Our last travel/points post was pretty popular and I got a lot of feedback and questions from readers after we published it. In this installment of what I will call our “travel series” I’m going to get a little less theoretical and a little more real. Are you ready to get real?
Kerry and I are currently in Ireland on the beginning of our European adventure. We arrived in Dublin yesterday, we’re headed to Paris on Friday, and next Tuesday we move on to Lisbon. All in all it’s 4 flights (Cleveland to Dublin, Dublin to Paris, Paris to Lisbon, and Lisbon to Cleveland), 3 nights in Dublin, 4 nights in Paris, and 2 nights in Lisbon. Here’s what we paid for: 3 nights in Dublin, 1 night in Lisbon, and the flight from Paris to Lisbon. So how’d we get all that other stuff for free?
First, both Kerry and I had signed up for the United MileagePlus Explorer credit card when the sign up bonus was 50,000 miles. You had to spend $2,000 to earn the bonus and you earn a mile per dollar spent, so already you’re at 52,000 miles. You also get 5,000 miles if you put a second authorized user on your card, so Kerry and I put each other on our individual cards, putting us at 57,000 miles each. Meanwhile, United has a dining program that earns you 3 points per dollar spent at select restaurants. They had a sign up bonus for 3,000 miles after 2 dines, so after hitting that, we each had 60,000 miles, enough for a round trip to Europe!
The United Explorer card comes with an annual fee of $95, which, honestly, I’m not too keen on paying. Luckily it’s waived the first year. However, the card also carries some benefits which outweigh the fee. The biggest is that you and anyone traveling on your reservation get to check one bag each for free. United usually charges $25 per bag, so on a roundtrip flight, one bag would cost you $50. If you fly twice in one year, that $95 fee pays for itself in free baggage. The card also gets you priority boarding, which is nice if you are carrying a bag on so you guarantee yourself some overhead space. But then you end up having to sit on the plane for a long time while everyone else boards, which I sort of hate. So you need to think about it and decide if that fee is worth it. You can always cancel your card near the end of the first year if you don’t want to pay the fee.
One question I get frequently is about the spend requirements for sign up bonuses. Aren’t we going out of our way to spend MORE than usual, just to earn bonus points? I don’t think so. It’s not like we’re going out there and saying, “Let’s spend $2,000 tomorrow just for the fun of getting new points!” Honestly, the idea of spending $2,000, even over 3 months, scares me. That’s a lot of money! But what we found is that if we put everything on our cards, that number is in reach. And not just all our spending — I mean bills as well. Every time we get a new card, we switch all our bills over to be paid with it. Between gas, electric, cable, internet, phones, car insurance … honestly it’s sobering how much money is paid in bills alone each month. Am I saying that anyone in the world can easily spend $2,000 in three months? No. But if you look at your finances and it seems realistic, it’s worth getting a bonus for the things you are going to spend money on anyway.
So, now that Kerry and I each had 60,000 miles, it was time to book our flights. This is where you need to take advantage of routing rules. United allows one stop-over (which is basically a long layover — longer than 24 hours and basically as long as you want) and two open-jaws (flying into one city and out of another) on a round trip ticket booked with frequent flyer miles (aka award miles). Breaking down our itinerary looks like this: Cleveland to Dublin, stop-over in Dublin for 3 nights, Dublin to Paris. Four nights in Paris, and then we use our open-jaw here, and do 2 nights in Lisbon. Then we fly Lisbon to Cleveland. To United, even though that sort of seems like 3 separate flights, it’s one round-trip itinerary, using 60,000 award miles each.
The tricky part is getting from Paris to Lisbon on our own. Europe actually has a bunch of great regional airlines that fly from country to country, and we were able to find flights from Paris to Lisbon for 50 euro each. So far, to get to three cities in Europe and back, we’ve only spent 100 euro! Now that’s a deal.
I’ve shown how flights are easy to book, but what about hotels? Surely we must be breaking the bank on hotel stays, right? Well… not entirely. I signed up for the IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card and earned 61,000 IHG points as a sign up bonus (including the $1,000 spent to earn the bonus). Rooms at a Holiday Inn in Paris can be redeemed for 20,000 points per night. We put all of our spending (including bills, groceries, EVERYTHING) on the card to try to earn some extra points. We also learned that IHG grants bonuses for paid stays at their hotels. We used some of these bonus redemptions (which can get you over 20,000 bonus points per stay!) when we stayed at a Holiday Inn in Traverse City, and pretty quickly we had over 100,000 points!
We spent 80,000 of those points on the four nights in Paris. That’s right, four nights in Paris, not a penny spent. We then used the remaining 20,000 for one night in Lisbon, and night two was 90 euro. The 3 nights in Dublin had to be paid for with real money as well (boo), but if you ask me, paying for 4 nights of hotel stays and 1 flight on an 10 night vacation (which includes 4 flights) sounds like an amazing deal to me!
The IHG card has a $65 yearly fee (waived for the first year), so you can already see how these fees might start to add up. Again, we look at the benefits included in the card to see if it’s worth keeping. In the case of IHG, it is. Being a cardholder, you get free Internet at European hotels, which can be a real cost saver overseas. You also get 1 free night per year at ANY IHG property worldwide. IHG includes Holiday Inn but also Intercontinental Hotels. So we will gladly pay $65 a year for a free night redemption that could easily be worth a few hundred dollars at an Intercontinental.
To recap, here’s everything we have booked, and in bold are the things we got for free on miles and points:
- Flight: Cleveland to Chicago to Dublin
- Hotel: three nights in Dublin
- Flight: Dublin to Paris
- Hotel: four nights in Paris
- Flight: Paris to Lisbon
- Hotel: one night in Lisbon (points)
- Hotel: one night in Lisbon (paid)
- Flight: Lisbon to Toronto to Cleveland
And here’s how we earned the points:
- United MileagePlus Explorer card (50,000 sign up bonus + 5,000 miles for adding a second user + 2,000 miles meeting the spend requirement + 3,000 dining program bonus) for 60,000 miles x 2 = 120,000 miles. Round trip to Europe covered.
- IHG Rewards Club Select credit card (60,000 point sign up bonus + 1,000 points meeting the spend requirement + 20,000(some) bonus points from a paid stay + 19,000 Ultimate Rewards points (a post for another day)) for 100,000 points. Five (of nine) nights in Europe.
Let me know if the comments if you have any questions. I’m still an amateur at this stuff, but I wanted to use this post to be able to show everyone that this is real. If we can do it, you can too. I’m so excited about the travel possibilities that are opening up for us.
ps — Check back in a few years after we save up enough points for first class to Australia. It’s so many points!