flights between Scandinavian countries for $80, provided they're bought along with a transatlantic ticket on SAS. Both the SAS and OneWorld passes allow you to buy segments without locking down their dates, but charge you if you change your tickets once the dates are locked down.
When you're thinking about airpasses, make sure to also compare their prices with buying individual legs on European discount airlines such as Ryanair (www.ryanair.com). A site we've previously recommended, Flybudget.com offers a guide to discount airlines, where you can find plenty of flights for under $99. The down side: Budget-airline flights are usually non-changeable, non-refundable and more complicated to book than airpasses.
Sound confusing? If you're not a travel geek, it's worth getting a travel agent's help for these multi-city trips. Tulips Travel in New York City (800/882-3383, www.tulipstravel.com) specializes in airpasses, and can help figure out which one's the best for you.
Europe isn't the only, or even the best region where you can use an airpass. In regions that lack Europe's compact size or speedy rail system, airpasses can be the only way to see a great swathe of territory quickly.
East Asia, for instance, is a region full of islands. Island-hop with the Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific All Asia Pass, which gives you 21 days to cover 17 countries for $699 (see our past column here.) pass expert Stirland also recommends the Malaysia Airlines AccessAsia Pass, which offers 25 destinations and three free hotel nights in Kuala Lumpur for $999. Both passes include roundtrip flights from New York or LA to their Asian hubs, making them great deals.
In 1999, I flew around India on the Jet Airways Visit India Fare, a pass that lets you hit as many cities as you can handle in a set amount of time. (The 15-day pass costs $500.) The Visit India Fare pretty much requires a whirlwind trip to make economic sense, but for my itinerary -- Jaipur-Udaipur-Bombay-Cochin-Bangalore-Delhi in two weeks -- it was by far the best idea.
Tulips' Web site also shows passes for Australia, South America and the Middle East. To explore the world of airpasses, head to www.tulipstravel.com.
We'd love to hear from all you independent travelers who have taken advantage of airpasses. Please tell us your story (where did you go?; what airpass did you use?; how much did it cost?). Click here to get started posting your thoughts on our Community Boards.