How I paid for Spain

I wrote earlier a little about my recent trip to Spain.

My friend Chris remarked the other day that he needed to get on the Frequent Flier Miles Hobby like I am.  “You’re always taking these epic trips, and I guess that’s how you make them happen, right?”

He’s right.  Once you’re liberated in time, all that is stopping you is money, and working the Frequent Flier Mile sign-up bonuses and spending bonuses can make travel very cheap – if you’re organized and don’t get into trouble.

Here’s the basic rundown of how I paid about $300 out-of-pocket for airfare on a trip that took me from Austin, to Malaga, to Barcelona, to Berlin, and back to Austin.

I converted 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points into United MileagePlus miles at a 1-to-1 rate (this is easy to do, and Chase points can also be converted to Southwest RapidRewards miles 1-to-1 as well) and used these points, plus another $120 in fees, to book Austin-to-Malaga and Berlin-to-Austin.  I figure I got a return of about 1.5 cents a mile.  Out of pocket: $120.

I used about 17,000 American Express points to book a flight on Iberia Air through the AMEX travel portal from Malaga to Barcelona.  I got a value of 1 cent a point, which isn’t great, but it was fine for a last-minute booking, and I have over 360,000 AMEX points burning a hole in my pocket.  Out of pocket: $0.

I took an easyJet flight from Barcelona to Berlin.  EasyJet is one of the low-cost carriers that make intra-European travel so affordable.  Others to look at are Ryanair, Germanwings, Norwegian, Eurowings, and Finnair.  I could have booked the flight for $40-80, but because I was playing shows that trip, I had a guitar and some extra gear to check, and the low-cost carriers upcharge you for everything, including extra bags.  Basically they’re really economical if you travel light (which I usually do).  Out of pocket: $200.

There are other ways to do it, but that’s how I did it.  I also have American Airlines miles, British Airways miles, Southwest miles, Delta miles, Starpoints, Alaska Air miles, and a few others.  It’s how I’ve been to South America once and Europe three times in the last two years with very little out-of-pocket.

I accomplish a lot of this by following Ben Schlappig and his Hobby blog One Mile at a Time.  If you’re new to the Hobby, though, I would recommend starting with a Chase Ultimate Rewards strategy and get the following cards:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa (50,000-point sign-up bonus, 2 points per dollar on dining and travel expenses, free primary car rental insurance, $95 annual fee)
  • Chase Freedom Visa (15,000-point sign-up bonus, 5 points per dollar on quarterly-rotating categories like gas and groceries, no annual fee; points only count as points if you have a Sapphire or Ink Preferred card; otherwise it’s just pennies cash-back)
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited Visa (15,000-point sign-up bonus, 1.5 points per dollar on all spending, no annual fee; points only count as points if you have a Sapphire or Ink Preferred card; otherwise it’s just pennies cash-back)
  • Chase Ink Plus for Business Visa (80,000-point sign-up bonus, 3 points per dollar on travel, shipping, cell phone, internet, and digital advertising; free primary cell phone insurance; $95 annual fee)
  • Chase Ink Cas for Business Visa (30,000-point sign-up bonus, 5 points per dollar on internet, cellular, cable, and office supply store purchases; no annual fee; points only count as points if you have a Sapphire or Ink Preferred card; otherwise it’s just pennies cash-back)

I’m not currently a Chase affiliate, so I don’t get paid for these recommendations, but maybe one day …  For now, if you click on the above link to apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred, though, I will get bonus miles for referring you 🙂

Anyway, get the Chase cards first because they cut you off quickly if you apply for a lot of cards too soon – up to five cards in 24 months from any issuer.   Make sure you make the minimum spend to get the sign-up bonuses and don’t carry a balance!  Pay the statement balance in full every month, or interest charges will eat up the travel savings.

Getting the sign-up bonuses alone on these four cards will result in a 200,000-point balance, enough for three round-trips to Europe in economy on United – or five round trips to Europe in economy on KLM/Air France, if you pay a few bucks more in cash (the cost of a fancy dinner).  The Hobby gurus like Ben Schlappig swear by the value of redeeming points for Business Class and First Class tickets, and I get it, but for now I’m taking it slow and getting as many trips as I can out of these point balances.  Once it sinks in that my balances just keep going up and up and up, I may very well splurge on a few business class redemptions.  I’m a little afraid of breaching that taboo, though … I just might become accustomed to it!

Where would you travel first if money were no object?


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