California to Europe: Combining Points & Cash Flights For Big Savings

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California to Europe: Combining Points & Cash Flights For Big Savings
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Image courtesy: Anders Sandberg
 

Trip Information

Reader Brad wants to travel from Sacramento to Europe this Fall with his wife for the first time. They’re trying to make the trip happen before they start to settle down and have kids. Brad’s wife wants to see the UK and France more than anything, while Brad’s eye is set on Germany and Spain. They’d be able to spend nine total days on the trip, given a week of vacation and both weekends, so hitting all four would be a whirlwind.

Current Program Status

Brad and his wife both have the Barclaycard Arrival. He has $480 worth of travel credit on his and she has about $430 worth on hers. Unlike traditional points and miles programs, credit earned with the Arrival card can be applied to any travel expense; simply book a cash fare or stay with the hotel and then go to Arrival’s website and wipe it out. Of course, we should remember the 10% redemption bonus each card comes with: on a $480 redemption, for example, Brad would instantly receive another $48 worth of points he could apply to another travel expense.

They also share a Chase Sapphire Preferred card, and have earned its 40,000 point bonus, as well as at least 3,000 more points in meeting the card’s minimum spend requirement.

Using What We Have

For a trip to Europe, I’d often recommend looking at one of the Citi AAdvantage cards as a way to quickly accrue AAdvantage miles great for travel to Europe in the fall. From October 15th until May 15th of each year, AA charges just 20,000 points each way for flights from the United States to Europe, meaning each card’s sign-up bonus comes with enough miles for a roundtrip! This is the trick I used to get the whole family to London for the Jaguars game against the 49ers last year.

However, I know that Brad and his wife only recently acquired the Arrival and Sapphire Preferred cards, so in this case, I’m going to do my best to create a plan that works with what they have.

The obvious first step is finding the best way to Europe. Flights between European capitals are relatively easy to manage, either by using British Airways Avios transferred at a 1:1 rate from Sapphire Preferred’s Ultimate Rewards program, or by purchasing cheap cash fares, possibly with discount airlines like RyanAir and EasyJet.

If we took advantage of EasyJet and RyanAir, or other discounted fares, using Arrival credit to cover these would be a great idea. However, this would leave us with only the Ultimate Rewards points for the flight to Europe. Looking through the possible transfer partners, the only way to get both Brad and his wife to Europe from Sacramento would be to use points for a cheap Southwest flight to Boston and then hop on Aer Lingus for just 12,500 Avios each for a flight to Dublin. However, an additional connection to London, using Avios or a cheap cash fare, would be needed to really get their trip started. This is too complicated.

The next-best option would be to use 30,000 points each through United’s program for a Saver Economy ticket that would take care of all the necessary flights from Sacramento to wherever in Europe they’d like to begin their trip. However, they only have the points necessary to cover one passenger one-way using this method, which isn’t helpful.

So, our plan is to find a cheap cash route to Europe for which Brad and his wife can use their Arrival card credit, and then use Ultimate Rewards points to cover most of the flights around Europe as best as possible.

Introducing Norwegian

A new favorite option I’ve been learning about lately for cheap trips from the United States to Europe is Norwegian.

Image courtesy: Norwegian
 

This budget carrier offers flights to Europe from various US cities for extremely low rates on a new fleet of 787 aircraft. US cities Norwegian services include New York–JFK, Los Angeles, Oakland, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. Of these, Oakland is a reasonable launching point, located about a 90 minute drive from Sacramento.

Within Spain, Germany, France and the UK, Norwegian provides service from Oakland to Madrid, Malaga, Mallorca-Palma, Alicante, Berlin, Nice, Paris, Korsika and London.

Of these, flights to London and Berlin were the cheapest this fall from Oakland. Flights to London were available on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Flights to Berlin were available on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

For the flight home, leaving from London was the most affordable possibility, followed by Berlin. Flights back to Oakland depart on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from Berlin, and Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from London.

Given Brad’s weekend-anchored travel needs, flying into London on Saturday and out of Berlin on Friday or Monday turned out to be the best bet.

Check out these rates on flights from Oakland to London in September:

As you can see, the price per ticket is just $447! Compare this to the cheapest itinerary available from another carrier, a flight connecting through LAX on Virgin Atlantic for $832.:

Unfortunately, there are a few catches to this incredibly low fare.

First, unlike most international flights, Norwegian charges separately for baggage, at $59 per bag for each passenger. Second, Norwegian charges for seat reservations, at a rate of $42 each on this flight, though this charge can be avoided by simply allowing Norwegian to assign your seats the day of departure. Third, Norwegian charges for their in-flight meal service at a rate of $41.90 per person for this trip. Snacks and meals can also be ordered on the flight a la carte, and passengers can always bring food from the airport, making this an easy charge to skip. Finally, Norwegian charges $7.00 when using a credit card to book. Given that we want to wipe these fares out using Arrival credit, paying this fee will be a necessity.

Assuming a departure on September 13th, one checked bag each and the $7 credit card processing fee, Brad and his wife should come in at $513 each for their flight to London.

A flight back from Berlin on September 19th would come to just $435.30, also including one checked bag each and the credit card fee.

Avios Around Europe, Or Not?

Given the short timespan for Brad’s trip, I’m not sure hitting all four countries will make great sense. It would, however, be possible using Avios.

  • Flights from London to Paris or Berlin would require 4,500 Avios each.
  • Flights from Paris to Berlin would also require 4,500 Avios each.
  • Flights from London or Paris to Madrid would require 7,500 Avios each.
  • No matter where Brad and his wife travel, starting in London and ending in Berlin, they’d have the Avios to cover each of these flights. For example, heading from London to Madrid to Paris to Berlin would be the most points-heavy option, and come in at 19,500 Avios each, which they have enough to cover thanks to their Ultimate Rewards points.

    But wait! If we search for fares using Avios, we discover that British Airways is tacking on excessive fuel surcharges to these award tickets. Even though only 4,500 Avios are required per passenger for a flight from London to Paris, for example, the fees come in at $208 for this short flight.

    The fares themselves can be booked for just a few dollars more than these fees!

    As such, this is a rare case where we’d actually suggest using the Ultimate Rewards Travel Booking Engine as opposed to transferring points out to another program. This program allows Ultimate Rewards points to be used at 1¢ per point toward cash fares booked through Chase, with a 20% discount on fares.

    For example, here’s the same flight from London to Paris on British Airways, as available through Ultimate Rewards:

    At 8,976 points instead of 4,500 points, this fare obviously comes at a greater points burden, but without the need to pay additional taxes separate from the award. It’s possible to combine cash and points for such fares, so if Brad would prefer to conserve Ultimate Rewards points for other uses, he can pay for just a portion of the flight using points.

    This same option can help cover other flights, as well.

    Wrapping Up

    This is an odd one for us, as we’re not going to arrive at a final total. Some leg work remains for Brad, based on how much he’s willing to spend and how many locations he thinks he and his wife can comfortably visit in between flights on Norwegian to and from Europe. In my opinion, three cities is probably doable but four would be quite difficult. Perhaps London to Paris to Berlin will work best for them.

    In general, I’d recommend booking the Norwegian fares using Arrival, and then also pay for the cheapest intra-European ticket using Arrival in order to take advantage of the new Arrival miles they’ll gain from the 10% travel redemption bonus. For example, the Norwegian ticket from Oakland to London was $513 each.

    Brad can wipe out $480 of this with his Arrival miles, and his wife can knock off $430. Brad will then have $48 and his wife $43 of new miles that can be used toward a different travel expense. I might book flights from London to Paris on EasyJet using Arrival and use these new miles to knock out most of the expense, then use Ultimate Rewards points to cover the flight from Paris to Berlin.

    The best method will depend on the precise routing they choose. In any case, we like how this trip shows that augmenting cheap cash flights with points can sometimes be a better option than using points alone.

    Happy travels!

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About PointsAway
Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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