How We Flew Round Trip to Europe for Free

We just returned from an excellent ten-day trip spent mostly in Switzerland, including a couple of relaxing days in Lake Como since it was on our way up from the Milan airport. It was a trip full of beautiful nature, breathtaking panoramas, and snowy walks.

Photo Credit: Marian in Lake Como for Flytographer

For the nonstop flight we took on Emirates, the normal airfare might have been in excess of $3,000. But, thanks to a combination of a deal we found on Slickdeals and some travel rewards we had banked up from a credit card, we paid absolutely nothing out of pocket to fly both directions.

Every year around the end of January, Emirates tends to put out an offer for two round trip tickets from JFK Airport in NYC to Malpensa Airport in Milan, Italy, for around $800 combined. This is an amazing deal, and it’s the same one that we jumped on back in 2015 when we spent two weeks traveling down Italy and into Greece. Emirates is an excellent airline with some of the most generous baggage allowances, free alcoholic beverages, a couple of meals, courteous staff, and a great selection of free movies to pass the time.

For this particular deal, you have to have some flexibility in your travel dates, as the heavily discounted rates are only applicable during certain timeframes which don’t usually include peak summer dates. Also, because the deal is so good, tickets tend to get snatched up within a couple of days. You need to be able to act decisively if you have the opportunity.

Fortunately, we were able to find some dates in early April that worked for both of us with tickets costing only $820.82. To sweeten the deal, we had earned over 75,000 in credit card reward points earlier in the year by opening a Chase Sapphire Preferred card and spending $4,000 within the first three months on bills and other regular expenses. The bonus itself was 50,000, with another 10,000 points coming from referring a friend, 5,000 from adding my wife as an authorized user, and other points from regular spending. The 75k points were worth over $900 toward travel, so we were able to cover the entire flight plus a portion of one of our hotels.

Credit card hacking has gotten a bad rap in many parts of the personal finance community. I used to be skeptical and dismissive of it myself. I worried about damaging my credit or figured it probably wasn’t worth devoting time to earn a handful of points. However, as I learned more about it, I found that there are a number of cards that offer many hundreds of dollars in signup bonus points with completely minimal investment of time or energy. I’m not one to complicate my financial life for no good reason or to chase pennies, but in this case, I realized my effective return worked out to an hourly rate of several hundred dollars. And my credit score has only gone up in the meantime, standing at 785 right now.

I won’t attempt to rewrite a full guide here, since there are already other sources which are much better for that purpose. If you’re interested in learning more, I’d highly recommend checking out these podcasts from ChooseFI.

I personally started with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which has one of the best signup bonuses and perks available. I followed that with the Southwest Rapid Rewards card, which at the time gave me a 60,000 point bonus for spending $1,000 in the first 3 months. We’ve already booked two round trip flights to Florida this summer and a flight to Cincinatti to visit family, while still having about half of those points left to spare. Before our trip to Switzerland, my wife signed up for her own Chase Sapphire Preferred so that we could put our travel expenses on it and start toward another bonus. We’ll probably do the same again for the Southwest card to keep the points rolling.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred also has some nice benefits built in, especially for travel, making it my new everyday card for most things. For example, they’ll reimburse you up to $100 per day if your luggage is lost, up to a certain amount. They have travel insurance, so if you get sick or can’t fly for a valid reason, you can provide them a doctor’s note or other evidence and they’ll reimburse you for your booked flights or hotels. I think they also extend warranties on most product purchases.┬áIf you go with the fancier version of the card, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you’ll get access to airport lounges, a free TSA pre-check, and $300 worth of credit every year toward any travel expenses. Keep in mind that the annual fee on the Reserve is $450 compared to $99 for the Preferred, but if you travel much, it’s probably worth it. I don’t normally do any kind of ads, and this isn’t one, but if you decide you want to sign up for the Sapphire Preferred or the Southwest Rapid Rewards, I’d love it if you’d send me a message and let me know so I can get the referral points.

I’ll leave off here and may add more in a future post if I go much farther down the rabbit hole of credit card hacking. I hope that, if nothing else, this post helped show that credit card rewards aren’t just some scammy, dangerous tactic, and can truly be a viable option for responsible users.

***If you have had problems with credit cards in the past, have any current credit card debt, or carry balances month-to-month, stay away from travel hacking. You’ll end up getting yourself into trouble and it’ll cost you more than you’ll ever gain from the points. Also, if you are planning to buy a house in the near future, it’s probably best to wait until after purchasing, as your credit usage and new credit lines will be scrutinized heavily during the approval process.