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Europe on a Shoestring Mileage Budget

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Europe on a Shoestring Mileage Budget

Last summer, I decided to take my 18-year-old daughter Jenny on her dream trip, a month-long grand tour of European capitals to celebrate her high school graduation.

Our plan was to fly in and out of Newark Airport and then use rail passes to travel from city to city for the month of July, circling from London to Barcelona, stopping for two to three days in Oxford, Brussels, Bruges, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Venice along the way.
Traveling by train, we would relax, enjoy and photograph the scenery, sort through photos and write our impressions as we were transported from city center to city center.

Our accommodations ranged from dorm rooms at Oxford University and hostel-style hotels to five star splurges like the May Fair Hotel in London and the Londra Palace in Venice.

A room with a view in Venice
A room with a view in Venice

In some cities, using Hilton points I’d accumulated during my years of business travel was an option as well. Each city had its highlights. Bike tours in Barcelona, Amsterdam, London and Berlin gave us a hip insiders overview. In Barcelona, the tour even included beach time!
Other highlights included visiting Sagrada Familia and Gaudis other ground-breaking architectural wonders in Barcelona and feeling like wed entered the world of Harry Potter as we explored Oxford University, which was the model for many Hogwarts scenes in the movie. We saw some less-visited parts of Venice as we tried to track down the bridge referred to in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, stopped to listen to Beatles songs played from atop the Charles Bridge in Prague, joined locals at an outdoor film festival in Vienna, and in the land of chocolate, Belgium, we savored a chocolate tasting/making class with Brussels master chocolatier Laurent Gerbaud.

On the Charles Bridge in Prague
On the Charles Bridge in Prague

One of my biggest concerns in planning the trip was the airfare. We started planning in December and fares were already quite high. Plus, there was a chance we might need to shift our dates. Since frequent flyer tickets offer more leeway for changes than advance purchase fares, I was hoping to use miles for the trip. However, when I checked my frequent flyer miles for the airline I most often fly—Continental Airlines, at the time; now United—I found that I was short about 30,000 miles. Purchasing that many miles would have cost far too much to be worthwhile. Thankfully, I was able to get the miles I needed with a few simple steps—and you probably can too. Here’s how:

Plan ahead. I needed 60,000 miles for each of our tickets, assuming we could book the lowest mileage award possible—the Saver Award, a capacity controlled seat that requires about half the miles of the Standard Award.  Our dates were flexible and by booking way in advance, we were able to use the Saver Award, even though we were traveling during the high season. The website makes it easy, showing the available fares a month at a time, and while our return required a stopover (which incurred about $25 in additional airport taxes), I was able to find flights on days that worked for us on my first search—far easier than searching for the lowest fare. And since the mileage awards are set, it’s a far less stressful search than looking for the lowest airfare and wondering if you got the best fare.

Sign up for a new credit card with your favorite airline. I saw that I could get 30,000 miles for signing up for a Continental credit card, plus, I got free luggage check-in and other great benefits. I applied and was approved and started using it everywhere—doctor copays, lunches, groceries, gas, my new computer—earning my 30,000 miles sign-up plus additional miles for every dollar spent—well worth the annual fee of $85 (now $95), which also was waived for the first year.

 Jump on mileage bonuses. By signing up for my frequent flyer plans email deal notifications, I maximized my mileage earnings. I also kept checking the online “Earn Miles” section where I learned about a limited time ShopRite promotion that earned me thousands of miles. Thanks to an email alert, I earned 500 miles for signing up for the MileagePlus Dining program, plus additional miles each time I ate at a participating restaurant. And I’ve been thinking of opening an investment account with Fidelity; now might be a good time—they’re offering up to 50,000 miles on United—almost the 60,000 required for a roundtrip flight to Europe.

Booking flights using mileage awards. One of the nicest things about booking award travel is the user-friendly website. It shows when the least “expensive” saver flights are available a month at a time. We had so much fun last summer that we’re thinking of flying to Europe again this summer. Europe has amazing hotel deals this summer, but with flight prices hoovering around $1,200 per person, I’m again looking at using miles. I’ve been rebuilding my account all year. Were short some miles, but I’ve just applied for a credit card for my daughter. If she’s accepted, we’ve got the miles we need. And I just checked—the Saver Awards are available!

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