How I’m flying international business class to Europe for (almost) free

April 5, 2015

Finance

One of the biggest costs of traveling is actually getting to your desired destination. An average roundtrip plane ticket to an overseas location in Economy class will cost you anywhere from a few hundred dollars to over $1,000. Is there a cheaper alternative to paying full price for airline tickets every time you want to travel? To answer that question and find out how it was done, I thought who better to learn from than Chris Guillebeau whose site, The Art of Nonconformity, I had been reading for quite awhile. Chris has been to every country in the world and you don’t accomplish that without learning a few things about travel along the way. I decided to purchase one of his products, Frequent Flyer Master, in order to find out the secret of flying for cheap, or even free. After reading it, I realized that I only needed to make minor tweaks to the way I spend my money in order to accomplish this. It’s not difficult and can be repeated by anyone who wants to take the time to do so.

These are the steps you need to take in order to get started:

1. Stop using your debit card. Other than withdrawing cash, there is absolutely no reason to ever touch your debit card. In addition to the accrual of valuable points, which I will outline below, credit cards provide you with more protection in general. For example, if your debit card is compromised, money will actually be withdrawn from your bank account. Although banks are good about getting your money back in cases of fraud, it is more of an inconvenience to you. However, if your credit card is compromised, you can simply dispute the charge and get it replaced. No money leaves your bank account until you decide to pay off the balance.

2. Set up an account with Award Wallet. Award Wallet is to travel what Mint is to personal finance. Since you will have miles and points with numerous airlines and hotels, it pays to have an application that can keep track of it all. Although certain airlines have prevented Award Wallet from gathering information from their sites, most will allow Award Wallet to automatically update your account with your most recent point balances, and more importantly, when they expire.

3. Decide what country you want to visit next and what airline flies there. This will help you concentrate on the types of credit cards you should be applying to first. For an idea of some of the deals out there, check out Cards for travel.

4. Set up accounts with all of the major airlines (American, United, British Airways, Southwest, etc.). Enter your account information into Award Wallet so that it can start tracking miles/points for you.

5. Find a credit card with an attractive bonus and apply for it. 50,000 points/miles for spending $2,000 within the first three months is a deal that you will see often. Try not to settle for any less than that. Most of these cards have an annual fee. However, it is often waived for the first year.

6. Take your time. There is no need to rush and apply for multiple cards at once. The goal is to only apply for the number of cards where you can achieve the minimum spend in the allotted timeframe. If you end up having to pay interest fees or cannot hit the minimum spend, the benefit of applying for the credit card is nullified. Your spending habits should not change as a result of this. You should only be charging things that you would have purchased regardless.

7. Stop using the card once you have achieved the minimum spend. Set it aside and cancel it right before the annual fee is due. If the bonus is in points with the credit card, make sure you transfer those points to the airline/hotel of your choice before you cancel the card. Otherwise, you will forfeit those points.

8. When the time comes, use the points you’ve accumulated and enjoy your trip.

Real Life Example

This summer, I will be flying to Norway international business class the entire way. Total cost for the trip: $220. Regular price: $2,600. These were the specific steps I took:

1. I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. After doing plenty of research on the best travel card out there, this what I settled on. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card has an annual fee of $95, but it is well worth it for the benefits.

-2x points on travel and dining on restaurants
-1 point per dollar on all other purchases
-No foreign transaction fees
-1:1 transfer (1,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points = 1,000 miles/points with partners to include United, British Airways, Southwest, Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton, and more)

The current bonus for the card is 40,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first three months. This is the main card that I use unless I am trying to hit the minimum spend on another credit card. Furthermore, this is the only credit card I will not be canceling because it is, in my opinion, the best one out there. The points are even more valuable when you consider the fact that you can book travel with points from one airline on a different airline as long as they are in the same alliance (e.g. I can book an American Airlines flight with British Airways Avios points because they are both part of Oneworld alliance).

2. I then signed up for the United Explorer Card. Sign up bonus: 30,000 miles after spending $1,000 in three months.

3. The third card I signed up for was the British Airways Visa credit card. Sign up bonus: 50,000 miles after spending $2,000 in three months.

Number of miles to fly from Washington DC to Norway business class one way (United): 70,000 miles

Since points accumulated on the Chase Sapphire Preferred transfer 1:1 to United instantaneously, I transferred 40,000 points from my Chase Sapphire credit card to United. After the transfer, when combined with the points I accumulated from the United Explorer card, I had the 70,000 miles necessary to book a one way business class flight. Total cost: $30 in taxes and fees.

Number of miles to fly from Norway to DC business class one way (British Airways): 45,000 Avios miles

Since I already had 50,000 miles on my British Airways account due to the credit card sign up, it was simply a matter of booking my return flight on their website. Unfortunately, this leg was a little more expensive because British Airways has high fuel surcharges which they pass on to the customer. However, considering that I’m flying business class the entire way, I wasn’t too concerned with paying it. Total cost: $191 in taxes and fees.

United_BusinessFirst_300x200
Flying is even better when it doesn’t cost anything

Concerns

Will this impact my credit?

Your credit score is based on a combination of things. One of those things is your credit utilization rate, which is determined by taking your total credit card balances and dividing by your total credit card limits. The reason why your credit drops when you cancel a card is because your available limit decreases. However, your credit limit will also increase as you apply for new cards, so it is a wash in the long run.

Another factor that impacts your score is your the overall length of your credit. This is the main reason you don’t want to cancel the card as soon as you hit the minimum spend. Ideally, you want to keep it open as long as possible before the annual fee hits to maximize the length of your credit.

In my experience, you will see minimal impacts to your credit by utilizing these techniques. While I would advise against doing this if you plan on buying a house in the near future and need your credit to be the best it can be, for all other people the change in credit score will not impact your life significantly.

How long can I do this for?

This is hard to say. You used to be able to churn (cancel, reapply, and get the same bonus) credit cards pretty easily in the past from what I understand, but credit card companies have been cracking down on this and some state that you can only receive the bonus once. Regardless, there are plenty of credit cards out there, so at the very least you can still rack up significant bonuses before you ever exhaust all your options.

Future travel

After my trip to Norway, I will be moving from Norfolk to San Diego due to my job. Since I plan on driving cross country, I signed up for a Marriott Rewards credit card, which will give me 70,000 points after spending $1,000 in three months. The 70,000 points, along with the 50,000 points I’ve accumulated in Marriott stays due to my job will provide me with ample points to stay in Marriott hotels free of charge across the country as I make the drive.

If you have the necessary patience and organizational skills to keep track of a few credit cards at one time, you can do the exact same thing. Happy travels.

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