Our immediate family has had three weddings, three high school graduations, two college graduations, and more that have kept us flying from Europe to the US much more frequently than ever in the past. These are not expenses that can generally be reimbursed by our non-profit organization, so the dreaded term “out-of-pocket” raises its ugly head.
How can non-profit workers with a very modest wage possibly afford all of these trips? The mileage game! Using “points and perks” offered by credit card companies can get you farther than you think.
While there are many (often good!) websites that explain how to earn luxury travel, I’m going to hone in on the budget-sensitive teacher and non-profit worker who just needs to get from point A to point B with the lowest possible cash outflow. What follows is a real-world, economy-class trip my wife and I just took in order to participate in our daughter’s wedding. Are you ready to see how we used some “points and perks” to make it happen?
The key expense for brief trips for family events is generally the international flights that get you there and back again. In our particular case, a round-trip cash fare from Vienna, Austria to our regional airport in the US was running at over $1,200 per person. A $2,400 out-of-pocket expense for a modest, single-wage couple is a substantial outlay. We didn’t pay it!
Rather than part with $1,200 in cash per person, we used 63,000 United MileagePlus miles instead. Take care with award flights as taxes and fees can really put a dent in them, but United award flights are known for being on the very low end of fees which, in our case, amounted to less than $75 per person. Those 63,000 miles, while valuable, were not “expensive.” Credit card Welcome Bonuses gifted us with most of those points. As a couple, those points saved us about $2,250.
One of the key cards in this adventure was my Chase United Explorer card. It opens up award flight availability that is usually not bookable. That was a big help as always. I’m not a huge fan of United, but it is usually our best travel option from Vienna, so the points and the card have worked well for us.
Here’s a little-known perk as well: For about a $5 fee, we could have taken a side trip to a second destination in the US. It is called the United Excursion Fare and is a very nice perk if you want to hit two cities instead of one with your round-trip award flight.
We couldn’t exactly show up for this wedding with suits and dresses stuffed into our hand luggage, right? Basic economy baggage costs start at around $75 for the outgoing leg of travel and another $75 for the return leg. For our party of two, that’s another $300. In our case, our Explorer card netted us one free bag each. Ca-ching! Booking with points or booking a higher fare (even just economy rather than basic economy) can sometimes also get you a free bag also. The moral to the story isn’t that you need a certain card or airlines but that you need to be aware of the fees for baggage, taxes, and so on when booking.
Though not strictly necessary, we did treat ourselves to a night at an airport hotel in Vienna before departure. The cash value of that stay was nearly $150. We were willing to pay that because we paid that $150 in CapitalOne points on their travel portal. We also used CapitalOne points to erase some minor expenses for Uber and trains along the way. Those CapitalOne points were earned through a Welcome Bonus, so they were pretty much free as well.
I’m not even sure I knew airport lounges existed until I started seeing “Free Lounge Access” appear as a perk with certain credit cards I was applying for. Now I know, and I like it! The entry fee to a modest airline lounge in the US is currently about $70 per person. While it is nice to get a free beverage, snack and clean bathroom, I’d never dream of paying $70 for it! Yet, on this trip, we did use lounges…a lot!
We had about a four-hour connection in our US hub airport in Chicago. As lovely as O’Hare might be, it wasn’t a hard decision to whip out a couple of free United Club vouchers that came with my credit card. We only get two a year, but those few hours at O’Hare felt like a good use of them.
Little did I know that we would want a lounge even more on the return. Delay upon delay caused us to miss our connecting flight in the tiny Venice airport. While 8 hours in Venice might sound like fun, 8 hours in the Venice airport isn’t. Fortunately, my wife has a travel credit card with a nice Priority Pass benefit. While Priority Pass lounges in the US can often be full to capacity so that you won’t even be allowed to enter, the “VIP Lounge” in Venice was delightfully quiet and large. Comfy seating allowed for a bit of jet-lag napping and cell phone charging. We ate a nice Italian lunch, had some great coffee, and grabbed a last-minute supper as we sleepily headed toward our final flight. Eight hours in any airport is no fun, but this free perk made it much more bearable.
Had we paid for two people to access those two lounges, it would have cost us another $280. We would have never done that, but getting it for free felt like stealing. As a budget traveler, I always feel pampered and maybe a bit guilty when enjoying perks like lounges. But that’s not the only perk that had me feeling a bit elitist.
Skip-the-line Access at Passport Control
In the long walk from our plane to passport control in Chicago, we quickly came to a sign that sent crew, people with disabilities, and people with special access to the left and everyone else to the right. I’m generally a to-the-right, wait-in-line person, but another credit card perk put us in the “special access” category that day. Passing by a slow-moving line of to-the-righters, we walked just as fast as our feet could take us because there was barely a soul on the left.
Our “special access” was due to the fact that we are proud owners of Global Entry cards. For a fee of about $100 and the inconvenience of an application and an in-person interview, Global Access lets you cut the line when coming into the US and grants you TSA pre-clearance when boarding any US flight. Global Entry last for five years, so it isn’t an outrageous expense. Better still, if you play your cards (that is, credit cards!) right, you can get Global Entry free as well. Several travel credit cards offer it as a perk. We have been happily cutting the line at Chicago for three years now.
That’s not to say that transferring through O’Hare is any great joy. It is still a hassle. In our case, it required leaving the secure area and going back through passport control again to catch our last flight of the day. Still, when you get to skip-the-line when entering the country and then skip-the-line and keep your shoes on when going back through TSA again, it wasn’t so bad. Besides, we had a lounge waiting for us!
Don’t Let a Good Claim Die
While not part of my “points and perks” strategy, we also got a rather nice benefit by filing a claim with United airlines after our trip. After documenting and explaining about the delayed flights and some really poor in-flight internet service, United granted us a $100 electronic flight credit and 5,000 MileagePlus miles. I value United miles at about 2 cents each, so collectively we received $200 in credits and $200 worth of miles. That’s $400 toward future flights.
The award flights, free baggage allowance, lounge access, and Global Entry cards are all free or nearly-free perks that I could control with some careful credit card usage. What I could control was the generosity of friends and supporters of our work. A three-week rental car would have cost us over $1,000. Yes, I could have used some precious travel points with Capital One to “erase” those costs, but I didn’t need to. God provided a loaner car through a generous friend who was willing to live without her red beauty for a few weeks. Housing was graciously provided by a local ministry that does non-profit work itself and supports many non-profit workers. That was worth perhaps $1,500 in Airbnb costs. Again, I could pay for that with points but the points would soon run out at that rate!
One way modest-income international workers can afford trips like this is because someone loans us a vehicle, a room, or even just a couch. That’s part of making this international lifestyle work on limited incomes.
The Final Tally
This is an unfair final count as we wouldn’t have used lounges, might not have purchased Global Entry, and might have gotten free baggage in other ways, etc., but for the sake of simplicity, let’s just throw down some numbers for our trip for two:
That’s a theoretical savings of $3580 on just this one trip. To save that, we had to spend some money on annual credit card fees (usually not more than $100 per card for two cards in our case) and spend a lot of time playing with award charts, applying for cards with nice Welcome Bonuses, transferring points from a travel card to United, etc.
There is certainly a time-cost to all of this. However, when we choose to live an international life on a modest income, we’ve got to make the dollars stretch. Playing the mileage game with all its “points and perks” is one way I make it happen.