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Travel Rewards Credit Card Combinations to Explore Europe

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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Citi ThankYou Preferred, Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard, Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard

When talking about award travel, it’s easy to focus on earning points and miles, and lose sight of the actual traveling. Today, however, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr offers a detailed analysis of how you can use your travel rewards to explore Europe.

Over the last few months, TPG Senior Points & Miles contributor Jason Steele and I have presented travel rewards credit card options that allow you to plan a vacation to specific destinations based on the rewards earned through sign-up bonuses. I recently covered card combinations for exploring East Asia, while Jason has previously covered combos for travel to Hawaii, Puerto RicoCosta Rica, and Paris. Today, I’ll offer options enticing enough to make anyone want to hop on the next transatlantic flight and enjoy some of Europe’s top spots.

If you’ve been waiting for the right time to visit Europe, that time has arrived. Over the past year, the Euro has gone from just shy of $1.40 to a closing rate today of $1.08. You’re essentially looking at a 25% discount on everything from last summer’s prices. Many destinations in Europe live up to their pricey reputations, so it’s important to use every tool you have to keep your total trip costs down.

In this post, the card combinations will not only cover flying to Europe from the USA, but also hotel and flight strategies within the continent. The first step in preparing for a trip of this magnitude and acquiring new credit cards is to get organized. Make sure you have a good credit card application strategy, and don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Like other posts, I’ll present three different combinations, each of which will give you a different vacation in Europe. Each combination is made up of 4 credit cards, which 2 people could easily acquire.

Combination 1: Stopover and Open Jaw through a Romantic Europe

Mastering the art of the stopover and open-jaw can lead to incredible possibilities. With this card combination, you can fly round-trip from the USA to Istanbul, Paris, and Copenhagen for 60,000 United miles, and add a European low-cost carrier ticket for around $70. That’s right: three destinations for the price of one!

It will cost only 60,000 United miles and $105 to visit Istanbul, Paris, and Copenhagen from Chicago.
It will cost only 60,000 United miles and $105 to visit Istanbul, Paris, and Copenhagen from Chicago.

In the above itinerary, your destination is Istanbul. You then create an open jaw by getting to Paris via a low-cost European carrier, like the non-stop service on Transavia France or Pegasus Airlines. From Paris, you’ll stopover in Copenhagen on your way home to Chicago. Voila; three romantic European cities on one ticket for a very reasonable number of miles.

For hotels, Club Carlson has a large presence in all three cities, and one of my favorite perks of the Club Carlson program is the free bonus night on award reservations as a Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature cardholder. It’s easy to score a lot of free award nights if both you and your companion have the card. You start in Istanbul by each making a 2 night reservation on consecutive dates. Each of you will be charged for just one night, and you’ll end up staying 4 nights for the price of 2.

Istanbul would technically allow you to visit Europe and Asia on this combination. Photo courtesy of shutterstock.
Istanbul would technically allow you to visit Europe and Asia on this combination. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Copenhagen is one of my most favorite cities in Europe, and is a worthy destination by itself. Adding it to an itinerary that also includes Istanbul and Paris is a home run. Here’s one possible itinerary, along with the number of points and miles needed.

Hotels

  • Istanbul— 4 nights (made with 2 separate reservations for 2 nights each) at the Radisson Blu Istanbul Sisil for 88,000 Club Carlson Gold Points
  • Paris — 2 nights at the Radisson Blu Paris-Boulogne for 50,000 Club Carlson Gold Points
  • Copenhagen — 2 nights at Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Copenhagen for 50,000 Club Carlson Gold Points
    Points Needed: 188,000 Club Carlson Gold Points

Flights

  • USA-Istanbul, Paris-Copenhagen, Copenhagen-USA — 120,000 United miles (60,000 per person)
  • Istanbul-Paris — $70 on low-cost carrier
    Points Needed: 120,000 United MileagePlus miles (or 120,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points)

Cards and Sign-up Bonuses

  • Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card (x2): Earn 50,000 Gold Points after your first purchase, and 35,000 more points after you spend $2,500 in your first 90 days of card membership. This card is also great for everyday spending, since you earn at least 5 Gold Points for every dollar you spend. $75 annual fee.
  • Chase Ink Plus Business Card (x2): 60,000 points after spending $5,000 in 3 months. Earn 5 points per dollar at office supply stores, and on cell phone, land line, internet, and cable TV services (on up to $50,000 in spending annually), and 2 points per dollar spent at gas stations and on hotel accommodations (again, on up to $50,000 in spending annually). No foreign transaction fees. Ability to transfer points to 11 travel transfer partners, including United. $95 annual fee (waived the first year).

By meeting the minimum spending requirements, you’ll have earned at least 195,000 Club Carlson Gold Points and 110,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points after spending $15,000.

This leaves you 10,000 United miles short if you transfer your 110,000 Chase points to United. However, if you and your partner both complete $1,000 of the minimum spend at an office supply store (gift cards, cleaning supplies, household goods, etc.), then the 5x bonus category will earn you each an extra 5,000 points, and get you to the required 120,000 points.

The Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Copenhagen is on my list for the next trip to Denmark.
The Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Copenhagen is on my list for the next trip to Denmark.

Combination 2: Use Low-Cost Carriers and Trains to Get Around Europe

The one example above of using a low-cost carrier to get from Istanbul to Paris illustrates the value these airlines offer in Europe. Yesterday I showed how it’s tough to get good value out of using British Airways Avios for short flights within Europe, because all the low-cost carriers make it so affordable to hop around on paid flights.

This itinerary starts with the cheapest transatlantic award out there: using Avios to fly Aer Lingus from Boston to Dublin. Your round-trip cost is a microscopic 25,000 miles per person, and Aer Lingus is light on fuel surcharges. Once in Dublin, you’re set up in Ryanair’s home base, the Mecca of low-cost carriers.

Credit Cards and Sign-up Bonuses:

  • British Airways Visa Signature Card: Currently offers 50,000 Avios after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months. Today is the last day you can get the $95 annual fee waived for the first year.
  • Citi ThankYou Preferred Card: Currently there is an increased sign-up bonus of 30,000 points after you spend $2,000 in the first 4 months of card membership. You can redeem these points at a rate of 1 cent apiece through the Citi ThankYou travel center. There are two added perks: if you’re short miles, you can pay the remainder with cash; and after redeeming points for a flight, you still earn loyalty miles as if it were a paid ticket. If you have the Citi ThankYou Premier Card or Citi Prestige Card, then you get a better redemption rate (1.25 cents per point with Premier, 1.33 cents per point with Prestige, and 1.6 cents per point with Prestige on American Airlines flights). You can also transfer points to airline partners like AirFrance/KLM to find some attractive award flights around Europe.
  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard (x2): This card offers 40,000 miles after you make $3,000 in purchases in the first 90 days. You also receive 5% of miles back when redeeming for travel statement credits, so miles are effectively worth just over 1.1 cents apiece, which makes the sign-up bonus worth about $400 toward qualifying expenses.

By meeting the spending requirements, you’ll have earned at least 50,000 Avios, 32,000 ThankYou Points ($320 or more) and 86,000 Arrival miles ($880) after completing $10,000 in spending.

After burning your Avios to reach Dublin, the route maps of European low-cost carriers like Ryanair, Easyjet, Vueling, Germanwings, and Wizz Air make Europe your canvas. You can redeem ThankYou Points and Arrival miles to cover as many cheap flights as possible, constrained only by your points balance and allotted time on the continent.

If you’re a train enthusiast, Arrival miles can also be redeemed to cover those tickets. Select your routes carefully, and decide based on how much of a time crunch you’re in when it makes sense to fly or ride a train.

For free accommodations on your journey, look to redeem your Arrival miles for rooms via Airbnb.com. Hostels are a dime a dozen throughout Europe — the goal of this itinerary is to maximize the number of destinations, not luxury. How much travel could $1,200 get two people using low-cost carriers? Quite a bit.

Using Ryan, I can fly a circle around Europe for $381- including a 30 lb. checked bag.
Using Ryanair, I can fly a circle around Europe for $381 – including a 30 lb. checked bag.

Consider these costs on Ryanair for two passengers:

  • Dublin – London Stanstead: $34.28
  • London Stanstead – Edinburg: $31.66
  • Edinburg – Oslo Rygge: $31.66
  • Oslo Rygge – Riga: $22:76
  • Riga-Milan Bergamo: $58.16
  • Milan Bergamo – Palma: $33.66
  • Palma-Dublin: $64.64

That’s 7 destinations round-trip from Dublin for for two people for $276.82. The key to saving here is avoiding Ryanair’s fees, packing light, and knowing the rules. A 15 kg checked bag will add $15 per flight in the low season, or $105 total for the above itinerary. I would still call $381 for two people to fly that 7 destination itinerary incredible. This leaves you over $800 left to pay for Airbnb.com rooms, hotels through the Citi ThankYou travel center,  or hostels. You can see the whole continent and still have a return ticket from Dublin to Boston waiting on you with these four cards!

I’ve wanted to visit Norway and downtown Oslo for quite a while. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Combination 3: The Oneworld and Starwood Italy/Spain Hopper

No look at award travel to Europe would be complete without some discussion of American Airlines off-peak pricing. From October 15th to May 15th, you can fly round-trip from the US to Europe in economy for a mere 40,000 miles. On top of that, intra-Europe flights on Oneworld partner airlines in economy cost 10,000 miles. For 50,000 AAdvantage miles during off-peak dates, you can fly to Europe, fly to another European destination, and then fly home.

Starwood Preferred Guest properties in Europe are some of the best. It’s difficult to pick out cities to visit and properties to book with so many options. For this itinerary, let’s go with the St. Regis Rome and then head to the Westin Palace Madrid courtesy of Oneworld partner Iberia. I’d like to spend 3 nights at each hotel, and will utilize SPG’s cash + points award redemption in order to spread my points and save a lot of cash at the same time.

Anyone for the St. Regis Rome? Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock.
Anyone for the St. Regis Rome? Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock.

Hotels

  • Rome — 3 nights at the St. Regis Rome for 30,000 Starpoints and $540.
    Madrid — 3 nights at the Westin Palace Madrid for 18,000 Starpoints and $330.
    Points needed: 48,000 Starpoints

Flights

  • USA-Rome on American Airlines — 40,000 miles (20,000 per passenger)
    Rome-Madrid on Iberia — 20,000 miles (10,000 per passenger)
    Madrid-USA on American Airlines — 40,000 miles (20,000 per passenger)
    Miles needed: 100,000 AAdvantage miles

Cards and Sign-up Bonuses

  • Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express: Currently offers 25,000 Starpoints after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months of card membership.
  • Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card from American Express: Currently offers 25,000 points after you spend $5,000 in the first 3 months of card membership.
  • Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard (x2): This card currently offers 50,000 AAdvantage miles after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months of card membership. You also earn 10% of your redeemed miles back each year, up to 10,000 miles, which makes your Europe itinerary even cheaper.

By meeting the spending requirements, you’ll have earned at least 100,000 AAdvantage miles and 60,000 Starpoints after spending $16,000.

Which is Best?

These are all good options. Whether you use a stopover and open jaw to see three cities for only 60,000 United miles, get a ton of free low-cost carrier flights with Arrival miles, or take advantage of off-peak AAdvantage awards to Europe, you will have done very well and will have the trip of a lifetime.

I’m partial to the first combination, and I’d like to explore the other itineraries I could craft out of stopovers, open jaws, Club Carlson points, and United miles. The great thing about these combinations is that they’re very flexible, and even if you’re not set on the itineraries I laid out, you could apply the principles behind each option to chart your own course around Europe. There are so many possibilities; with the availability of low-cost carriers and the sheer number of worthy destinations on the continent, everyone reading TPG today could come up with an itinerary and no two would be the same.

What travel rewards cards would you get for a trip to Europe?

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