Booking Free Flights To Europe…and Why I Cancelled Them.

12715403_1135409593137783_759570594220234216_n (Our first foray in travel hacking. Our honeymoon in Dubrovnik in Sept 2015)

In this post I’m not going to tell you to cut out your coffee, sell your SUV, or even how to cut the cord on cable. Here comes the fun stuff. Consumerists rejoice! I’m going to explain how you can get free flights anywhere in the world. Would you like to fly to Europe for free? Or would you rather pay for the same trip? At face value, the answer is an easy one, but after my explanation you might change your mind.

So, my wife, Mrs. RRR, and I like to think of ourselves as travel aficionados. We prefer taking less frequent longer trips to Europe as opposed to multiple shorter trips domestically, and on our past three trips abroad, we’ve managed to fly practically for free. Back in January this year, we both signed up for the Chase Sapphire Reserve. This card is known as the crown jewel of travel hacking, and for good reason. Here are a few of the benefits:

  • 100k bonus points with $4k spend in 3 months (down to 50k now, still a good deal)
  • $300 Travel Credit
  • 3x points spent on travel and dining. 1x points on all other spending
  • $100 credit toward TSA PreCheck or Global Entry
  • Tons of transfer partners: 7 airlines, and 4 hotels (each with their own partners)

Now, all of these benefits do come at a price, and a hefty one ($450 annual fee) but, for 100k UR (Ultimate Rewards) points, and $300 travel credit, we were already coming out like bandits compared to that fee. So since my wife and I both got it, we churned through $8k of spending in 3 months, frugally of course (manufactured spending) and ended up with 200k points.

Last week, a high school friend of mine, and fellow travel lover, forwarded my wife an email that she had received about current flight deals to Athens, Greece from Atlanta, Boston, NYC, and Washington DC for $500-$600 depending on when you flew and where you flew from. Mrs. RRR then forwarded me the email, and we figured it was a good deal, but we had these points so we might as well use them. So that email was just the catalyst we needed to spontaneously plan a trip to Europe. Booking the flights through the UR website would’ve used around 180k points. But, United is a UR transfer partner so I checked their award travel, and the same flights were 60k points each way, so 120k points for both of us round trip. I transferred our points from the UR website to United and within 30 minutes of her email we had booked flights from Nashville, TN to Athens, Greece and from Dubrovnik, Croatia back to Nashville, TN.

We have some friends who are interested in traveling with us, but they aren’t travel hackers yet. We invited them along, and they graciously agreed to join us. We gave them a rough estimation of $1500 each way for the two of them. When we looked to book the same flights that we had booked, they were $2000 apiece one way! And we still had to book flights from Athens to Larnaca, Cyprus (Mrs. RRR’s grandparents live in Limassol, an hour outside Larnaca). It was time to get creative. We looked for flights from Atlanta, Boston, NYC, Washington DC and even Toronto to Athens, and all of them were $900-$1000+ one way per person. I finally checked NYC to Larnaca, and tickets popped up for $275. I had to do a double take….$275!? We jumped on those, and decided they were such a good deal, it was worth cancelling our United flights there and keeping our points for traveling another time.

At the risk of confusing people, I’m going to throw out some maths. One way flight to Athens from Nashville per person: $2000. One way flight to Athens from Nashville with points per person: 30,000.

$2,000 ÷ 30,000 points = 6.6¢ per point.

6.6¢ x 120,000 points (total points we used for our trip) = $8,000!

The flights are through Norwegian, which is a budget airline (you pay for everything else: food, checked bags, and picking your seats), but for $100 more you can get all of the amenities included. Are you shitting me? For $275 I’m getting a cushy seat on an over-sized tin can catapulting 5,500 miles across the Atlantic ocean at 600 mph, with videos on demand. What more could I ask for? I’d live off a single peanut the whole flight if it means I can keep that $100. But, luckily, we are resourceful, clever, and flexible, and we can bring food with us. We could even grab an over-sized (read: American) meal at some overpriced shop in the airport and bring leftovers on the flight and still save $85. Hell, I’ll take flights to Mediterranean Europe for $275 any day, even if it means riding in the cargo hold.

Next, we looked at booking their tickets home from Dubrovnik. Different trip, but the same story. Leaving the same day we had planned, the tickets were around $900 apiece, but leaving one day earlier, the tickets were under $270 apiece. So we hopped back on United and cancelled our flights home too, and picked up 4 more tickets home for a hair over $1,070

I know what you’re thinking, “this frugal minded travel hacker chose to cancel his free flights to and from Europe and is paying his hard earned money for these flights?” Yes, that’s exactly what I did. By being flexible, and looking at all the possible options, we saved our 120k points, and we are flying 4 people round trip to Europe for less than $2200 vs the $8,000 our points are worth just to get two of us there. All those points we saved will fly us to Europe (or Australia as Mrs. RRR is hoping) in the future, when deals like this aren’t available, and we will wish we had the points instead of paying $1000+ one way. And that will be a much better use of our resources.

Would you like to fly to Europe, or anywhere else, for free? Or would you rather pay $540 for the same trip? On face value, the answer is an easy one. But we rejected the common answer and will end up coming out ahead in the future by paying for flights now.

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