Our “How To” series explains the best way to get to various destinations using credit card points, and tells you what card(s) you should sign up for in order to accrue the necessary points. This week’s destination: Greek Islands with a stop in Europe.
Welcome to Part 3 of the “How To” Series! Sorry for the week off, I was a little busy after graduation…but this is a good one, so hopefully you forgive me. As a reminder, if you haven’t seen the rest of our How To series, here are the other (and future) installments!
- Part 1: Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand (Thursday, 4/13)
- Part 2: Tahiti & Bora Bora (Thursday, 4/20)
- Part 3: Greek Islands / Europe
- Part 4: Cancun / Caribbean (Thursday 5/18)
- Part 5: Bali / SE Asia (Thursday 5/25)
Part 3: Greek Islands with a Stopover in Europe
Now who in their right mind wouldn’t love waking up to beautiful sunrises, white homes on cliffs, and gyros (hopefully Luke Bryan and Jimmy Fallon can come along and teach me how to say it)? Greece, and more specifically the Greek Islands, have always been one of the most incredible destinations in my mind. Mary reminds me of it often (I’ll take you there one day, I promise!), and we are sure that many of our friends have dreamed of this same trip, but maybe couldn’t afford it (or just didn’t want to pay for it!). This guide will show you how to do 2 weeks of free vacation, including a 7 day stopover somewhere in Europe and 7 days in the Greek Islands…for free. Yeah, you heard me right.
A quick google flights price graph shows that SLC – Athens usually averages $1300 round trip, with some off-season pricing around $1100 (October/November). Pretty terrible. I was able to find some from LAX in the $650 – $1000 range for off-season, so if you can be flexible in locations you might be able to score a deal. But back to the point – how can we do this for free?
If you head over to Award Hacker and search for flights into Athens, you’ll see that most rewards programs hover between 50k – 60k for flights to Europe. So, at first glance it might seem like any program will do, right? Turns out, there are these pesky things called “Fuel Surcharges” that are basically just a way for airlines to make money on award tickets by charging you for gas. Not all airlines charge it, so it can be confusing at first when you try to book Europe trips. As an example, if you try to use your American Airline miles to fly on a British Airways flight to London, the cost will be 60k miles….and about $500-$1000 in fuel surcharges per person. That’s just ridiculous, isn’t it?
Granted, you will have to pay airport taxes regardless of what points you use (or even paying a normal cash ticket), so that’s unavoidable, but those are usually $50-$100 total depending on what airport you fly in and out of. Not too bad if the rest of your ticket is covered. I don’t claim that this is the most comprehensive guide for award flights to Europe by ANY means, but I do think this is a simple guide for getting to the Greek Islands and adding a stopover in Europe, while paying the least amount out of pocket.
Option 1: United Airlines
United is my favorite option for Europe because they never charge fuel surcharges for tickets. So, your flight will be miles + taxes, and that’s it. Since Star Alliance (United’s partnership) has TONS of airlines across Europe, including Aegean Airlines based out of Athens, they have lots of availability for getting to Greece (for a full route map of all Star Alliance options you can book with your United miles, see their route map here). Sweet! I am just going to assume we are getting to Athens, since you can ferry or buy a $40 RT RyanAir ticket to get to Mykonos/Santorini/etc.
Let’s start by just looking for a round trip to Athens and back, and see how much that would cost us. I searched for a random weekend in October from SLC – Athens round trip.
As you can see, since our flight routes through Canada and then back home through Germany, we get hit with the $84 of airport taxes. Everyone wants a little piece, don’t they? Greedy little boogers. It’s not the end of the world, but you could theoretically find more direct flights through U.S. cities (maybe SLC – New York – Athens – New York – SLC) using the route map that would bring that cost down even lower to the $10-$20 range. For now, $80 isn’t too bad.
But…I said something about a stopover somewhere in Europe, right? Maybe you’ve always wanted to see Paris, London, Croatia, Italy, or any other place in Europe – you’re so close! This is the perfect opportunity! Let’s see how much a little jaunt over to Barcelona would cost us.
As you can see, the cost doesn’t actually change that much – only $97 in taxes. Since you have to go through different airports, you get different taxes, but the points cost is the same. Pretty cool, huh? You can add virtually any destination in Europe for no additional points – you can use the United search tool to see how much your destination would cost and use the Star Alliance Route Map to see which partners fly which routes.
Now, if you want to get REALLY creative with United miles, I would recommend this awesome post from a blog called Travel Is Free. It gets pretty detailed and is super long, so it’s not for the faint of heart, but he shows how you could theoretically do 3-4 open jaws in one itinerary. Might be fun if you are really into the points/miles stuff and want to extract some extra value out of it! I won’t explain it here because I figure most readers 1) don’t have enough vacation time for all of those places, and 2) are just looking for a simple guide.
How can we get United Miles?
- Marriott Nights and Flights Package. Since this gives you 132k United miles, this is BY FAR my top recommendation for a Greek Islands + stopover trip. However, if you don’t want the stopover I might recommend Option 2 instead. If you want to do these packages, I highly recommend you read our full post here on the N+F package. For 3 cards, you could get 2 round trip tickets (132k United miles) AND a 7 night stay in a hotel in the stopover location (since there aren’t any Marriott’s in the Greek Islands that have award availability). For example, 3 SPG cards (business, personal and personal for a spouse/friend) would get you ~300k Marriott points, enough for 132k United miles and a 7 night stay at the Marriott in Mallorca or one of the Marriott hotels in Barcelona. Since it’s only one more card than just getting the flights there using Option 1, I think this is by far the best bang-for-your-buck. One more card more it gets you 7 nights free…hard to pass up.
- United Miles or Transferable Points. If you haven’t seen our Best Credit Cards page, head over there to see all of the up-to-date options and our full reviews on the cards. For now, I would recommend the Chase United, Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve, or Chase Ink Preferred, since Chase UR points transfer to United (but if there isn’t award space, you can still buy flights through the Chase portal, giving you lots of flexibility!). Before you apply for anything, please read the review of all of those cards so that you know about annual fees, benefits, and referral links. It would take you around 2 cards to get enough miles for 2 round trip tickets.
If you like this United option, skip Option 2 and 3 and go to the “Hotels” section because this post is a bit long. Oops.
Option 2: Air France (Economy 50k RT) or Korean Air (80k RT business class)
I’m including an option #2 for two main reasons: 1) If United doesn’t have availability this is another great option, and 2) This flight actually costs 50k points per person, so if you ONLY have 100k points this is your only shot at 2 round trip tickets to Europe. Now, you might ask why this #2 if it costs less in points – it’s because of those fuel surcharges mentioned earlier. If you are on all Delta planes, the taxes would be between $50-$100, which isn’t bad at all. However, if you add in flights on Air France or other European partners, those taxes jump up quite a bit sometimes. So, your actual cost will be around 50k (economy) or 80k (business) and $250-$500 depending on which airline or which airports you choose. To search for these flights, go to either Air France or Korean Air and search online – you’ll need a frequent flyer account with both, so set those up now. Especially for the business class one at 80k round trip, it might make the fuel surcharges worth it. Business class is usually 120k+ miles for Europe, so Korean Air is a good sweet spot if lie-flat seats for 10 hours is something you’ve always dreamed of doing!
I have seen the fuel surcharges as low as $140 for certain routes, so you can get lucky – it might just take a lot of playing around with to get a price that suits you. I recommend searching on Air France’s website since they have a calendar view, and then once you find the seats you want you can call a Korean Air agent and feed them the exact flight numbers and dates over the phone. The Korean Air website works, but it doesn’t always pull up the most direct routes. Korean Air and Air France are both in the same alliance though, so they should both be able to book the same partner flights.
How can we get Air France or Korean Air miles? I would recommend Chase cards, since Chase UR transfers to both of these airlines. Amex MR points also transfer to Air France, but Chase has the “Travel Portal” which is a great back-up plan in case there aren’t any award seats left. Head over to our Best Credit Cards page to see which cards are ranked best for each of those programs!
Option 3: American Airlines Miles (60k RT during peak season, 45k during off-season)
If you’re going in the off-season (not summer or holidays) and don’t mind spending a little bit more time searching, then this might actually be my favorite method. The only problem is that AA miles aren’t the best to start with, since Chase’s cards should be done first because of the 5/24 rule. If you already have your 5/24 slots filled out, go right ahead and get AA miles then! You can get AA miles from both the Citi AA card and from the Barclay AAviator card, so they are easy to build up quickly. The Citi one is great, because even if you apply for a 50k AA offer, they give out AA miles like candy and match the 60k offer 99% of the time if you just message them. Just make sure you have a plan to redeem these miles – AA has really bad domestic availability for award seats, so you might end up with a stash of unused miles (we are sitting on ~200k right now and haven’t found a good time to use them yet).
The reason why this is Option 3 is because the process can be difficult to find flights without surcharges, and AA doesn’t allow stopovers – meaning you’ll have to book two one-ways and book any intra-Europe flights on your own. Most Europe flights from the U.S. route through London using British Airways, an AA partner, and unfortunately these flights charge $500+ of surcharges. So, in order to avoid paying that, it takes some time to figure out which partners (and consequently which routes) are served by partners OTHER than British Airways. It’s totally doable, and during off-peak season there is usually a good amount of space, but I just want to warn people ahead of time. I won’t spend too much time on this right now since I vote Option 1 is the best, but if you want to read a full post on how to avoid surcharges with AA miles (and what routes to look for) I recommend this awesome guide from Loophole Travel.
Wow….so that’s it for flights. Sorry for the length here!!
If you’re doing the Nights and Flights package, you have your hotel for the OTHER European city…but not for Greece. Or if you did just the flights route (no stopover in another city), then you still don’t have hotels for Greece either. If you can afford lodging without doing any other credit cards or tricks from us, power to you! If, however, you want to save your hard-earned cash for excursions or sunset cruises or anything else, what can we do to get our hotels free in Greece?
Now, I hate to be the bearer of bittersweet news, but there are literally no good options for chain hotels in Greece. And honestly – I think it’s a good thing. There are some times when staying in a hotel makes you lose the “charm” of a place, and I think this is one of them. I would much prefer staying in a beautiful white home in a tiny neighborhood on the cliffs of Mykonos as opposed to checking into a chain hotel. And when they are cheap? No brainer. I did a quick search of Mykonos just now on AirBnb for October and found probably 20 places under $130/night, including this gorgeous place. So, we’re going to talk about AirBnb here. When you do book AirBnb, make sure to book at Delta AirBnb to get 1 Delta mile for every dollar you spend at AirBnb…it adds up! It’s the exact same listings as normal AirBnb, just a bit of Delta miles for you in the process. If for some reason you don’t have an AirBnb account yet, you can sign up using our referral link here or use a friend’s/spouse’s link! Now, the better question is how can we get these AirBnbs for free?! There are three preferred ways: checking account bonuses, Barclay Arrival+ miles, and Chase UR points.
Checking Account Bonuses. There are some really, really good ones right now that are SUPER easy to do. A couple can easily get $600+ in bonuses with only a few minutes of work. Check out our post on Checking Account Bonuses to see how/why you should do checking accounts for cash. My top recommendation right now is the Chase Total Checking account, which you can read about here on Doctor of Credit. Basically…it’s $300 free. Takes 20 minutes to do, easy requirements, and free money. $600 (his and her accounts) will get you 6-7 nights in a Greek Island, so that’s fantastic. If you want a nicer hotel or AirBnb that’s $200 a night, then get more checking account bonuses. Pretty simple, huh?
Barclay Arrival+ Miles. Apply for the card, hit the spend, and book your trip. After you’ve paid, you can “redeem” your miles for it and essentially the points wipe away the travel charges. Easy enough! This gets you $500 per card, so you could double up and get 2 (1 per person) if you wanted a really nice hotel for the trip.
Chase UR (Travel Portal). This isn’t for AirBnb, but for boutique hotels. If you do want a hotel, there are some amazing ones that you can book. Just put in your location/dates and it will tell you exactly which hotels are available with points! I usually cross-reference these options with TripAdvisor to make sure the reviews and the hotel are good. This is great for staying in local boutique hotels, since the travel portal is just like any online booking agency (orbitz, etc.) and doesn’t have to be done with the big hotel brands.
And that’s a wrap! I know this was long, so I apologize. This is definitely on our bucket list, as I’m sure it is many of yours, so let us know if you end up booking it. And, as always, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any further questions about how to do certain things on here. As I mentioned earlier, this is by no means the most comprehensive or holistic guide out there, but we hope it gets you started down a path that leads to a beautiful Greek island under your feet with a gyro in your hand!