Are you planning a trip to Europe? Do you want to save some money and fly there for nearly free? The quickest way to do that is to
No Ticket Is Completely Free
It’s important to note that no award flights are completely free. Every carrier charges something for taxes and fees. That amount can vary not only by airline and frequent flyer program, but also by airport, route and cabin class. London, for instance, is one of the most expensive cities to fly to because of its airport taxes.
We excluded frequent flyer programs and carriers that add excessive fees to award tickets. For example, British Airways adds about $650 in taxes and fees to its transatlantic flights. At that price, you’d be better off paying cash for the ticket.
The Cheapest Award Flights
To figure out the best cards for earning flights to Europe, we looked for the cheapest economy award flights between major U.S. and European hubs. (Check out this post for some ideas for getting to Europe in a premium cabin.) The same five frequent flyer programs came up for all of the routes we analyzed: Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, American Airlines AAdvantage, Air France KLM Flying Blue, JAL Mileage Bank and United MileagePlus.
Cost of award flights from the U.S. to Europe.
|Miles||Estimated Taxes and Fees
|Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan||40,000||$85-$200|
|American Airlines AAdvantage||45,000||$85-$200|
|Air France KLM Flying Blue||50,000||$120-$240|
|JAL Mileage Bank East Coast||39,000-40,000||$120-$240|
|JAL Mileage Bank West Coast||50,000-60,000||$120-$240|
JAL Mileage Bank is the only program on the list that’s distance-based. That means a flight to Europe from the West Coast will be more than from the East Coast. To complicate things more, the carrier has separate award charts for oneworld alliance members and other partner airlines.
The taxes and fees vary according to the arrival airport. For the cities we looked at, London was the most expensive, Paris was the cheapest, and Frankfurt fell somewhere in the middle.
The Best Credit Cards
The next step was to figure out which cards can earn miles for those five programs the fastest. To figure out how long it would take, we assumed you’d spend $1,500 a month on the card and that you’d earn one point or mile per dollar spent.
The best cards for earning an award flight to Europe.
|Sign-Up Bonus||Months to Earn an Award Flight||Annual Fee|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred||50,000 points||3||$95, first year waived|
|Citi Prestige||40,000 points||7||$450|
|Starwood Preferred Guest||75,000 points||3||$95, first year waived|
|Alaska Airlines Visa Signature||30,000 miles||7||$75|
|Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card||25,000 points||17||$195, first year waived|
|Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select||30,000 miles||10||$95, first year waived|
That ignores one important aspect of these cards, their bonus earning categories. Some purchases will earn double or even triple or more points or miles, making the time you’ll have to wait to get an award ticket even shorter. In essence, the months needed to earn an award flight noted in the chart above is the maximum amount of time it will take.
There are actually six cards in our top five. That’s because the Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card and the AAdvantage Platinum card tied for fifth. Both cards have their benefits and drawbacks. In short, the AAdvantage card might get you to Europe faster, but the Amex card is much more versatile. More on that below.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
The sign-up bonuses played a big part in determining which cards made the list and where they ranked. That’s why the Chase Sapphire Preferred card came out on top: it has the biggest standard sign-up bonus offered by any personal card.
|Card:||Chase Sapphire Preferred|
|Sign-Up Bonus:||50,000 Ultimate Rewards points|
|Annual Fee:||$95, first year waived|
|Bonus Earning Categories:||2x travel and restaurants|
|Airline Transfer Partners:||Air France KLM, United, Southwest, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Korean Air|
You can transfer the points earned with this card to two of the frequent flyer programs that made the best programs list, Air France KLM Flying Blue and United MileagePlus. And with the 50,000-point sign-up bonus, you can get a round-trip economy flight to Europe with Flying Blue. That means that you can earn enough for your flight in only three months, the shortest period for any card on the list.
If you’d prefer to book through MileagePlus, it’ll cost 10,000 more miles, which means you’ll have to wait up to seven more months to get an award ticket.
The Sapphire has a lot of other things going for it, too. You’ll earn double points at restaurants and for all travel, including airfare, taxis, gas and more. You can also transfer points to the Ultimate Rewards program’s seven airline partners. That’s great flexibility to have, particularly if you decide to keep the card after your trip.
The Citi Prestige card comes in second for a couple of reasons. To start with, its generous 40,000-point sign-up bonus cuts down the maximum time to earn a ticket to Europe to only seven months. Once again, that assumes you’re spending $1,500 a month and only earning one point per dollar spent.
|Sign-Up Bonus:||40,000 ThankYou points|
|Bonus Earning Categories:||3x travel; 2x restaurants and entertainment|
|Airline Transfer Partners:||Air France KLM, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, EVA Air, Garuda Indonesia, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar, Singapore, Thai Airways, Virgin American, Virgin Atlantic|
If you’re able to take advantage of the card’s generous bonus earning categories, you’ll be able to cut that time significantly. All travel, including airfare, gas, commuting expenses and more, qualify for triple points, whereas dining out and entertainment earn double.
To get to Europe, you’ll transfer your points to Air France KLM Flying Blue. An economy round-trip award ticket through that program costs 50,000 miles. As part of the Citi ThankYou Rewards program, you also have the options of transferring points to eleven other airlines, which opens up a lot of redemption options for future trips.
This biggest potential issue with this card is its hefty $450 annual fee that is not waived the first year. There’s no doubt that that’s a lot to spend for a card, but it comes with major perks that can more than pay for the card if you travel enough.
To begin with, the card includes an annual $250 airline credit. You can use that for any purchases you make directly with an airline, including incidental fees and tickets. That cuts the annual fee down to $200.
The card also includes a Priority Pass Select membership, which gives you free access to over 900 lounges worldwide. Nearly every airport has a lounge you can use with this membership. Typically, lounge access costs $50 per person. So if you go to a lounge more than four times in a year, then this perk will save you money. And if you wanted to buying unlimited access to Priority Pass lounges without this card, it’d cost a whopping $399 a year.
With just those to benefits—free lounge access and the airline credit—you can easily cover the cost of the card. That basically makes the rest of the perks free. You’ll get a $100 credit to cover the cost of Global Entry; a free fifth night at hotels booked through Citi; and 33 percent bonus points on flights booked through the ThankYou travel center.
The Starwood Preferred Guest Card
The greatest strength of the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card from American Express is its extraordinary flexibility. Not only can you use Starpoints for free stays at over 1,200 Starwood properties worldwide, but you can transfer them to over 30 frequent flyer programs.
|Card:||Starwood Preferred Guest Amex Card|
|Sign-Up Bonus:||$100 statement credit|
|Annual Fee:||$95, first year waived|
|Bonus Earning Categories:||Up to 2x at Starwood properties|
|Airline Transfer Partners:||Over 30, including Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Air France KLM and JAL|
To get to Europe, the best options are to transfer Starpoints to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, American Airlines AAdvantage, Air France KLM Flying Blue or JAL Mileage Bank. United MileagePlus, which is also on the list of cheap programs for getting to Europe, is a SPG transfer partner too, but it costs two Starpoints for each MileagePlus mile.
The card has no weaknesses: a big sign-up bonus despite only one bonus earning category. The 75,000-point bonus gets you more than halfway to a transatlantic flight with either JAL MileageBank if you’re departing from the East Coast or Alaska Mileage Plan. With either of those programs, it’ll take at least 3 months to earn an award ticket to Europe.
The SPG card’s only bonus earning category is for stays at participating SPG® and Marriott Rewards® properties. You’ll get 6 points per dollar if you’re a standard SPGuest member. That can add up quickly if you often stay at Starwood hotels. All other purchases earn 2 points per dollar.
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature
The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature is a great card if you often fly on Alaska. You can use the miles you earn for redeeming through Alaska’s Mileage Plan program only, and the card’s best benefits are only good for Alaska flights.
|Card:||Alaska Airlines Visa Signature|
|Sign-Up Bonus:||30,000 Mileage Plan miles|
|Bonus Earning Categories:||3x with Alaska Airlines|
The card’s solid 30,000-mile sign-up bonus puts you within 10,000 miles and a maximum of only seven months of getting a ticket to Europe. If the card’s $75 annual fee was waived for the first year, it might be worth getting even if you don’t often use Alaska.
The best cardholder perk by far is the annual companion fare. For just $99, you can take someone with you on one domestic coach flight on Alaska. That alone can be worth hundreds of dollars.
Alaska also has one of the most generous stop-over policies in the industry, allowing you to make two free stopovers on any round-trip itinerary. So you could stretch that companion fare into four flights. For example, from Los Angeles you could stop in Seattle for a couple of days on your way to Anchorage. Then on the return trip you could stop in Portland for a night or two. That gives you three destinations for two people for the price of one flight plus $99.
The card also includes a free checked bag and a generous triple miles for Alaska purchases.
Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card and Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select
Tied for fifth on our list is the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card and the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select. The Amex Rewards Gold card is a solid all-around rewards card. You can transfer your points to Membership Rewards’ 17 airline partners, earn a decent sign-up bonus and get bonus points for several categories of purchases.
|Card:||Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card|
|Sign-Up Bonus:||25,000 Membership Rewards points|
|Annual Fee:||$195, first year waived|
|Bonus Earning Categories:||3x airfare; 2x restaurants, gas and groceries|
|Airline Transfer Partners:||Air France KLM, Aeromexico, Air Canada, Alitalia, ANA, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, EL AL, Emirates, Etihad, Hawaiian Airlines, Iberia, JetBlue, Singapore Airlines, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic|
The drawback of the Amex card, and the reason it didn’t rank higher, is that it’ll take you a maximum of 17 months to earn an award ticket to Europe. The cheapest flight you can get through the Membership Rewards program costs 50,000 miles with Air France KLM Flying Blue. That means you’d have to earn 25,000 more miles after getting the sign-up bonus.
One of the strengths with this card, though, is its bonus earning categories. You’ll get triple points for airfare and double for restaurants, gas and groceries. You’ll probably earn miles quickly with those generous categories, cutting down the 17 months.
The American Airlines Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard, on the other hand, will take you a maximum of only 10 months to earn a transatlantic flight. This card is much less flexible though, since you can only purchase flights through AAdvantage. It also lacks the
|Card:||Cit / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard|
|Sign-Up Bonus:||30,000 AAdvantage miles|
|Annual Fee:||$95, first year waived|
|Bonus Earning Categories:||2x with American|
If you often fly on American, this card might be worth getting. Perks include a free checked bag, priority boarding, in-flight discounts and 10 percent of your redeemed miles back each calendar year.
The taxes and fees that are added to award flights can vary widely, even through the same frequent flyer program. For example, if you book a round-trip flight on American Airlines between New York and London through JAL Mileage Bank, it costs 39,000 miles and $240 in taxes and fees. You can also book a flight on British Airways for the same miles through Mileage Bank, but it will run you $650. Watch out for those taxes and fees and choose your flights wisely.