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“You guys are going to Europe for 4 months?! That sounds wonderful, but… isn’t Europe expensive?”
“How are you going to work the higher cost of European travel into your budget?”
“Will you have to miss out on some amazing European restaurants and eat more peanut butter and jelly?”
Since sharing our big 2016 travel plans a few months ago, various forms of these questions have been sent our way.
I prefer strategic lifestyle design to tactical spending plans like a budget. We aren’t going to limit our European gastronomic experiences with an artificial spending ceiling. (Thank you United States Congress for the inspiration!)
Certainly Europe will cost more than budget destinations like Thailand or Guatemala. So how will we pay for it?
The short answer is: I don’t really intend to.
First things first, we have to get to Europe from Asia. That is a 14 hour direct flight to a regional European hub, plus connections.
Since sharing 14 hours in a confined space with an energetic 1 year old isn’t high on our bucket list, we decided to maximize roaming room. Business class, baby! (Apologies in advance to those on our flight.)
Alas, business class flights for two, plus lap carry infant (10% of adult fare), were more than $5,500. One way!
Fortunately we knew this day was coming, and had been accumulating airline miles since even before we left the working world (just another asset class in our portfolio.)
By signing up for an airline credit card (with signup bonus), flying a few times, and using the rewards card as our daily spender for a short while, we were able to accumulate 180,000 frequent flier miles.
Instead of $5,500, we paid the reduced fare of $200.08 ($28.54 for each of the adult tickets, plus $143 for our son.) Technically not free, but I’m not complaining.
Over the past 6 months we’ve added several new credit cards to our financial arsenal. Every hotel program has their own credit card: Starwood, Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, IHG… and they offer generous signup bonuses.
In addition, several credit card companies have a travel points system, also with generous signup bonuses. These points can be transferred to specific hotel programs. As one example, Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to Hyatt Gold Passport, IHG Rewards Club, and Marriott Rewards.
As a result of getting a few credit cards and using them regularly, we have accumulated:
- 185,000 Starwood Points (some from Uber.)
- 130,000 Ultimate Rewards Points
- 122,000 IHG Rewards Club Points
- 75,000 Hilton Honors Points
- 60,000 Hyatt Gold Passport Points + 2 Free Nights
This is enough for at least 30 free nights. Plus we’ll continue to accumulate points as we use these cards throughout Europe.
To get maximum advantage from this treasure trove, we’ll use points in the most expensive cities: London, Paris, Rome… With average hotel prices of $150+ per night, hotel points will save us $4,500 (At least. The Points Guy estimates these points are worth $8,692.)
While a month of free hotels is a nice start, there are still 3 months of housing to pay for.
A large portion of these nights will be via Airbnb (see full summary of our Airbnb stays), many of which have price reductions for weekly or monthly stays. We’ll take advantage of this by staying 7 nights in most places rather than 6. (Haven’t tried Airbnb yet? Get up to $35 off your first stay.)
For non-Reward nights at the big hotel chains (Starwood, Hyatt, etc…) we book directly and use their Rewards credit card to maximize points & value.
In other cases, we’ve become fond of the “Stay 10 nights, earn 1 night free” program from hotels.com, an indirect 10% discount. Thanks to our recent travels, we have ~$200 in credit banked. (If you haven’t yet booked with hotels.com, they offer up to $50 off your fist stay. Email me for details.)
And of course we pay hotels.com with a Travel Rewards credit card, which leads to more free nights.
Free flights and a month of free hotels is a pretty solid foundation for a trip to Europe.
There are two other variables we can control to our advantage: timing and pre-Europe spending.
We still have 60 years of travel ahead of us, so when we explore Europe makes no discernible difference.
To allow our portfolio to grow even further, we’ve continued to live beneath our means by traveling in lower cost of living countries. This eased the mental transition from saving to spending, while guaranteeing our retirement is robust, regardless of the economy.
But thanks to the rising US dollar, prices have dropped 20% in recent years. 20% off! As one example, our first week in an Airbnb apartment in the center of Lisbon, Portugal costs roughly the same as our hotel in Penang, Malaysia.
Why not use this phase of the world economic cycle to our advantage?
So off to Europe we go.
Over the past 5 months, we slowly wandered through Thailand and Malaysia. Overall, our spending was ridiculously low for some high quality living. As an example, for 2 month in Chiang Mai we spent less than $400/month for an awesome apartment with rooftop pool.
With 5 months of extra low expenses behind us (or more accurately, 3.5 years of low expenses), how will 4 months of enjoying croissants and cappuccinos on the terraces of old stone buildings impact our average monthly expenses?
Not much. That is the beauty of geographic arbitrage.
By signing up for travel rewards cards with generous signup bonuses and using them for most/all of our daily spending, we have accumulated at least $10,000 worth of free flights and hotels. These will be used to reduce the cost of the most expensive hotels and business class flights to approximately zero.
Through geographic arbitrage, our low cost of living in Thailand and Malaysia has increased our cash available to spend in Europe. Our average monthly expenses will still be reasonable, even after enjoying all of Europe’s culinary delights.
Hopefully this answers the questions about how we intend to continue to live well in Europe with minimal budget impact, while offering some ideas for others to do the same.
Have you used credit card rewards to fund your own travels?
Editorial Note – Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.