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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Chase Sapphire Reserve
It’s been several months since Brits voted to leave the European Union, and the British pound has yet to recover from the wild currency fluctuations that followed this decision. In fact, as CNN Money reports, the pound fell to its lowest level in 31 years this Tuesday, at just about $1.27 per pound.
Regardless of how you feel about Brexit, one thing is clear: Travel to the UK (and to the rest of Europe if you use the UK as a gateway) is currently quite inexpensive. If you’re looking for an early-fall getaway or simply want to line up travel plans for the future, it could be worth considering a trip to London. Not only does the exchange rate mean food and other expenses will cost you less, but several lucrative credit card sign-up bonuses can also get you award flights and hotel stays. So effectively, it’s possible to visit this great city for free.
The Cards to Use
While you may have a different selection of travel rewards cards in your wallet, for this post we’ll focus on two cards currently offering especially lucrative sign-up bonuses. The first is the recently launched Chase Sapphire Reserve Card, which is offering 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points when you spend $4,000 in the first three months. While this card does have a $450 annual fee, it also gets you a $300 annual credit that applies to virtually every travel-related purchase. Especially if your trip plans include a stay at a non-chain hotel or a tour purchased through a merchant coded as travel, the annual credit can come in handy, since it’ll reimburse you for expenses that couldn’t be covered with points or miles.
Speaking of purchases that can’t be covered by loyalty currencies, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard is also a great option. The 2x miles you earn on all spending are worth 1 cent apiece for wiping travel-related charges from your credit card statement. So if you’ve maxed out your $300 credit from the Sapphire Reserve, these could help you reduce out-of-pocket costs for transportation, hotels and more. Just keep in mind that, as of last November, you must redeem a minimum of 10,000 miles ($100) to wipe a portion of a charge from your statement. Another reason why this card earns a mention is that it’s currently offering an elevated sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months.
If you don’t mind a short connection in Reykjavik, you could book a flight on low-cost Icelandic carrier WOW Air. Flights from Newark (EWR) to London-Gatwick (LGW) in January 2017 are available for as little as $375.98 round-trip. (WOW’s launching Newark service in late November, so earlier flights in the fall aren’t an option from EWR on this carrier.)
Norwegian Air is another option, with one-way flights from JFK to LGW going for as little as $245 one-way throughout the rest of 2016, or even lower starting in January 2017. Don’t forget that you may be able to save even more by booking through the Norwegian version of the airline’s site.
With both of these options, if you pay with your Reserve Card, all or part of the cost of airfare could be covered by the $300 annual travel credit. Alternatively, you could pay with the Arrival Plus and use miles to cover part (or all) of that expense.
Points & Miles Options
You could also use the Ultimate Rewards points earned from the Reserve Card’s sign-up bonus — or from everyday spending — to redeem an award flight. While you can transfer points to British Airways at a 1:1 rate, you might want to avoid this option due to the hefty fuel surcharges you’ll have to pay. With the example below, even though the 100,000-point sign-up offer is more than enough to book two round-trip economy awards from Chicago to London, you’d still have to pay more than $700 in fees per ticket. Ouch!
Luckily, you can also transfer points to United, and this carrier doesn’t charge such high fees, though they can still add up when you’re departing from the UK, especially if you book a premium-cabin award. There’s plenty of Saver level availability for economy awards throughout the rest of the year; redeeming for a round-trip flight would set you back 60,000 miles round-trip, plus about $170 in taxes and fees.
As you can see, while the United award comes with much lower fees than the British Airways option, you’ll still have to pay nearly $200 due to the UK Air Passenger Duty on the return leg. If you want to avoid these fees, you could fly in to London and fly back to the US from Dublin. (TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig recently used this strategy to avoid the high taxes when departing from the UK.)
Keep in mind that you’ll need to book travel from Dublin to London separately, though. So you could book a round-trip United award (from the US to London and then back to the US departing from Dublin) for 60,000 miles in economy and then reserve a one-way flight from London to Dublin separately. These quick hops usually go for less than $100 on carriers like British Airways and Cityjet, so you could easily cover the cost with Arrival Plus miles or the Reserve’s $300 travel credit. While you won’t be able to fly nonstop from London, you can book a flight to Dublin from City Airport, which is much more convenient (and far less expensive to get to) than Heathrow.
This strategy brings up another option: Flying into London from the US, spending a few days there, then heading on to another country in Europe and eventually flying back home from there (this would be an open-jaw booking). This would also avoid the high ex-UK taxes, and it’s a good way to maximize your time in Europe by spending time in more than one country.
If you’re trying to limit out-of-pocket expenses and you have the Reserve card, you can transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to one of four hotel partners to book an award stay. All points transfer at a 1:1 ratio. If you can’t find availability or a desirable property for your travel dates, you could also use miles from the Arrival Plus to wipe the cost of a hotel stay from your statement, or simply make the purchase with your Reserve card if you haven’t used up your $300 annual travel credit. You can also use your 100,000 bonus points to book travel at 1.5 cents per point directly through Chase — that’s $1,500 in free hotel stays.
Here’s a look at some options you could book by transferring Ultimate Rewards points:
There are three Hyatt properties in the London area, including one Category 3 option near Heathrow airport. This hotel will set you back 12,000 points a night, but it’s probably not the most convenient choice unless you need to catch an early flight and simply book a one-night stay. The two Hyatt hotels are the Category 6 Andaz London Liverpool Street and the Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill. Each costs 25,000 points per night for a standard room, so you could get four free nights with the Reserve’s sign-up bonus.
There are more than 20 IHG hotels in central London, ranging from the no-frills Holiday Inn London – Bloomsbury to the higher-end InterContinental London Park Lane. The former goes for 40,000 points a night, while the latter goes for 60,000 — so in either case, your 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points won’t get you very far. If you’re dying to stay at an IHG property, it could be worth paying for the reservation and using the Reserve’s $300 annual travel credit (or 100,000-point bonus) or the Arrival Plus’ miles to cover it.
Including airport hotels, there are 28 Marriott properties in the London area. There’s the Category 8 St. Ermin’s Hotel, Autograph Collection, which costs 40,000 points per night or 35,000 points if you can find PointSavers availability. The most central Marriott properties in this city will set you back at least 30,000 points per night, but luckily the cash rates can be manageable if you prefer to save your rewards. For instance, a room at the Category 8 London Marriott Hotel Regents Park is available for as little as 119 GBP (about $152) in mid-October, so you’ll come out ahead by redeeming Chase points to book a paid stay.
Marriott and Ritz-Carlton points are interchangeable, so you can use them to book stays at either hotel chain. You can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Ritz-Carlton as well as Marriott, and the former could be a good option if you want to enjoy a higher-end redemption. Unfortunately, you can’t redeem points for a stay at the Ritz-Carlton London, but you can use your points at the swanky London EDITION. A free night will set you back 50,000 points, so you could use your Reserve sign-up bonus for a two-night stay.
The following two hotel chains aren’t Ultimate Rewards transfer partners, but you could use your travel credit from the Reserve card or miles from the Arrival Plus to cover all or a portion of a stay. If you have Hilton HHonors points, you could also use those for a redemption. Plus, now that Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood has been finalized, you can transfer points to SPG at a 3:1 ratio.
There are more than 20 Hilton hotels in the London area. High-end options like the Conrad London St. James and the London Hilton on Park Lane will set you back 80,000 points per night for most dates in late October, while the Hilton London Hyde Park is a bit cheaper at 60,000 points for a free night.
You can currently book stays at nine different Starwood properties in London. Highlights include the Category 6 W London – Leicester Square; Blakes Hotel London, a Member of Design Hotels; and the Great Northern Hotel, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel (all requiring 20,000-25,000 points per night).
London’s a big city, so you’ll likely need to hop on the Tube if you’ll be covering a lot of ground during your stay. You could buy a Visitor Oyster card and offset the cost with the Reserve Card‘s annual travel credit. The Visitor card costs 3 GBP plus postage — you’ll want to order it ahead of your visit, unless you’re flying into London Stansted where you can purchase one onsite — and you can pre-load it with however much credit you want. If you were to start with 15 GBP as the official site suggests for a two-day visit, it would set you back 18 GBP (about $23) before postage. If you’re planning a longer stay and happen to load enough credit to bring you over the $100 mark, you could redeem 10,000+ Arrival Plus miles, instead.
Due to the exchange rate, Uber rides are more affordable as well. This trip I took from Heathrow to the Andaz London in July cost about 40 GBP ($52.56), even though it took a whopping 90 minutes:
Based on the current exchange rate, that same trip would currently cost about $51.40 — not earth-shattering, but the difference is notable, and it could make it worth the convenience of ordering a ride to or from the airport.
Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.
What are your favorite award travel tips for visiting London?