How Travel Hacking Saved Me $11,000 On A European Vacation

| March 28, 2018
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My wife, Kate, and I both graduated with student loan debt. We wanted to pay off our loans as quickly as we could, while still saving enough for other goals such as retirement and an emergency fund. It’s not always best to plow a ton of money into debt repayment, but suffice it to say we decided it would be best in our situation. In order to provide some motivation, we decided we would reward ourselves with a trip to Europe once we paid off our loans. Kate had been to Paris and London, but wanted to see more of the continent while we still had our freedom (i.e. didn’t have kids). I had never been to Europe at all, so I really wanted to see some of the main attractions.

Fast forward about four years. We paid off our loans, and we went to Europe for three weeks. I realize three weeks is kind of ridiculous by American standards, and sometimes I hesitate to tell people it was three weeks because I can hear them judging me in my head…“He’s a financial planner telling people to be responsible with their money, and he spends that kind of money on vacation?” The only way it was fiscally possible was because…well, we didn’t have to pay that much. We used travel rewards to pay for more than $11,000 of expenses. No, I didn’t mean $1,000. I meant $11,000. What follows is a description of exactly how we did it, so that you can get some ideas and treat yourself to something you might not otherwise do. I would really love to describe all of the sights and sounds that we absorbed, the incredible food, the fun and friendly people we met, and all of the other ways we enjoyed ourselves, but that’s not why you’re reading this, so I’ll limit the fluff and get straight to the point.

Earning Rewards

First, let’s address how we earned the rewards. My wife and I each signed up for Chase Sapphire Reserve cards. At the time, Chase was offering 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points as a signup bonus (an extremely generous offer) once new cardholders met the spend requirement, so from those cards alone, we earned 200,000 points. That offer no longer exists, but we snuck in while it was still available. Next, we each signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which offered 50,000 points at the time, for another 100,000 points. Finally, we signed up for the Chase Hyatt card, which awarded us two free nights in any Hyatt in the world (another offer that no longer exists). Both of us got a card, so we had four award nights in a Hyatt, in addition to our 300,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points. Finally, we earned a significant number of points by simply using our cards. The Chase Sapphire Reserve card earns 3x points on dining and travel purchases, which adds up, and we use our cards on nearly everything – including monthly bills - when it doesn’t cost us a fee to do so. Notice that we used a couple of offers that were temporary, so keep an eye on current offers instead of relying on dated information. Don’t forget that this method of earning points involves a lot of organization and responsibility with credit cards, a warning which can’t be taken lightly. It’s not for everyone.

Credit Card Fees

Now, let’s address the cost of those credit cards. Each of the Chase Sapphire Reserve cards costs $450 per year, and each of the Chase Sapphire Preferred cards costs $95 per year. Finally, each of the Hyatt cards costs $75 per year. So far, this sounds pretty expensive. Those annual fees total $1,240. Let’s see what spending $1,240 (in addition to meeting the spend requirements) got us in benefits. 

Using Rewards

Flights

Our rewards benefitted us before we even began our trip. The Chase Sapphire Reserve cards came with (and still do, at the time of this writing) $100 of credit towards enrollment in TSA Pre-check or Global Entry. We each signed up for Global Entry, which gives us special expedited treatment when returning to the US from a foreign country. It also automatically enrolls us in TSA Pre-check which is a similar benefit for domestic flights. That added up to $200 of benefits. Pro-tip: If you are planning to sign up for Global Entry, check with local travel agencies to see if they are planning on hosting Global Entry interviews any time soon. Typically, a Lincoln resident would need to travel to Kansas City or Chicago to do an interview, but we found a travel agency in Lincoln that had a special two-day event for interviews, so it only took about 30 minutes of our time.

Next, let’s address the flights. We booked one-way flights from Lincoln, Nebraska to Rome, Italy. In order to do so, we transferred 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (25,000 per person) to Flying Blue, which is a loyalty program for KLM and Air France. Delta is a partner airline, so we ended up flying Delta from Lincoln to Minneapolis, KLM from Minneapolis to Amsterdam, and Alitalia from Amsterdam to Rome. The price of those flights is typically about $850 per ticket. We used points, plus about $10 apiece in fuel surcharges. All in, we saved about $1,680 on those flights.

We booked our return flight in a similar way - by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United MileagePlus. Our United flights were from London to Chicago, and then to Lincoln. The tickets cost 30,000 apiece, plus about $200 each for fuel surcharges. Those flights are typically very expensive, at about $2,300 each. The total savings on the return flight was about $4,200, bringing the total savings to $5,880 for the flights.

Saving a lot on our flights was a huge win, but the experience of flying wasn’t really enhanced by the savings. Some travel hackers will book business-class or first-class seats with their points, which is next-level hacking, and it makes for a completely different travel experience. We just booked economy flights because we were trying to use as few points as possible. With that being said, my favorite part of the flying experience was visiting the various airport lounges. One of the perks of the Chase Sapphire Reserve card is a complimentary membership in the Priority Pass Select airport lounge network. Depending on the lounge, the benefits of the membership can vary from a small food credit to unlimited food and drink at a buffet and full bar. After the first leg of our departing flight, we visited a PGA-themed lounge in Minneapolis that got us $15 in dining credit per person. We had a couple of hours in between flights, and spending that time sipping on a brew in a quiet atmosphere with just a few other people was a completely different experience than sitting at a noisy and sometimes chaotic airport gate. Before our return flight from London Heathrow, we visited one of the best-reviewed airport lounges in Europe for a free hot breakfast buffet in a peaceful setting. We could have had drinks at the bar, too, but at 8:00 in the morning it wasn’t something we really wanted.

Hotels

The first three cities we visited were Rome, Venice, and Munich. For those three cities, we redeemed Chase Ultimate Rewards for AirBnB gift cards. We ended up using 74,000 points to get $740 of AirBnB gift cards, which paid for a combined five nights in those cities. This is a good time to mention the value of a point, which is a concept that experienced travelers might spend a lot of time analyzing. Put briefly, some travel rewards are way more valuable than others. For example, a hotel room that typically costs $200 and is booked with 20,000 points (1 point ends up being worth 1 cent) is less valuable that a room that runs for $700 and costs 30,000 points (1 point ends up being worth 2.3 cents). You can see that the latter room cost 50% more in points, even though the points would be more valuable than the former room. So, the traveler must decide between booking something of a greater value, or booking something that costs fewer points. I mention that now because we didn’t get a good value for our AirBnB room; points worth 1 cent are considered a poor value. But, we were okay with that. We didn’t have to use many points relative to what it would cost to stay at a hotel, and our objective was to stretch our points in those cities, not get the best value for our points.

The next city we visited was Berlin. We spent three nights in a Grand Hyatt, which is a luxury hotel in a great location in the trendy Mitte neighborhood. The room cost 7,500 Hyatt points plus about $125 per night. We got the Hyatt points by transferring them from Chase Ultimate Rewards. Typically, the room is $300 per night, so we ended up saving about $525 at that hotel. We could have paid in just points instead of points plus cash, but sometimes Hyatt encourages guests to pay some cash plus a smaller number points compared to booking purely with points. It benefits the guest because Hyatt prices it in a way that makes your points worth more, and it also helps Hyatt’s cash flow.

Next up was Amsterdam. Again, we transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt, and we used them to stay at the Hyatt Regency. Again, we paid with points plus cash. The standard rate was about $275. Instead, we paid 7,500 points plus $103 per night, saving us about $515 for the three nights.

The next city we visited was Paris, which was the site of our favorite hotel and best travel deal. We stayed four nights at the Park Hyatt Vendome, which is arguably the best Hyatt property in Europe. Fascinating artwork, world-class service, extreme attention to every detail, top quality materials used throughout, and a vibe that was perfectly and romantically Paris, the Park Hyatt Vendome was a delight to stay at, and a destination to which we would love to return. We used our free Hyatt nights that we earned from our Hyatt credit cards, so we stayed four nights for free. During that time of year, the rooms run $810 per night, so we saved $3,240 with that reward.

Our final city was London, which included another great hotel stay. We stayed four nights at the Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill. We paid 25,000 points per night, instead of the typical $385 per night. When we arrived, the employee pleasantly surprised us by giving us complimentary club access “for being a loyal World of Hyatt member”. We are at the “Discoverist” level of the World of Hyatt, which is second from the bottom in their membership tiers, and certainly doesn’t include free club level access. The employee was simply giving us good service, and we greatly appreciated it. Club access rooms are typically $500 per night, so that hotel stay was worth about $2,000. The club access alone was a huge benefit. To be honest, we were exhausted from more than two weeks of travelling by the time we were in London. Sadly, seeking out restaurants for three meals a day seemed like a chore more than a treat by our third week, so we took advantage of the extensive breakfast buffet and evening hors d’oeuvres for many of our meals.

In Summary

The last travel benefit that I have yet to mention is that the Chase Sapphire Reserve card comes with $300 of travel credit each year, which helps offset its pricey $450 fee. Since both of us have the card, it helped pay for $600 of our train tickets.

You may have been doing the math, but we saved $12,640 in expenses, and we paid $1,240 in credit card fees, for a net benefit of $11,400. In last month’s blog article, I wrote that we saved more than $9,000 on that trip, which was true, but I had forgotten that it was actually north of $11,000.

Our three-week trip to Europe wasn’t free by any means. Some expenses just can’t be avoided, like Macaroons from Ladurée in Paris, a gondola ride in Venice, a beer-themed tour in Munich, or the Van Gough museum in Amsterdam. However, there’s no way we would have been able to afford a trip like that if it weren’t for travel rewards.

In future posts, I plan on offering some more specific guidance about how to earn and spend points, but I hope this description of our trip gave you plenty of ideas. We certainly could have done (and you could do) a better job of maximizing the value of our points, or even getting other expenses paid for like taking short regional flights in Europe instead of using trains, but at the end of the day, traveling isn’t about maximizing your points. Travel is about experiencing other cultures – other ways of life. It’s about trying new food, meeting new people, and seeing historical sites that have shaped the future. The joy of traveling comes from experiences like a sunset Ferris wheel ride in London, an unexpected conversation with a Holocaust survivor’s granddaughter in a packed brewhouse in Munich, a reunification of spouses after one (yours truly) missed his train from Amsterdam to Paris, time spent at a wine bar in Paris with friends living overseas, stumbling upon the Cain painting at Musée d’Orsay and being moved to tears, and seeing the passion in the Roman pizza chef as he explained each ingredient in his beloved pizza. Well, and saving 11 grand is kinda fun, too.

Photo Credit: Kate Stous

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