Flying to Europe for (Almost) Free

I've literally been waiting for about 9 months to write this post. I've been putting little teases on Facebook ever since I started this little mission to fly to Europe for free, culminating with last week's announcement that I finally booked my three Europe flights and the total was $68.40. I think I just confused most people and overwhelmed the ones I tried to explain it to. But I never wanted to blog about it until I'd actually booked and confirmed all my tickets. I guess, the MOST responsible thing to do would be to wait until I actually fly, but guys... when I get back from this epic trip you're going to be completely inundated with Europe posts, so we might as well get this over with now ;)

My family and I have been talking about Europe for years and years. We wanted to go on a massive trip that hit the UK AND Mediterranean. We figured, flights were expensive, so if we fly over we want to make the most of our time there. So last Spring I started researching how to get the best deals on flights.

Naturally, the objective was "free." Years of couponing and walking out of stores with more money than I walked in with have completely spoiled me.

I discovered the world of mileage users.

I utilized a lot of different travel websites to research points and miles, but if you're brand new, I think you should go here first. It's going to be confusing and overwhelming at first, but once it really clicks, it's NOT HARD.

I'll break it down...

I almost completely paid for mine and Erik's flights with points (this would be even easier if you're traveling alone!). I earned those points from credit card rewards. I earned THE MOST points from credit card sign up bonuses (i.e. earn 50,000 points when you spend $3000 in 3 months). If I couldn't naturally reach that spending goal, I learned to manufacture spending.

So, I knew I wanted to go to Europe and realized that American Airlines was a good airline to earn points with to do that. (American Airlines also owns a lot of airline companies in Europe like British Airways). Thus, the first card I applied for offered 100,000 miles if you spent $10,000 in three months. This was a pretty extreme deal! A lot of points and a lot of spending required! But it was a rare deal and I wanted to snag it while I could, even though I was new to the points game.

I applied, received my card, and started spending. I posted a receipt on Facebook one day where I'd spent $4000 at CVS one day. This was why. All I bought were $500 Visa gift cards. Why? 1. Because it counts as spending on your credit card and 2. Because I can use those Visa gift cards to load online to pay for bills I'd be paying anyway.

Consider how many bills you pay every month that do NOT typically go on a credit card. For me, that was our mortgage, car payment, student loans, and utilities. With a website like Serve, Bluebird, or Evolve (I use this one)... you can load your Visa gift cards and have them pay your bills with that money.

To meet that initial $10,000, even our bills didn't quite reach that, but I made a few extra payments toward my student loan within the three month period and then just took it easy on those extra payments (which I always make) the next couple months to make sure we had our typical income back on schedule.

Quick disclaimer: Those Visa gift cards are not completely "free," you do pay a $4-5 fee to activate each card. That's why it's important to buy them in high values like $500, not just a bunch of $50 cards. 

The $10,000 in 3 months example is extreme though. Most of them are more like $3000, and honestly, after doing the $10,000... $3000 felt so easy. One trip to CVS and a few minutes on Evolve, and I was good.

I wound up applying for and using three credit cards over the course of six months. I earned AAdvantage points (American Airlines) and Chase Ultimate Rewards (applies to tons of airlines and hotels, it's very versatile!). 

Here are the results of using those points:

Flight #1: Washington DC to Edinburgh, Scotland = 90,000 miles + $11.20 in taxes. 

Flight #2: Edinburgh, Scotland to Rome, Italy = 37,648 points.

Flight #3: Rome, Italy to Washington DC = 91,984 points + $57.20

If you're actually keeping track, I did have about 50,000 AAdvantage points leftover, which I used for two free hotel nights.

And that's it! Some people have told me they couldn't do this because they know they don't have the restraint to have so many credit cards at once. If you're one of those people, then this method is definitely not for you! I know a lot of people don't believe in using credit cards and that's fine. I have always been adamant about earning rewards through my credit cards ever since I learned in high school that I could get free clothes from Old Navy with their Visa card ;) I think the best way to make sure you don't get in trouble is to just not even consider putting off your credit card payment. I NEVER let a month go by without completely paying off our credit card. I think I forgot once and that little bit of interest they tacked on the next month drove me nuts! 

Always pay off your credit card bill, if only for the reason that it'll be really easy to apply for the next card when they see how diligent you are. I had no trouble applying for any of these cards, I was actually approved instantly online... no waiting at all and then they'd usually overnight ship the card to me. The other warning about credit card use: If you're planning to take a loan or buy a house within the next year, you probably shouldn't experiment with something like this. Applying for multiple cards in a small window of time DOES impact your credit score temporarily, but it bounces back pretty quickly when you make your on time payments.

Whew, that was a lot of typing! I hope this post wasn't horribly boring and I hope it explained things for everyone who has been asking me. Feel free to leave your questions in the comments. And I'll be sure to update you when we return FROM EUROPE!!! :)

Here's a great article with travel credit card recommendations if you're on the hunt for a new one!