How I saved nearly $3,500 on two flights to Europe during the busiest time of year

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When my parents told me that they wanted our whole family to meet in Germany next July to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on a European River Cruise, I was both excited and filled with dread. July is arguably the busiest time of the year to fly to Europe — and the most expensive.

My husband and I looked at flights and realized that if we didn’t have enough rewards miles to fly from Denver to Frankfurt, Germany, it would probably cost us nearly $2,000 per person. That would stretch the family budget but there was no way we could (or would ever want to) turn down this invitation. Celebrating such a large milestone together was a privilege and a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Fortunately, by strategizing my travel rewards and booking almost a year in advance, I was able to purchase two round-trip tickets for a total of 60,000 miles apiece and $230 in taxes and fees. I was so excited to save so much money that I wanted to share my strategy.

It’s still hard to believe that I’ll be cruising down the Danube with my whole family next summer.

A step-by-step snapshot

I’ll go into greater detail, but here’s an overview of how I booked these flights:

  • I started looking for flights as soon as I knew when and where we would be traveling.
  • I used a broad Google flight search, putting dates and destinations in so I could see what airlines flew from Denver to Frankfurt.
  • Once I knew what airlines fly that route, I could narrow my search and figure out what rewards miles I could use.
  • The best options were on United Airlines(shortest flight time, but more expensive). I knew that I could use the Chase Ultimate Rewards points I’d been accumulating on my Chase Sapphire Reserve® for a flight on United.
  • The cash price of flights on United was about $1,750 per person.
  • When I signed up for my Chase Sapphire Reserve®, I received a 100,000-point bonus after meeting minimum spending requirements (an offer that’s no longer available). After using the card continually since then, my husband and I had the points to fly from Denver to Frankfurt in mid-July for free.

Here is a more detailed look at my philosophy at my strategy for rewards miles.

Keep 100,000 rewards points or miles in the bank

I keep rewards “in the bank” the same way that I do with dollars in my actual savings account. It’s nice to keep a cushion and if my stash falls below about 75,000 rewards points, I start to get nervous because my goal is to always have the flexibility to jump on a great flight deal if one pops up.

Since I’m usually booking for both me and my husband, 100,000 miles or points seems like the right number to have on hand. In the last year, we’ve spent and replenished miles strategically. This has allowed us to book flights to Mexico, Washington D.C., and now Frankfurt, all with travel rewards. We still have enough to take another trip if a great deal arises (and if we have the vacation time). But now we’re back to “save” mode again, meaning that I’ll try to spend more on my travel rewards cards for the next six months.

Be smart about where you put y our money

A few months ago I signed up for the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card, my first cash-back card ever. I love it but that doesn’t mean I’m only charging purchases to this card. I still want to continue accumulating miles and points, especially since I’ve booked a few flights with rewards recently.

To ensure that I keep using my Chase Sapphire Reserve® every month I set this as my default card for all of my standard monthly bills. I also purchase gas and groceries with this card. I use my Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card for Lyft rides and concert tickets. I alternate on these cards when eating out at restaurants. It’s helpful to understand what card will benefit you most when you’re spending.

The information for the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards card has been collected independently by Million Mile Secrets. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Book as far in advance as possible

Most airlines will allow you to book award flights around 11 months in advance. My parents announced their plan in May, which meant I couldn’t see what flights in July would cost at that point. Every few weeks I would check to see if there were any flights posted for July 2020.

Finally, I saw the dates we were looking for populated on United’s flight map. By moving our dates around a little bit (we are arriving five days before the cruise departs and leaving four days after it ends), I could get a roundtrip flight from Denver to Frankfurt for 60,000 miles plus $115 per person in taxes and fees. I booked it right away, knowing that this was a good deal and that the award seats could vanish if I waited any longer.

Understand the value of your rewards

I’ve set a limit on how many miles I’ll spend for a flight. Part of this is knowing that I can usually fly to places like Belize or Panama from Denver for about 35,000 miles round-trip per person. The other part is that I know how long it takes me to earn 100,000+ miles or points, and how much money I have to spend to get there. Sometimes it’s actually better to spend cash on a flight and save the miles for when they can go the farthest.

I was both overjoyed and surprised to find out that I could use rewards miles to book flights to Europe during the height of the tourist season. All in all, we ended up saving almost $3,500 on the cost of our flights, which was a game-changer.

What strategies do you use when booking flights to destinations that are typically expensive? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments section below.

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Featured image courtesy of Kenneth Wiedemann/iStock.

Erin Lizzo is a contributor for Million Mile Secrets where she covers points, miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels and general travel. Her work has also appeared in the Matador Network.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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