Below is the perhaps disappointingly simple story of how I’m flying NYC – Amsterdam – NYC for free. (Layovers in Philly both trips). [Update: the second and third free-travel articles have been posted!]
This is the first in an installment of at least four articles describing my free travel around the world (OK, mostly just to Europe and back). We devote most of this website to teaching financial responsibility. But frankly, that advice is so simple that we’re limited in terms of how much more we can actually write. So, without further ado, the first of many free adventures taken as a result of ‘travel hacking.’
Here’s how it works.
I’m a student in New Haven, Connecticut, so we’ll begin there. Flying out of New Haven’s famously tiny airport is pretty difficult to do and extremely expensive. The nearby Hartford airport offers more options but won’t bring prices down nearly as much as flying from New York City will. So, how to get to NYC?
Uber, for long distance, is an automatic no. Yes, people really do it. Cost (Round Trip): ≥ $260
GO Airport Shuttle: an easy airport van service that picks me up on campus and brings me right to the (not at all) golden gates of LaGuardia airport. Cost (Round Trip): $110 + Tip. Still too expensive.
Metro-North: One of few almost-as-good-as-Europe trains in America. There’s an easy app for buying tickets, another to check train times, and another to check bus times in New York. It’s dependable and comfortable. Prices here track bus prices closely, so I won’t include those. Cost (Round Trip): $33
I went with Metro-North, New Haven – NYC (Harlem). Now is a great time to mention that the ticket was paid for by Bank of America! How? I have the BankAmericard Better Balance Rewards credit card, which pays me $120/year ($30/quarter) simply for owning it and using it once a month. Because it has no annual fee and I pay off the balance in full each month, I get $120/year for free. A few weeks ago, I was credited $30 for this quarter’s award, and the net cost of the Metro-North ticket was just $3 round trip.
Another $2.50 got me a painless, twenty-minute bus ride to the airport (M60 SBS Harlem-125th St. – LaGuardia.) Had I used Uber instead of the bus? $30. And it would’ve taken about the same amount of time.
Instead of succumbing to Netflix’s Siren Call and relying on it for entertainment while waiting in the Purgatory that is LaGuardia (except for that blissfully modern area outside of gate C35 that I discovered all too late) I stocked up on good old-fashioned paper reading material at the university, where about a dozen free, well-written, interesting student publications + The New York Times are stacked outside of the dining hall. Now I have no need to pay for the internet after the pathetic, off-and-on, weak, free 30 minutes of Boingo Wi-Fi expires at LaGuardia.
But how is the trip free?? You’ve only gotten yourself to the New York Airport and had to pay a net $5.50 for it!
Fine. I’ll move on to the fancy part.
Over the summer, Chase offered a huge sign-up bonus to new holders of the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. The criteria? Spend $4,000 on the card within three months of account opening to earn 50,000 points. Add an authorized user who makes a purchase of any size for an additional 5,000 points. I signed up for the credit card, hit the ‘minimum spend’ and got my 55,000 point bonus.
You may think, ‘wait, you just paid $4,000 for a ‘free’ plane ticket?’ No! I spent money that would have been spent anyway and earned a bonus for just using the correct plastic rectangle. Without going into detail, I remind you that friends and family can use your card to pay their bills, that you can pay bills ahead of time, and that there is an entire strategy called ‘manufactured spend’ which we do not endorse. 😉
What do 55,000 Ultimate Rewards points get me? Well, I could cash them in for $550. Not very glamorous. I could also redeem them through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards Portal for a value of about $687. That’s a lot better! The portal functions like any other travel site: you enter your dates and destinations, and they show you your options. However, Chase’s portal could not find flights nearly as cheap as Student Universe could (and consistently does). I could’ve also transferred the points one-for-one to one of many frequent flyer programs. Doing so would’ve easily awarded me a free round trip with United, but was a bit more hassle.
I bought a ticket for almost exactly $550 (on American Airlines, found through Student Universe) and clicked about three buttons on Chase’s website to use my UR points to cover the entire cost. In this particular situation, I would’ve used about the same number of points for a free, round-trip flight no matter how I redeemed them. From a financial perspective, it didn’t matter which redemption method I chose.
So, that’s how I’m traveling from New Haven to Amsterdam for about $5.50 (bus + train money). Getting home? Well, I’ll have to spend another $2.50 on that LaGuardia-Harlem bus. A small price to pay for 4.5 days spent in the beautiful Netherlands.
[ Shout out to Gienell in Philadelphia, by the way, the superstar American Airlines employee who stopped her break to go back to the plane and retrieve the laptop that the jet-lagged author of this article left behind. A real rookie mistake. ]
New Haven – Harlem … $1.50
Harlem – LaGuardia … $2.50
New York – Philadelphia – Amsterdam … Free (27,500 UR Points)
Amsterdam – Philadelphia – New York (LaGuardia) … Free (27,500 UR Points)
New York (LaGuardia) – Harlem … $2.50
Harlem – New Haven; Metro North … $1.50
Total Cost: $8
Money saved by avoiding the airport shuttle? $110. If I’d paid for the train with actual, non-credit card award money, I would have still saved $77.
The dollar value of my flight? About $550
Money saved by avoiding Uber? Replacing buses with Uber: about $60. Replacing Metro North with Uber: At least $227.
- Spending money to earn a sign-up bonus also earns regular points-per-dollar-spent. I was left with about 6,000 extra UR points. I cashed them in through the Ultimate Rewards Portal back in August so I could stay for a night in a luxury London hotel for free.
2. Flying with American Airlines earns me AA miles. So on top of the 45,000 miles I’ve got sitting around there— thanks to another sign-up bonus and frequent cheap or free flying— I’m earning several thousand miles on this trip.
3. I have never and will never make interest payments and have so far never paid for a card’s annual fee. Thus, I pay nothing for these rewards but time spent planning how to maximize their usefulness.