How to Use Credit Card Rewards for a Free Two Week European Vacation
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Imagine going on your dream European Honeyoon without the crazy four to five-figure bill? Maximizing credit rewards and points, you can cover all your airfare, accomodations, and all the additional expenses you accrue on vacation. I get it, credit cards are scary. They weren't applauded by any means in my family growing up. Being the frugal, risk-adverse, deal seeking weirdo I was, I got a cashback credit card as soon as I turned 18. It was not until a couple years ago, the more I got into travel, that I learned about the ample ways to use or "hack" credit cards to get pretty much free travel. In this guide, I will break down how to get two weeks worth of travel for free just by applying and meeting minimum spends on a few credit cards.
Note: This guide is for people who pay off their credit cards in full every month. Getting in debt to travel is never a good idea, and will be counterproductive if the goal is affordable travel. Be aware that depending on how aggressive you are, your credit score might lower from hard inquiries. Think through the potential risk if you are planning on buying a home within a year or if you already have bad credit. Ours never dipped below 750, but we already had a mortgage and had great credit to start.
This situation is mostly based on our honeymoon to Europe but has been updated based on current reward offers (as of May 2018). It covers the costs (and what credit card bonuses that would cover it) for two people going to France, Italy, and Greece for 2 weeks from the United States.
For this example, the itinerary includes 3 days in Paris, 8 days taking a train across Italy, and 3 days in Athens. You can make it work for nearly any trip in Europe (or most of the world). It can take a bit of research and some math. Yay math!
Airfare: CHicago -> paris & Athens -> Chicago
- 60,000 United Miles per person
- 47,000 miles from United MileagePlus Explorer
- 13,000 miles from Chase Sapphire Reserve
- The United MileagePlus Explorer card gives you a 40,000 miles bonus after spending $2000 in the first 3 months. You get an extra 5,000 miles for adding an authorized user and after spending the $2000 needed to get the bonus, you have an additional 2000 miles. Giving you 47,000 miles.
- The Chase Sapphire Reserve card gives you a 50,000 point Ultimate rewards bonus after spending $4000 in the first 3 months. If you spend $1000 of that on dining or other travel expenses you get 3x points (3000 points), and the rest of the $3000 on other expenses will be normal 1x points (3000 points). Giving you 56,000 points. You can transfer 1:1 reward points to United, to make up the additional 13,000 miles.
- To cover two people, get the cards in both people's names. Book through United.
- When traveling to Europe, typically it is best to book round-trip tickets rather than one-way. Buy your cross-Atlantic tickets together if you are departing out of different European city than you arrived, so you do not have to pay for the higher priced one-way tickets.
Airfare: Paris -> Venice
- 6,600 Ultimate Rewards Points per person
- 6,600 points from Chase Sapphire Reserve
- After the 13,000 points used for the cross-Atlantic flights, you have 43,000 points remaining before this booking.
- Book through Chase's Ultimate Rewards Center.
train Tickets: Venice -> Florence -> Rome -> Naples
- $80 of train tickets per person
- $80 out of $300 travel credit from Chase Sapphire Reserve
- The Chase Sapphire Reserve card includes a $300 annual travel credit, which provides you an extra free $300 that you can use for any travel expenses.
- We bought our train tickets through Trenitalia.
Airfare: Naples -> Athens
- 3,700 United Rewards Points per person
- 3,700 points from Chase Sapphire Reserve
- After the previous 6,600 points used, you have 36,400 points remaining before this booking.
- Book through Chase's Ultimate Rewards Center.
Hotel: Paris (3 nights)
- 45,000 points for 3 nights in a 4-star hotel (Hyatt Regency Paris Etoile)
- 43,000 points from Hyatt Credit Card
- 2,000 points transferred from Chase Sapphire Reserve
- The Hyatt Credit Card by Chase provides a 40,000 Hyatt point bonus after spending $2000 in the first 3 months. You get 2x points on dining or travel expenses (3x if spending at Hyatt), so if half of it was spent on dining and the other half on normal expenses, you get an additional 3000 points just spending the minimum you need to. Giving you 43,000 points. Only one person out of two needs to get this card.
- Assuming double occupancy and that both people got the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you have 32,700 x 2 = 65,400 points remaining to use for Hotels.
- Book through Hyatt.
Hotel: Venice (2 Nights), Florence (2 nights), Rome (2 nights), Naples (2 nights), Athens (3 nights)
- 10,000 points for 2 nights at a mid-range hotel room in Venice + 10,000 points for Florence + 10,000 points for Rome + 10,000 points for Naples + 15,000 points for Athens
- 55,000 points from Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Can be booked using Chase's Ultimate Reward Center or can be transferred and booked through one of their hotel partners (Hyatt, IHG, Marriot, and Ritz-Carlton) for potentially a better deal.
- After the previous 2,000 points used, you have 63,400 points remaining before this booking.
Whoa! You have 8,400 points and $440 ($220 x 2) of travel credit left! What can you use it for:
Food & Activities
- For activities/tickets for attractions, you can use your $440 travel credit for the Eiffel Tower, Florence's Duomo, the Colosseum, visiting the Amalfi Coast, or getting a ferry to Santorini.
- Using your remaining 8,400 points, you can exchange it for gift cards for Uber, restaurant chains, or use it on airfare for a future trip!
Credit card Summary:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve - 50,000 miles after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months (get 1 for each person)
- $450 annual fee (but read below for extra benefits)
- United MileagePlus Explorer - 45,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months and adding an authorized user (get 1 for each person)
- No annual fee the first year (cancel or downgrade card at year anniversary)
- Hyatt Credit Card - 40,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months (only need 1 for two people)
- $75 annual fee (but with extra benefits)
Whew! Sorry for all that math and new terms. FYI, I am not sponsored by any of these cards. I do get some extra points if you sign up for the Hyatt card through my link.
How do you meet the minimum spends?
To make this work, for two people going on this trip, you would need to spend $14,000 over 15 months (or less) between the two of you. Meaning, you need to spend about $933 a month to make this work. The higher your expenses are per month, the faster you will get all the points you need. $933 a month seems like a lot.. but remember you can just apply the money that you are already spending. If you are lucky and your landlord accepts credit cards for rent, that is a large chunk (if not all) of that $933. You can likely pay for your utilities using a credit card. Your groceries, new clothes, car insurance, or any other regular expenses – it adds up.
Maybe this is for your honeymoon and you already have large wedding expenses – pay for them with the credit cards to meet your minimum spends! Win, win! Using your wedding to pay for your honeymoon! If you are spending what the average American does on a wedding, then $14,000 is not even half of the total expenses.
Do NOT use this as an excuse to buy an expensive thing that you would not have bought otherwise or cannot afford to pay for using cash!! Remember, pay off your credit card in full every month. Once the charges reach your statement, you get the points. The reason why credit card companies are able to offer such great rewards is by chumps who buy too much and get hit with large interest rates. Do not be a chump!
"Hey, what if I live with my parents and I have absolutely zero expenses at all, but I still want a free trip?" Well, there is this neat (slightly risky) thing called manufactured spending. If you want more information on this, you can go to the churning subreddit. I wanted to point out that manufactured spending exists, but it is not something I necessarily recommend.
Tell me about those EXTRA BENEFITS!!!
Not only do you get free travel, you get some sweet perks while you travel.
Let's start with the United MileagePlus card - you get free checked bags (even if you are just doing domestic flights), higher priority board, and a couple passes for United lounges.
Now, the Chase Sapphire Reserve has a hefty annual fee. One that made me think twice if I should get it, but when you add up the sign-up bonus and extra benefits, the $450 fee is minor. You get a $300 travel credit that can be applied to any travel expense (bringing the fee to $150). Your extra benefits include credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check (you still have to apply and get accepted), Priority Pass lounge access which covers nearly all major airports, travel insurance (including rental car insurance), discounted rental car bookings, lost luggage reimbursement, roadside assistance, and several more benefits and protections. So many ways that the fee can pay for itself (besides the obvious points you get for signing up).
With the Hyatt Card, you automatically become Discoverist status (premium wi-fi, better check-in/out times, a better chance for an upgrade, free bottled water, etc.). You also get a free night every year at a Hyatt hotel.
What effect will all these credit cards have on my credit?
Well... it will be both good and bad. Initially, the hard inquiries for getting a new card cause a few dings to your credit. But hard inquiries disappear after 2 years and stop having any impact on credit after just 12 months. The long-term effect of multiple credit cards is positive (as long as you pay them off). It helps in 2 important ways. Weirdly enough, credit-reporting agencies give higher scores the MORE credit cards or lines of credit you have. It might seem counter-intuitive at first, but the more separate accounts you are able to manage well, the most trust-worthy you are. Additionally, the more credit cards you have, the higher your total credit limit is, reducing your percent of credit used. With all of the cards, we have a ridiculously high total credit limit – over 4x our yearly income – and couldn't even imagine how to use it all. Thus, it is hard to go above 2% credit usage each month.
To sum up, travel hacking might have a short-term negative effect on your credit, but positive long-term.
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