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My mom and her sister (my aunt) both taught public school for most of their adult lives. In the last couple of years they have both retired, though both do stay involved with the school system by substitute teaching. They have long talked about “going to Europe when they retire”, and now that they have both retired, it was time to plan this long awaited trip to Europe. My aunt has been to Europe once before, and had budgeted in her head what she assumed this 12 day trip was going to cost for her and my mom. The number was huge, though likely accurate if they were paying retail for their trip. I heard this and said, oh no. Stop. You crazy people need to let me help, and luckily, they agreed. So, here is the story of how I got two retired school teachers to Europe in business class for a very small fraction of what they thought it would cost.
Step 1. Get miles for your airlines tickets
The first thing they needed were airline miles, and lots of them quickly. My mom already has some miles and points in various programs, but she is pretty protective of them as they have been earmarked for various future trips. This means they both needed “fresh points”. As luck would have it, this lined up with when there was a temporary 75,000 mile sign-up bonus on the Amex Business Gold Rewards Card. Including the points from meeting the spending requirement, this got them both to 80,000 Membership Reward points in a hurry. I wanted to get them to Europe and back in business class, avoid fuel surcharges, and be able to work in both a stopover (several days or more in a city “along the way”) and open jaw (arriving/departing from different cities).
How do you do this with American Express Membership Reward points? Easy, look to Aeroplan, Air Canada’s frequent flyer program. There are other options as well that may be even better in some situations (like from the East Coast), that I’ll talk about in a subsequent post. They are a member of the Star Alliance, and thus have access to pretty good award availability on a number of partners to Europe. They also only charge 90,000 miles round trip in business class to get to from US/Canada to what they describe as “Europe 1″, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain (incl. Balearic Islands; excl. Canary Islands), Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom. This is lower than the 100,000 miles United would have charged, plus you can’t transfer Membership Reward points to United anyway. If you book by calling the Aeroplan Contact Centre, and have an international itinerary between different continents, they allow two stopovers or one stopover and one open jaw. You cannot book this type of trip online. This was perfect for my family’s desired itinerary. Keep in mind that Aeroplan does charge fuel surcharges on certain carriers that also impose fuel surcharges, but that still left several viable options like United, US Airways, Turkish, etc. Canadian Kilometers has a good post on which airlines are available via Aeroplan without hefty fuel surcharges.
Step 2. Get your mom and aunt to nail down their plans
This part was not that easy. They wanted to go here, and they wanted to go there, and they wanted to go to this unknown city in Germany where there is this certain bell on this certain church that they dad bought as described in this letter written in German that they can’t read. Huh? Finally I got them to nail down a few cities, and then we left a gap for them to go get lost in Germany. This sounds easier than it was, however deciding at least some of the spots you want to go is an essential part of booking an award ticket, especially if you want to maximize the ticket by working in things like stopovers and open-jaws.
Step 3. Find award availability
The good news about helping retired folks book flights is that they have some decent date flexibility, which is often one of the key components to finding reward flights. They wanted Europe sometime in the spring months before summer came along. I found early to mid April to have some decent availability, and so we went with that. I first looked for the anchors of their trip, the start and end dates/points that required long flights over the ocean, and then went from there. Since Air Canada is a Star Alliance partner just like United, I used United’s search engine to look for reward flights. The Aeroplan availability lined up perfectly with what I saw on United.
We were able to find business class seats on a United nonstop flight from Houston to London Heathrow on the outbound. They then stop for a few days in London on a “stopover”, and continue on to Paris on Lufthansa. That availability was wide open on every date to get from London to Paris, though they do have to connect briefly through Germany. They will stay several days in Paris and then start their wild
goose bell chase in Germany. Being able to build in this stopover “for free” saved them from having to pay to get to Paris from London.
They will take planes, trains, and automobiles and eventually make it down to Rome where they will spend the final few days of their trip. Leaving from Rome is their “open jaw” as they are leaving from a different city from which they arrived. If you are a little unclear about what this can look like, here is a visual from Aeroplan’s website.
We had a few options on the return, but ultimately went for a flight operated by Turkish Airlines that connects via Istanbul. This is the wrong direction from Rome to get back to Houston, but only by a couple hours. They then will have a nonstop flight from Istanbul to Houston to round out their Eurotrip. They could have had an overnight in Istanbul for free as it was less than 24 hours. In fact, Turkish would have even provided the hotel room! They passed on the overnight, but approved the Istanbul connection. The total travel time isn’t significantly different than most of the other options, and this way they experience something other than just United’s trans-atlantic product…not that I think they care very much about that.
Step 4. Book the flight
I have now described what flights I found, but I left out the part about actually booking them. First, I had to have them set up Aeroplan accounts (and tried to explain why they needed a Canadian frequent flyer account to go to Europe). Then I had them transfer their Membership Reward points to Aeroplan. I did my mom’s for her online via the Membership Rewards website, and my aunt called Membership Rewards to have them do it for her. I also needed every point they had, so we asked Amex over the phone to post any pending points that had not yet appeared in their Membership Rewards balance which they did without any issue.
Next came the fun part. I called Aeroplan and gave them the flight numbers I wanted for my mom’s itinerary. This was not a speedy process, but it was relatively simple. My mom was sitting next to me and gave permission for me to book the flights, though I am sure I could have easily “been her” on the phone. The availability they had matched exactly what I had found on United’s site, and verified on Aeroplan’s site. Then came the task of booking my aunt’s ticket. I could have just given her the flight numbers and had her call, but that would have been pretty mean since she has likely never booked an award ticket in her life. My aunt was actually watching the process live via FaceTime, so I asked the Aeroplan call center agent who had just helped with my mom’s flights if I could book my aunt’s ticket as well. She said yes, but she would need permission. I then just literally put the phone on speaker and held it up to the iPad and had my aunt give permission that way.
It was really quite hysterical. I think I was drooling I was laughing so hard at the process. It got done, but let’s just say there was a lot of “can you hear me now” and “are you still there”?
Step 5. Pay for the taxes and fees
The taxes and fees for these business class tickets that go through a number of countries in a premium cabin came to about $200-ish per ticket. They also had to pay to buy up a few extra points from Aeroplan to get them to the needed 90,000. I had my mom use her Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to avoid being hit with a foreign transaction fee. Then when it came time to pay the taxes on my aunt’s ticket we tried to again use my mom’s card, but it was denied. Apparently a $200+ charge from Aeroplan spooked the Chase fraud computers for her account, so we had to scramble to find another card in her wallet that didn’t charge a transaction fee. Around that time we got an email from Chase asking if the charges were valid, and the card was reactivated just by clicking a button.
Step 6. Book hotels
We have not done this part yet, but I did instruct both of them to get the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature. Just from getting the cards and hitting the spending requirements, they will have a combined total of about 175,000 Club Carlson points (85k each from sign-up bonuses, plus some from the use of the card). Since they will both have elite status just by virtue of having the cards, they can pool some points for free if needed. This means that they will be able to stay at a top tier 50k per night hotel in London, Paris, and Rome and get the second (aka last) award night free each time. This means the 150,000 points needed to book those three nights will actually get them six nights with a little leftover. They will also likely do one night at the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome on Hyatt points transferred in from Ultimate Rewards. They are on their own in Germany as I have no idea where they are going or what they are doing there! We will work on booking the hotels shortly, though I will likely lock in the Park Hyatt very soon as it can sell out of the standard rooms with some regularity.
Instead of spending the thousands and thousands and thousands that they thought this “trip of a lifetime” to Europe would cost, it is costing substantially less.
They got business class round trip tickets with a stopover and open jaw thanks to one credit card sign-up each (that has the annual fee waived the first year), plus a little additional spending on that card and $200 in taxes/fees. They are getting 7 or 8 of their 12 nights in Europe paid for with hotel points, most of which will come from one additional credit card sign-up each. Depending on where they decide to go in Germany, and what points they have, this number of “free” nights may increase.
They really thought that this trip would cost as much as buying a small car, and that was if they flew coach, stayed at modest hotels, and ate crackers. They may still eat crackers, but now they are flying in lie-flat seats for the first time in their lives, likely staying in very nice hotels, and spending a very small fraction of what they thought it would cost.
If you are playing along at home and want to replicate this using Membership Reward points, the best way right this second is to get the The Mercedes Benz Platinum Amex which will give you 50,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $3,000 in three months and the The Enhanced Business Gold Rewards Card® from American Express OPEN which gives you 50,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 on the card in the first three months. You would then have more than enough to book a similar trip to Europe. You could also just wait it out and see if another 75,000 point offer returns for the Amex Business Gold Rewards card in the future.
I’m genuinely thrilled for them, and this is exactly what miles, points, and this site are all about. Making it possible for your family to see the world without going bankrupt in the process…and doing it in style/comfort when possible. Little C and I are strongly considering meeting up with them in Paris for a few days, but whether we make it over there or not, I can’t wait to hear all about their adventures. The best part of all is there is nothing fancy about what they did. Most anyone here in the US with good credit can do this and take that “once in a lifetime” trip to Europe in a way they probably never thought possible.
Have you or your family members booked a similar trip? Did you laugh so hard you started almost drooling like I did?
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