How to Fly to Europe for $5

FlyToEuropefor5Last week I booked a flight from from Raleigh, NC to Frankfurt, Germany for $5.

My return flight cost a bit more at $135. Yep, I got a roundtrip ticket for only $140!

How did I get an international ticket during peak season for less than $150? If you guessed frequent flyer miles, you’re correct!

I’ve been doing some light travel hacking in the past year or so with the goal of booking a couple free flights. I’m not a super travel hacker like some people (though I could totally get into it if I knew I’d be able to use all of the miles!) but I have learned a few things along the way. Hope you find the following tips helpful!

Tips for hacking free flights

  • Before starting to accumulate miles, determine where you want to go and how many miles you will need.
    – Do you want to fly coach, business or first class?
    – Off-season or during a peak travel time?
    – How far away is your destination?
    – Are you flexible as to which airport you fly in/out of?
    – Which airlines fly where you want to go?
  • Use your miles; don’t simply accrue miles. Airlines devalue their miles periodically and you don’t want to lose any before you can redeem them.
  • The quickest and easiest way to accrue miles? Sign up for credit cards with mileage bonuses. You can get cards associated with specific airlines or bank credit cards that allow you to earn points. I’ve only signed up for 2 credit cards so far but I’ve earned nearly 100,000 miles, mostly through the sign-up bonuses.Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 3.32.58 PM
    Credit card tips:

    • Note the minimum spend, yearly fees, and interest rates on cards before you apply for a card. Airline cards tend to have lower minimum spends than other cards. My Delta card, for example, only required I spend $500 within three months. My Chase Sapphire card required $3000 within six months.  Airline cards also typically offer other perks, like priority boarding, a free checked bag and discounts on flights.
    • Set up automatic payments so you never miss one. This is the first thing I do when I get a credit card.
    • Once you get the card, buy everything you can with it until you meet the minimum spend. I bought groceries, plane tickets, clothes, meals, gas, and hotels on my cards. When I got my Delta card I purchased my plane ticket with it and met the minimum spend with that purchase. I’ve heard of people getting creative in order to meet the minimum spends by purchasing lots of Target or Amazon gift cards, making purchases for people, etc. It just depends on your creativity and comfort level. The most important thing is that you meet the minimum spend; if you don’t you won’t get the bonus miles.
    • I’ve heard that cards will sometimes waive the yearly fee once, possibly twice. I haven’t reached that point yet, so I’m not sure how likely that is, but I’m sure going to give it a try.
    • Non-airline cards often allow you to transfer points to airlines. Last week, for example, I transferred some of my Chase points to United, which enabled me to book an international flight.  It took about 2 minutes to transfer miles and there was no fee (as there is if you transfer miles from someone else’s frequent flyer account).

    Tips for getting the most out of your miles:

    • Book early, especially if you want to use the least amount of miles, aren’t flexible with dates or plan to travel during peak times.
    • The more flexible you can be with dates, the better, especially if you want to book the best flights with the least amount of miles. I was able to get my RDU-FRA-RDU flight because I was able to change my travel dates by several days.
    • If you don’t have enough miles to book a round-trip ticket on one airline, book two one-way tickets on two different airlines. I ended up doing this because I was 4200 miles short with American. I could have purchased or transferred the miles I needed from my husband’s account but it would have cost me almost $500 for miles, taxes, and fees (it didn’t cost that much more to purchase the miles than it would have to transfer them). I decided to fly to Europe with American and return with United because I had more than enough miles on each for a one-way ticket.
    • If you have to travel during a peak time, try to make one flight during a non-peak time. I’d originally planned to leave in early June and come back in early July but I decided to leave in late May and return in late June because there were far more flight options at those times. (If I’d started looking earlier, I probably could have gotten good flights on the dates I’d wanted.)
    • Be as flexible with airports. Originally, I planned to fly into Stuttgart and out of Paris, because that would have been most convenient. But I couldn’t get good flight times or connections using those airports. (One flight, for example, had me flying into Philadelphia and then somehow transferring to Regan International Airport in DC, while another would have required an overnight stay and an airport change in NYC. No thanks!)  I decided that I’d rather book flights that were at convenient times and for the least amount of miles, rather than fly in and out of specific airports,  so I’m now flying in and out of Frankfurt. It’s going to cost me a little more in train tickets but not that much more.
    • Save money by checking taxes and fees at various airports. I found some great flights connecting through London, for example, but I realized that it would cost me more in taxes and fees. Even within Germany prices varied from airport to airport. Flying out of Hamburg and through London cost nearly $250, whereas leaving from Frankfurt and transferring in Charlotte was only $135.
    • Allow yourself time to find flights. I spent probably 5-6 hours looking at flight and train options over a couple days in order to find the right combination. Considering I saved myself $1500 by using my miles, I consider that time well spent!
    • Don’t rule out business or first class. Yes, it’s going to cost you more miles, but it might be worth it on a long haul flight. Consider splurging on a better seat on the overnight leg and a cheap-o seat on the way back. I seriously considered doing this on my flight to Frankfurt because I had the 80,000 miles required for a first class ticket. But, when I found an aisle seat for 30,000 miles and realized that the other 50,000 would get me 2 cross-country round-trip tickets or another one-way international flight, I decided to go for quantity over quality. Being in the first class cabin was seriously tempting, though. Next time!

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Further Tips and Resources

There are many travel hacking resources online but you can get started without first becoming an expert. A great place to begin is Justin’s free ebook. I read the travel hacking section as I was looking for my flights and reached out to him when I had a question about how to find the best flight. He gave me the idea to book two one-way tickets – thanks, Justin!  I don’t know how long his ebook will be free, so download it sooner rather than later.

Got travel hacking questions or tips? Share in the comments!

About the Author: Cate Brubaker

Dr. Cate Brubaker is a re-entry/repatriation coach, consultant, and author of the Re-Entry Roadmap creative workbook and the Study Abroad Re-entry Toolkit. Cate has lived in Germany, worked and traveled in 36 countries on four continents, and has helped all kinds of globetrotters successfully navigate global transitions for over 20 years.

9 thoughts on “How to Fly to Europe for $5

  1. Exciting! Thank you for compiling these tips – I’ll use them to get back into the mileage game so I can work from New Zealand for a while in 2015. But first, YOU have a phenomenal time in Europe!

  2. Great tips, Cate! I went from PDX to SP Brazil in 2012 on 40,000 United points and around $100 in fees. That’s fewer points than most domestic round trips! I was thrilled. Some destinations are very point-expensive (Narita, for example), but always worth trying!

    • Hi Sue! 40,000 to South America is a great deal. I’ve heard of people banking enough miles for a round-the-world ticket…maybe that’s one way to include high points destinations?

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