Europe for Cheap: How to Travel Abroad for $200

Europe for Cheap - picture of Eiffel Tower with plane in sky

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Everyone thinks you’re a baller when you can go to Europe just for the hell of it.  I mean, international travel is so darn expensive, am I right?  To start with, long-haul flights can be extremely costly.  And hotels?  Forget about it.  Fortunately, you don’t actually have to pay for your airfare -or even your hotel- if you don’t want to.  Yes, I’m serious, and to prove it, I’m totally going to Europe for less than $200 bucks this fall. Here’s how:

How We Got There

(Editor’s Note: The following credit cards and offers may no longer available.)

First, both Greg and I signed up for a Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express.  The deal was this: Spend $5,000 in 6 months and earn a total of 25,000 Starpoints.  You also earn 1 point per dollar spent, so hitting the minimum spending requirement will net you around 30,000 points.  Greg and I both signed up for this card and earned a total of 60,000 points. Boom. (This card also comes with an annual fee of $95, waived for the first year.)

After that, we each signed up for a Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select MasterCard® for this deal: Spend $1,000 in three months and earn 30,000 American Airlines Miles.  In addition, we also earned 1 point for each dollar we spent to get there.  Of course, we totally nailed our minimum spend, and ended up with a ton of AA miles to burn.  (This card comes with an annual fee of $95, waived for the first year. 

A few months later, I signed up for a Chase Hyatt card for this deal: Spend $1,000 in three months and earn two free nights in any Hyatt property worldwide.  Easy peasy. (This card come with an annual fee of $75, waived for the first year.)

If you’re looking for ways to earn more Hyatt nights, you can always transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards Points to use at Hyatt properties as well. These points transfer at a 1:1 ratio, which is awesome. Our favorite way to earn Ultimate Rewards points is through the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

At that point, we just needed to decide where to go. Our top picks were the Bahamas, Aruba, and London.  Since I just got back from Jamaica, and we’re heading to Florida in a few weeks, I thought it would be wise to mix it up a little.  So, we decided that we would use our points to do something other than drink Mojitos on the beach, and devised a plan to visit London and Paris.

Europe for Cheap

First, we booked our flights.  American Airlines points are worth much more during their off-peak season, which happens to be October 15th-May 15th for U.S. travel to Europe.  Scheduling our trip during this time meant that our round-trip tickets only cost 40,000 AA miles each, plus $197 in taxes and fees.  We scheduled a round-trip flight but with multiple destinations, which means that we’re flying into London but home from Paris.

Next, we took care of our hotel stays.  Starwood points are incredibly valuable for stays in high-dollar properties, and we chose to use 48,000 points for a four-night stay at the Park Lane Hotel in London.  However, you could use these points to stay almost anywhere in Europe with hotel redemptions going for as low as 2,000 points for Category 1 hotels to 35,000 points for a category 7 hotel.  Since the hotel we chose is a category 5 property, and since we will be traveling off-peak, it only cost 12,000 points per night.  Starwood also offers a fifth night free for booking four consecutive nights at any hotel in categories 3-7, but we couldn’t take advantage of that perk due to time constraints.  You can browse all Starwood properties and their corresponding point values here.

Our two Hyatt nights were reserved for our stay in Paris because I was hellbent on staying at the Hyatt Park Vendome.  I mean, it looks awesome, and actually paying for a low-end room can cost you upwards of $900 on any given night.  So, we booked our two nights at the hotel which will serve as our home base as we wander around Paris aimlessly.  Does anyone know how to say vegetarian or bathroom in French?  Anyone?

Redeeming Credit Card Rewards for Magic

(Editor’s Note: The following credit cards and offers may no longer available.)

Of course, we can’t magically teleport from London to Paris, so we’re going to ride the Chunnel instead.  In case you didn’t know, the Chunnel is basically a high-speed train that goes under the sea, folksThat’s some scary shit.  I’m probably going to need a doctor’s prescription to make that happen.  Yes, I’m serious.

Anyway, this is where the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® comes in.  I plan to put a lot of our spending on mine between now and then, with the goal of paying for our Chunnel tickets with travel credits.  I have to spend $3,000 in three months to earn 40,000 bonus miles which can be redeemed for $460 in statement credits for travel.  The Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® does have an annual fee of $89, but it’s waived the first year.

Saving on Sightseeing

Even though we’re getting to Europe for cheap, that doesn’t mean that everything there is free. We’ve got to pay for our sightseeing as well. We want to do that as cheaply as possible AND we definitely don’t want to stand in line. Here’s how we plan to save money and time.

  • The London Pass – The London Pass offers FREE entry to over 60 of London’s best attractions, plus fast track entry to some of the biggies – like The Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Westminster Abbey, and more. With entry fees hovering around £20 for most major attractions, we only have to hit about 2 a day to make the pass worth it. We’re also going to add the Oyster Travel Card to the pass, making travel via public transportation free…at least to everything we want to see. Learn more at our Complete London Pass Review!
  • The Paris Pass – The Paris Pass is practically identical to the London Pass, with FREE entry to over 60 of the best attractions in Paris. It too offers fast track entry to some of the most popular sightseeing attractions, including the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Centre Pompidou, and the Grevin Wax Museum. The travel card and guidebook are also available. Learn more about the Paris Pass by reading our review here!

Want to know more about traveling on rewards? Check out these sweet stories:

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  1. Pretty impressive Holly! Check out the 2 for 1 attractions in London, you just need to get there by train to get the bogof deal.

    1. I think we may buy the London pass with transportation. It seemed reasonable when we added up all of the attractions we wanted to see.

  2. You guys are some credit card rewards ballers! That “Chunnel” sounds pretty awesome. I’d love to go from London to Paris underwater!

  3. I do a little of this, and would do more if I have the spending in my personal life that would meet so many different min. spending requirements. Still, pretty sweet what you got going on there.

  4. Pretty amazing you are able to do this Holly. What are your plans for the cards after all the travel? Will you be cancelling them and moving on to a better deal before year two and all the annual fees kick in?

    1. Yeah, I actually cancelled both of our Starwood Preferred cards already and signed up for the business version of the card. We’ll definitely cancel our AA cards before the annual fee kicks in.

  5. We’ve almost hit the spend on our Citi Aadvantage Mastercard for the 50K miles, which will probably be used on wedding travel later this year. The big problem I run into is that we don’t get a lot of choices in our travel dates with our jobs, so all of our trips end up being peak dates and are FAR more expensive as a result.

    1. Ugh, that stinks. It costs a lot more miles to travel during peak times! Did you both sign up for the card?

  6. I seriously am considering the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card for my next card. The $5k amount seems like a lot but I know that we already spend enough to hit that mark so I’d just have to be diligent about getting all the payments onto that card. It seems like a good deal, though, and we are really starting to like travel hacking. I credit you with our interest because sometimes it takes someone you know to get you interested so that you know it’s legit.

    1. Yay! Go, you! The good thing about the Starwood card is that you have 6 months to hit the minimum $5K. We staggered our two cards so that we didn’t have to do both at once.

  7. Very, very nice Holly! I’ve got my post on how we went to Vegas for free on Friday and looking at Europe for next year possibly. We’re both about ready to sign up for the SPG card as it’s a no brainer and will also probably throw in a trip somewhere this year as we scrapped our plan to take the kids to Disney this year.

    1. Good job scrapping your Disney plans =)

      I’m flying 4 people to Vegas for free with Southwest points in May. Well, our tickets cost $20 in taxes.

  8. This is awesome Holly!!! I think that many people in the U.S. forget that chains like Starwood and Hyatt have properties overseas which makes points on their cards even more valuable, especially if you want to travel internationally. Now you have to start managing the exchange rate between the pound/euro and the dollar so your costs when you are there don’t get out of control.

    1. I’m not too worried about it. Hell, we’ll only pay $200 for our flights and hotels. I don’t mind spending a little while we’re there. We’ll keep it as cheap as we can but still want to see the sights and have fun!

  9. That sounds awesome! I got engaged in Paris and my husband and I have said we’d like to go back for our 10 year anniversary. Right now we’re planning a 4 night trip to Bermuda this fall. Free hotel and flights from JFK, this will be my first real test of the travel rewards!

  10. Love this! I really need to start getting more into credit cards. I’ve been so lazy and say this week after week.

  11. Europe is on my 2015 list, I think. I’m banking up our miles to go there, from one of our cards. We will be taking the train to different destinations in Europe, so it won’t be as cheap as $200, but we’ll still save a ton of money. Have tons of fun when you go!

  12. That’s awesome, I haven’t tapped the power of the credit card yet. I have been worried I would overspend in the past, but I definitely like how you have it all planned out. You make it look real easy! Love the idea of using the Starwood card for high end properties.

  13. Great post Holly — sounds like a wonderful trip!

    The AA off-peak rewards chart is a little known feature (I just learned about it this past month!), so that’s awesome you took advantage of it. I’m so used to looking at AA flights using Avios within the US that I sometimes forget you can get crazy deals using AA miles themselves.

    I assume you each had 50k AA miles in your respective accounts, right? Did you and Greg each have to book the airline tickets separately and just hope there was still availability a few minutes later when the second person booked? Or was there a way to guarantee that over the phone or some such?

    1. Actually, long story but I’ll share it since you asked:

      I ended up with 32,000 AMEX rewards points and transferred them to SPG. Then I transferred 20,000 SPG points to AA and got the 5,000 bonus. So with my 50K points plus the 25K points (plus other points I had earned to meet spending requirements, I had over 80K AA points on my own. I thought that was too complicated to share in this post, lol.

      Greg still has the 50K points he earned. He also just signed up for the CITI Executive AA bonys. So soon we’ll have another 150K AA points to burn. Probably for next year.

      1. haha, good call not putting that in the article!! But thanks for detailing it for me 🙂

        I struggle with that too with my travel rewards articles; I try to be as broadly helpful as possible without causing people’s eyes to glaze over. You sometimes need to take a simple shortcut to describe something instead of all the odd gyrations we actually might go through to fully “maximize” it.

        I have been so set on my Chase UR/United strategy for out of country flights and BA Avios for USA flights that I often overlook getting AA miles. I think I may need to change that soon…

  14. The Chunnel is not so bad. You are actually under for like only 20 minutes or so. We took my MIL once with us, and she was freaked about it. When on the train, she was chatting away and didn’t even notice the whole time. Most of the time, you are checking out the scenery above ground. Check online if you have firm dates, sometimes you can get round trip tickets for 50-60$. You are going to have so much fun!!!

    1. Sweet! Yeah, I’m sure it will be fine. A valium might make it fun though.

      1. We caught Eurostar and I didn’t even realise when we were in the tunnel. Kinda annoyed I missed it!

  15. We’re relatively new to card rewards. But our plan is this for our trip to Italy this fall: We have $400 voucher via AA + 40,000 of points from our Venture card so that leaves about $200 we’ll have to pay on my husband’s ticket. We are then going to book my full price plane ticket on an AA flight via our BarclayCard to earn the bonus 40,000 points. We’ll use that $400 to pay for our train and plane travel throughout Italy. For hotels, we’re doing airbnb so we’re saving a fortune on hotel costs.

    So it looks like our 10 day Italy trip will cost us around $1500. We may try to flip another card, but I think we’ll be ok with getting the $3k trip down to half.

  16. I think the flight would make me more nervous than the Chunnel. We plan on doing that next year, so we’ll see. Awesome trip. Are you practicing your British accent?

  17. Oh man I would kill to get back to Europe sometime soon. My husband grew up mostly in France and has a bunch of friends he would love to see again. It is really tempting to get into this travel hacking business.

    1. What’s stopping you? Try the Barclaycard first. It has a super easy redemption policy!

  18. I use frequent flier miles to travel (business or first class) overseas for the last 20 years. I just using a hotel card for accommodations too. First or business class for just the taxes is great.

  19. You are an inspiration Holly. You got me interested in rewards, so I plan on doing some of it soon. I already got the Arrival card, but we are going to be getting a new home soon, so I will wait until after that to start another one. Nice work!

  20. Nice! I wasn’t aware of the AA off peak deals. That is great! Last year I traveled to London on United and that was 55,000 miles in March. So AA is definitely a much better deal. I went with the London Pass but bought my transportation separately when I got there.

    1. Gotcha. Yeah, AA has good deals if you can travel at any time.

  21. Nice…we’d definitely like to go to Europe. We do have a good amount of AA miles and we haven’t even signed up for AA credit cards to get the bonus. The only thing is that I’d want my kid(s) to be older before we make that trip. And the Hyatt Vendome…keep hearing about that from travel hacking bloggers…it’s like the holy grail. Best redemption value!

    1. It really is the holy grail. I was so relieved to find they had availability!

  22. Sounds awesome! We are going to have to look into the American Airlines card next I think. Right now we are working on the Barclaycard and are excited to earn some cool rewards there!

  23. That’s some pretty savvy planning. It sounds like it’ll be quite an amazing trip. I’m curious, you noted how much the annual fees were for each credit card – what’s your plan for all these cards in the 2nd year? Are you going to keep them and pay the combined several hundred dollars in fees? Cancel some or all of the cards?

    1. I’ll just cancel them before the annual fee hits. I’ve already cancelled our two Starwood cards since I signed up for the business version of the card.

      1. Are you not worried about the dings your credit score will take with the cancelled accounts? It’ll only be temporary, but if you have lots in a small period it might make a notable impact.

        1. No, I couldn’t care less. I have no intention to use credit to buy anything ever again. I do monitor my credit through Credit Karma, but only to make sure my score stays over 720 so I get the best rewards offers.

  24. I totally just paid for my flight to Europe next month with the Barclay Arrival Card! It was my first foray into travel hacking- so far, I like it! I just worry that if I sign up for multiple cards at once, I’ll be overspending just to hit the minimum spending requirements.

    1. Yeah, just do one at a time if you’re worried about it.

  25. Nice! You’re going to have a great time in London and Paris. Are the girls going with you or this an adult-only trip? I was nervous the first time we flew international with the girls but they did very well overall. Download a few of their favorite movies on a tablet or phone and that will help keep them occupied if they are joining you! I have not been on the Chunnel and it sounds like it will be fun experience. 🙂

    1. No, the kids are staying home. They’ve never flown before and I want to test them on a short flight first. We’ll probably do that next year.

  26. Cool! Very exciting. I love this. Way back in my college days hubs and I took the chunnel and I don’t remember it being too claustrophobic even though I really don’t like small spaces. Should go by fast!! So happy for you two. I really can’t wait to hear about this one. 🙂

  27. Nice travel hack, Holly! We’re using our Starwood points for 8 days in Buenos Aires and Montevideo in May (61,000 total). But Paris and London sound like a fantastic way to use them, too! I’ve never been to either place. Maybe in the coming years!

    1. Sweet! Yeah, I’m already trying to come up with plans for next year. Maybe Club Carlson and Italy?

  28. Great job, Holly! I’m working my Barclay Arrival Mastercard to pay for as much of my summer Iceland trip as possible. I’m up to $510 + 10% bonus so far. I’d love to get that number high enough to purchase the flight, and then save up to cover hotels and a rental car.

  29. Hi Holly – LOVE how you think! I’ve long been a member of the various airline loyalty programs and used the Citibank AA Advantage card for everything since American is based in Dallas. Just be sure to pay 100% of it off every month! I did not know however that their off peak season ended May 15th – thanks for the tip – while I can’t say I only spent $200, I decided to take a walking and hiking trip through the South of France and would be coming back on May 14th. So I will look into using award miles for my ticket.

    P.S. Congrats on the nice piece in the Wall Street Journal – I couldn’t agree more!

    1. That sounds awesome! Hey, did you sign up for the new Citi AA Executive card with the 100,000 mile sign-up bonus?

  30. Holly,
    I got a lot out of your mistaken vanilla card post and now this. Gonna take the wife to Europe now. Whenever I sign up for cards I always click on the links of the bloggers that gave me that idea as a thanks.

    1. Haha! I’m so glad you learned from my shenanigans! Does your CVS have vanilla reloads?

  31. Vegetarian is the same. Bathroom is “salle de bain” i think. Awesome job Holly. Greg is so lucky to have someone as clever as you. This is so great a strategy because you get points from your daily expenses. Which you then use for your vacation. I wish there are cards like that in my place. Congratulations. Any clever strategy as well on how to retire a millionaire?

  32. I love hearing about your credit card rewards adventures. I just don’t feel comfortable now doing it, but when our school loans are paid off, I’ll definitely be on board with it.

  33. Well done Holly! My next goal is a trip to Europe in Summer of 2015 using points. We just signed up for a couple cards, and will continue to do so until (hopefully) we’re able to spend a couple of weeks there for under $1000. Thanks for the tips and motivation!

  34. Tara @ Streets Ahead Living says:

    Holly, great write up on your trip! So as far as food goes, you’ll just have a separate budget for that? I’d love to know an estimate for that as I am terrible with estimating food on vacation, lol. Now that my sister is likely moving to Antwerp, Belgium, I will have to try to get a free trip to visit her.

    Also, when I studied abroad in the Netherlands (Nijmegen) in 2006, I took a bus to London. It departed from Utrecht and went in the Channel Tunnel. It was a ferry train! The craziest thing ever. I don’t remember it much but it wasn’t too claustrophobic. I just remember not being able to take pictures with flash as they said that would set off their fire alarm. You’ll enjoy it, I promise. 🙂 Oh, and I loved the Paris metro. So much cheaper than London’s, and it reminded me a lot of NYC’s.

  35. We are planning a trip to hershey Park this summer and plan to stay a full 4 days for free through our credit cards rewards.

  36. One of the primary reasons that I joined the military was to travel the world. We are trying to get stationed in Europe right now. It’s far from the only reason I joined, but it’s the cheapest way to travel!

  37. I’m a little confused: if one is planning a trip to Europe in Sept. 2015, would you sign up for the card in Sept. 2014 to avoid the second year fee? Also, at what point do you cancel the card? Just after booking the travel? Isn’t there some clause that says you have to keep the card a certain period of time? We get these offers all the time but never jumped in. Even if you have the pay the second year fee, I guess that wouldn’t be so bad.

    Can you explain a little bit more for this dunce? Thanks.

    1. If you’re thinking of going to Europe using AA points, I would probably wait a few months to sign up for a Citi AAdvantage card. If you signed up in August for instance, you could earn the points by November. Just remember, the AA points are yours whether you have the card or not. Your AA points won’t expire as long as you either use them or continue to earn them at least once every 18 months:

      You aren’t required to keep a card at all. You can cancel it any time you want. I cancel after I earn the reward all the time. I wouldn’t pay a fee unless it was entirely necessary.

      If you’re married, sign up for two cards…and earn 100,000 points =) Then cancel them both.

  38. Combining different cards to get stuff cheaper, like hotel reservation and so on is a really great idea – although I’m kinda baffled by the amount of money this takes… ?! My trips normally cost a (very) few hundred, that’s it. And I don’t hold back on shopping or spending money on good drinks and food and stuff! So I guess this is nothing for me, unfortunately..

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