Credit Card Points and (Mostly) Free Flights to Europe

Update: I finally booked two round trip flights to Europe, and saved $1746 in the process. Read more!

After spending $150 for $2000 worth flights in the past few years, I’m almost ready to pull the trigger (click the mouse?) on the biggest expense of our trip to Europe next year – round trip flights to Europe from the US! It will bring my 3 year total to roughly $4000 worth of flights for $400! (Can you tell I love to save money while traveling?)

Primary considerations for booking flights

While the rest of the trip (schedules, destinations, activities, dining, lodging, etc) is still up in the air (haha funny pun!) , the flights to/from Europe are much less flexible due to a few constraints:

  1. Cost – Round trip flights to Europe can easily reach $1000 or more for regular coach class (a.k.a. economy class). We don’t need the fancier business class – we just need something to get us from Point A to Point B.

Actually, that’s about it! We really don’t have much money to spend on this trip, so many of our plans will come down to minimizing the large expenses.

Now, on to how I’m saving a gigantic amount of money on flights.

I follow a few blogs that discuss credit card sign up bonuses. Many cards will give you a few tens of thousands of points toward specific airline chains or hotel brands, just for signing up for the card and spending a certain amount within the first few months of owning the card. Since I tend to handle cash very infrequently (I pay for things with my credit card and pay the balance off every month), these cards are relatively easy ways to earn a lot of travel points. I’ve been following this strategy for a few years now – even though I don’t do any of the crazy “credit card churning” or “application sprees” that some bloggers do, I typically receive 1-3 new credit cards per year, closing out the older cards as I no longer need them. It doesn’t affect my credit score by more than a point or two either way.

Saving money on flights is awesome!

This is a travel blog – not a blog about credit card points and miles (there are plenty of great blogs out there already, let me know if you want some recommendations). But I just want to illustrate that even a points-collector at the hobbyist level can finance some serious travel based on normal monthly spending. Here is a summary of the credit cards I’ve used in the past few years (2009-2012), as well as what I saved / where I flew using those points:

  1. Chase Freedom or Slate (I forget which one)
    ~$250 – RT flight between Phoenix and NYC for $50 out of pocket
  2. Chase Southwest (2 round trip flights)
    ~$600 – Husband and I flew RT between Pittsburgh and Orlando for our honeymoon for $10 out of pocket
  3. Chase Sapphire (50k Ultimate Rewards points)
    ~$350 – RT flight between Baltimore and New Orleans for $5 out of pocket
    ~$200 – RT flight between Baltimore and Boston for $5 out of pocket
    ~$600 – RT flight between Baltimore and San Juan, Puerto Rico and St Kitts for $70 out of pocket
  4. Chase British Airways (50k Avios + 50k Avios after 1 year)
    ~Not used yet! Hence the subject of this post!
  5. Chase Airtran (32 A+ credits)
    ~Not used yet!
  6. Chase Priority Club Select (80k hotel points + 1 free night after 1 year)
    ~Not used yet!

*note: clarification for those of you who are miles/points buffs, my savings don’t directly line up with the sign-up bonuses because I earn points from regular spending as well

Total, I’ve taken approximately $2000 of flights for only $150 out of pocket. If you include the two flights I’m about to book to Europe, the total will be just under $4000 in flights for just over $400 out of pocket.

That’s awesome! Now on to our flights to Europe. Booking our flights using my 50,000 British Airways points means two constraints:

  • Distance – Since BA reward flights are based on distance ‘tiers’, we want to find a flight that results in the shortest distance across the Atlantic. It will require fewer points to fly from NYC to London than it would to fly from NYC to Berlin. But even shorter than the NYC-London leg is the Boston-Dublin leg.
  • Taxes – Certain European countries have much higher taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges associated with flying. London and Paris are very expensive airports to fly into, while Dublin, Berlin, or Madrid, for example are cheaper. You can save several hundred dollars on taxes and fees by picking one of the lesser airports.

I knew I was going to be going to Europe soon (or at least, as soon as I could afford to go), so I signed up for the British Airways card with the big bonus. I was planning the trip for 2014, because I thought I would need all 100,000 points to take us both to Europe.

But thanks to two wonderful blog posts by Deals We Like and One Mile at a Time, I found the perfect ‘loophole’. (It’s not really a loophole, but it feels like one!) The distance between Boston and Dublin is a few miles short of the next ‘tier’ of awards for British Airways. Which means I don’t have to shell out as many points as I would to an airport even 50 miles further away. In fact, we can book 2 roundtrip tickets for 50,000 British Avios and some out of pocket costs for taxes and fees (just over $100 per person). (Note: the reason it shows Qantas is explained in One Mile at a Time’s post). So the flight itself is free, and the taxes/fees are minimal!

Rather than wait a year for the second 50k points to post, that means I can book the flights using the points I have now – and means I can book another two roundtrip tickets to Europe using the 50k points I’ll receive on my card anniversary! 4 roundtrip flights to Europe for $500ish? I never imagined it would be possible! We will still have to figure out how to get two and from Dublin once we’re in Europe, but there are plenty of budget airlines with cheap flights that can be booked later in the game.

Paying for flexibility

Now, booking flights almost a year an advance is risky business – especially when you book the cheap flights that don’t have a lot of flexibility built in. On one hand, we need to book early, because each airline only opens up a few award seats per flight. If we wait too long, they could fill up and we won’t get to book the prime travel dates. On the other hand, what if we book the flights now and we have to shift the dates by a couple weeks? Or what if something major happens and we need to cancel entirely?

I was worried about massive change fees and other penalties… so I did my research, of course. British Airways will only charge $40 to change the flight, or $40 to cancel the flight. So for peace of mind and the likelihood that our plans will proceed unhindered, we can book our flights now. If anything changes, it will either cost us $0 or $80 (not sure which yet.. The fine print indicates fees apply to each passenger unless a flight booking fee has already been collected. Per the post at One Mile at a Time, we will need to book these flights over the phone and pay a $25 fee… does that count as a flight booking fee? I’ll be sure to ask!).

Europe here we come!

While Boston is an hour or two further away from my parent’s house than NYC, I’ve already cleared it with my mom to fly out of Boston to save money. We currently plan to take the train to Boston, and then hop a bus over to the airport. While this might take a little longer than driving, it will be a good refresher on public transportation for when we get to Europe.Plus, it’ll give us a few hours to talk and get excited over the trip before we hop on the plane and cross the Atlantic!

If you are in the US,  have you ever used credit card points or miles to book flights? If you are outside of the US, do you have the option for rewards credit cards?

Categories: Credit Cards, Itinerary, Planning, Transportation

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. Nice info…time to get my first miles card 🙂

    • Glad you liked the information I provided. Let me know if you have any questions about miles cards – there are plenty of great detailed resources on other blogs, but I remember being a miles cards newbie recently, so I may be able to provide some suggestions.

      The other thing to consider is that the cards tend to ‘cycle’… so right now for example the sign up bonus on a card might be 30,000 miles, but if you wait 6 months it might jump to 50,000 miles. Many of the cards only allow you to get them once, so waiting for the larger pay off might be a good idea.


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