Last updated on March 15th, 2019 at 03:38 pm.
In just two short weeks, I will be on a plane headed to Europe. And I will have paid almost nothing for that ticket. In this post, I’m going to cover how to fly anywhere in the world for (almost) free.
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It seems like there is still a lot of misconception around these trips. People seem to think it’s too good to be true or that they could never do it. I’m here to dispel all of those misconceptions because they simply aren’t true.
But first, take note of the two areas in which I consider frugality most important:
- Monthly expenses – this includes the “big three” of housing, transportation, and food.
- Weekly expenses – like trash bags and toilet paper. These are things we buy often and are mostly unavoidable.
To me, it’s most important to control these expenses. The other “once in a while” expenses are typically less important because they don’t add up over time like the above ones do.
Why am I mentioning this?
Because a flight to and from Europe falls into the latter category. So, normally, I would just bite the bullet.
But why bite the bullet when it’s incredibly easy to fly all over the place for free? Okay, so in my case, there are a few fees. But the cost savings are so significant that it’s practically free.
Related: 20+ Awesome Money Saving Tips
How I’m Flying for (Almost) Free
In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, I’ll just cut right to the “Chase.” Yup, the answer to this question is none other than travel hacking via credit cards. And so far, that’s been credit cards from good old Chase Bank.
The concept is very simple: sign up for a credit card with a lucrative sign-up bonus, meet the minimum spending requirements, and voila! You just scored a ton of points just for spending money.
Of course, the caveat here is that you need to pay the card off. If you don’t, you could be hit with hefty interest fees. Chase is “banking” on this happening.
Tired of the puns yet? Okay, okay. I’ll stop.
But seriously. Make sure you pay that sucker off. Your typical card has a spending requirement of anywhere from $1,000-$5,000 within the first three months of opening the card. Yes, that is kind of a lot. If you don’t think you can cover it, it’s probably better to avoid it altogether. Just something to keep in mind.
Once you meet the spending requirement, you’re good to go! By the way, Chase doesn’t have a way to check your progress toward the bonus, so you have to keep track on your own.
Once you hit the minimum spend, the bonus will appear in your Ultimate Rewards balance:
Also keep in mind that these points won’t appear immediately. You’ll usually see them when the current billing period ends.
What do the bonuses look like? Again, it varies. Makes sense since the spending requirements also vary quite a bit. Some Chase cards will have bonuses of 40,000-60,000 points.
Points (also known as “miles”) have a value of 100 points to the dollar. This means that the above point totals are worth $400-$600. Not too shabby for just spending money, eh? But wait. It gets better. Oh, it gets so much better.
Which Cards I Used
Before I continue to the logistics of redeeming points, here are the cards I used to make this happen:
Chase Sapphire Reserve
There are also nice perks like free rental car insurance. This card is meant for traveling, clearly.
You also get 3x points on all travel-related expenses (including Uber rides) and all restaurants as well.
The bad part: it has a $450 annual fee. However, you’ll also get reimbursed for $300 of airfare. If you take advantage of all that plus the above perks, that $450 starts to look much better.
The signup bonus for this card is currently 50,000 points after spending $4,000 within the first three months.
Overall, this is a really nice card.
The Chase Freedom is a nice card mainly for its rotating categories. If your spending falls into one of these categories, you’ll get 5 points on every dollar spent. This is good for the first $1,500 – if you spend more than that in the “bonus” categories, you’ll be bumped down to 1x points per dollar.
The categories change every quarter, but they cover places where we spend our money anyway. That includes Starbucks, gas stations, grocery stores, and so on.
During the holidays, Amazon is usually included. Yeah, Chase knew what they were doing with that one.
The signup bonus is 15,000 points after you spend $500 in the first three months. And there is no annual fee for this card – nice!
Chase Freedom Unlimited
The Chase Freedom Unlimited is a nice card for everyday spending.
It’s pretty straightforward, too – it’s a no-frills card, but you get 1.5x points on all purchases. No categories to keep track of like with the Freedom Unlimited.
Basically, I use it for purchases that don’t fall into any of the above.
In addition, it has the same signup bonus as the Freedom – 15,000 points after spending $500 in the first three months. There is no annual fee on this card, either.
5/24 (And The 48-Month) Rule
I’ve mentioned it before, but I figured I should mention it again. Especially since Chase has made changes since the last time I did.
In short, the 5/24 rule means that Chase will only approve you for a new credit card if you’ve signed up for fewer the than five credit cards in the past 24 months – from any bank.
However, there are several Chase cards you can still get even if you are over 5/24, listed here by Reward Expert.
As noted in the heading, there is also a new 48-month rule. This only applies to the Chase Sapphire cards. What this means is that if you were awarded the signup bonus on a Chase Sapphire card, you’ll have to wait at least 48 months to get that same bonus again.
The Chase Sapphire signup bonuses are some of the best around, so this is a big deal. And I understand why Chase would do it, but obviously it’s still not the best news ever.
It also doesn’t matter if you’re under 5/24 – you still have to wait 48 months to get the bonus again regardless.
This is super important. One of the benefits listed for the Chase Sapphire Reserve is that your points are worth 1.5 times their normal value when booking through Chase’s travel portal.
While this sounds nice, you are most likely better off transferring points. Why? Because even though 1.5x points value sounds nice, you can often get 2x value by transferring.
I’ve even heard of extreme cases where people were able to get at least 4x times their point value. That would be rare, but 2x is no unicorn.
This is a very straightforward process. In my case, I have a MileagePlus account with United. So, all I had to do was go to my Ultimate Rewards portal and click “Transfer to Travel Partners”:
On the next screen, I found United and clicked Transfer Points:
The next step is to add how many points I want to transfer:
That’s pretty much it! Now you’re ready to book your flight.
(write here how to book with points on United)
At this point, you’ll head over to United’s (or the airline you transferred to) site and book your flight.
Chase Portal Vs. Transfer to Travel Partners
I’ve heard that the Chase portal can be sometimes be better than transferring points. That may be true, but in my experience, it’s rare. In fact, I can’t recall seeing a time when it was cheaper.
For example, I’ll be flying into Frankfurt. At the time of writing this, the cheapest flight I could find on the day I’m actually leaving is $491.70:
Instead, I used 30,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points – the equivalent of $300. I also had to pay $5.60 in fees, which is negligible in the grand scheme of things.
Cash Vs. Points
Depending on the origin/destination cities, your savings due to travel hacking could vary quite a bit. Where this strategy really shines is my flight back to the US. I’ll be flying back from Split, Croatia.
I searched return flights on Kayak.com, and even the cheapest return flight is still rather steep:
Also note the rather insane 42-hour flight duration. Yowzers.
I have to assume this is because neither the origin nor the destination are particularly high-volume cities, but guess how much I’m paying? Still just 30,000 points. Fees are a little higher at $64.83, but remember than I paid nothing for those 30k points.
The flight is also half the time at 21 hours. That’s still quite long, but I do have two stops so I won’t actually be on one plane that long, thankfully.
To recap, here the easy steps to earn your free (or very cheap) flights:
- Sign up for a credit card with a lucrative signup bonus. As I mentioned, the Chase cards have some of the best signup bonuses, but there are some really exhaustive lists of signup bonuses, like this one from Boarding Area.
- Spend enough to meet the minimum spend in the allotted time.
- Either book directly through the card issuer or by transferring points. Note that transferring points often provides better rates.
- Book your travel!
It really is that easy. Do you have a recent trip you took by using points? Let me know – I’d love to hear about it.