Fly for Free to Europe...
...or next to nothing.
Roundtrip airfares to Europe can easily cost between $1,000 to $1,500 and they’re expected to increase 5.5 percent in 2023. Yet in the last three decades, I’ve never paid more than $100 for a flight to Europe and many times I’ve paid as little as $6. You can too. Follow these tips to never again pay full fare for a ticket to Europe.
Apply for a travel rewards credit card
If you have good credit, apply for a travel rewards credit card. In addition to many travel perks, you'll receive 50,000 to 70,000 bonus frequent flyer miles after spending a set amount on the card, typically between $2,000 and $4,0000 within a 90-day period. That’s enough for a roundtrip economy seat to Europe — if you book early. Apply for the card when you know you’ll have major expenses you can pay for on a credit card without incurring additional fees.
Most travel credit cards charge an annual fee of $95, but some waive the fee for the first year. Others charge up to $550 a year, but offer a lot more benefits. Unless you travel every month or more, stick with a basic travel credit card charging no more than $95 a year. The benefits you receive with even a basic travel card will more than pay for the annual fee.
By the way, no credit card company is sponsoring this post. I'm just excited to share this information so you can save money and make European travel a reality this year.
Choose a card based on your destination and the airline
Think about what European countries and cities you want to visit. Then find out which airlines have the most direct routes to those destinations. Choose a card that lets you build miles on those airlines. Some cards are airline specific to one or two airlines, like the Air France KLM World Elite Mastercard and the United Explorer Card. If you’re traveling from Chicago to Paris, the Explorer card is good card because they have daily nonstop flights.
Even if your card is specific to one or two airlines, you can still use your rewards miles on any of the partner airlines within their airline alliance. Just be sure they are partnering with the airlines you need to fly with. United Airlines is part of the Star Alliance which includes Air Canada and Swiss Air. Delta Airlines is a SkyTeam Airline Alliance member which partners with Air France, KLM and Virgin Atlantic. American Airlines is in the One World Alliance, which includes British Airways, Alaska Airlines and Iberia airlines. Iberia offers direct flights from the US to Spain.
Other types of travel rewards credit cards allow you to use your reward miles across all three major airline alliances. I have built enough miles on my United Explorer card, which was great for flights to Paris. But now I want to build miles on Air France so I can fly more directly to smaller cities in France. I could have gone with the Air France KLM World Elite Mastercard, but chose the Chase Sapphire Preferred card so I would have a larger selection of airlines to use my miles.
This is only a general overview. You’ll find all the details for each card online. Nerdwallet and The Points Guy are good places to start. Compare bonus miles, travel perks, annual fees and how to use your miles.
Keep building miles
By using your travel credit card on a regular basis you’ll be building more miles for future trips. As long as you keep the card active, your miles will not expire. Check with the card company to see how often you need to use the card to keep it active.
Each card has a different rate for accumulating miles. While it may be one mile per dollar, some reward additional miles for certain types of purchases, like dining out or groceries. My Chase card gives me five miles per dollar when I book flights, rent-a-cars and accommodations through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.
If you want to accumulate miles quickly, set up all your regular monthly expenses to be paid on your travel credit card and, most importantly, pay off the card each month. Interest rates are much too high to ever carry a balance. So don’t charge more than you can afford to pay off at the end of the month. I pay utility bills, groceries and even my Medicare payment with my Chase card.
Save your miles for international flights
Most domestic flights to major cities in the US are far less than what you’d pay for an international fare. Unless you have multiple connections and/or are flying into a small US airport and the fare is high, you’d be better off saving those miles for an international flight.
Why use 30,000 miles for a roundtrip from Los Angeles to Chicago when it only cost $350. 30,000 miles is a one-way ticket to Europe which means its value is around $500 to $750. Better to pay for the domestic fare, which will earn you more miles, and save your current miles for an international flight. Be sure to use your travel credit card to pay for the domestic fare because you’ll be awarded anywhere from one to five miles for every dollar spent depending on the card.
Enjoy the perks
Flying with frequent flyer miles isn’t entirely free. You’ll still have to pay some fees and taxes, but you will save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on flights. Plus, your travel credit card will reward you with a variety of perks.
In addition to those 50,000 to 60,000 frequent flyer miles you receive when you apply for a travel credit card and spend the required amount, you’ll enjoy a few other freebees. My United card gives me two free passes to the United Lounge every year, which more than covers the annual $95 fee. Plus, my first checked bag is always free. Most cards offer rental car insurance and travel insurance. Some offer priority boarding and reimburse you the fee when you apply for Global Entry or TSA Precheck.
All these benefits can help you save money, even if you only fly internationally once a year. I hope you’ll take advantage of a travel credit card and use it responsibly. Building those frequent flyer miles is the best way to make your European travel dreams come true.