Updated on 07.10.17

Here’s How We Took a $20,000 European Vacation for $3,500 This Summer

More than a year ago, I started dreaming up a plan to take my family on one of our longest trips yet – a nearly three-week vacation to Europe. The driving force behind this trip was somewhat selfish — mostly because my husband and I love Italy so much and were desperate to go back. In the meantime, we wanted to take our kids on a fun and educational trip somewhere new and interesting.

Obviously, I wanted to travel affordably, too. But as you can imagine, planning a three-week trip to Europe without spending too much is quite a challenge.

Our budgeting efforts really deteriorated when we decided to bring along a caregiver for our kids. Our children are ages 6 and 8, after all, and I knew my husband and I would want to do some exploring on our own. And since they typically crash early (around 8 p.m. at home), a caregiver would save us from being trapped in our rental condo every night. So, we wound up planning a trip for five instead of four, which made our lodging and transportation options a lot more expensive. Obviously, we would need a miracle to make this work, both logistically and within our budget.

Over the course of a few months, I dug around to determine what type of financial commitment this type of trip would take. Of course, I also leaned heavily on rewards credit cards to build up a stash of points and miles that would bring our travel dreams to life.

Through signup bonuses and a ton of regular (planned) spending, we built up a stash of rewards points to pay for the bulk of our standard travel expenses. And now that we’re finally home, I’ve added it all up. Amazingly, we scored a $20,000 vacation for around $3,500 – plus a little more if you count the fact that I had to hire a dog-sitter at home.

How We Paid for Our European Vacation with Rewards

Over the course of 19 days, we flew into Munich, Germany, for a few days of fun, spent nearly two weeks in Italy, then enjoyed five days exploring some of the most scenic areas in Switzerland. Fortunately, most of our trip was paid for with credit card rewards and not with real money.

As someone who writes about credit cards for a living, I have (or have had) nearly every rewards card out there. But, the rewards I redeemed for this trip came from four specific cards and programs – the Platinum card from American Express (both the personal and business version), the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred, and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®.

Nearly half of the expense of our trip was consumed by airfare. For five round-trip flights into Munich and home from Zurich, we used 250,000 American Express Membership Rewards points transferred to Air France/Flying Blue, plus around $490 in airline taxes and fees. The retail value of these flights was around $1,800 each – or $9,000 total.

Obviously, we had to stay somewhere, so we booked two hotels and three Airbnb vacation rentals across five cities – Munich, Verona, Rome, Florence, Grindelwald, and Zurich. While it might seem like rental condos would be more expensive, this was actually one of the best options available to us since we had five people in our group. Plus, staying in a vacation rental afforded us a kitchen and even a washing machine at one point, which helped us save on food and laundry.

Here’s how much we paid for each of our lodging options, along with how much each stay was worth:

  • Munich: Booked Hotel Meininger with Chase Ultimate Rewards, normally costs $120 per night.
  • Verona: Booked a $200 Airbnb rental, paid with cash back from Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard.
  • Rome: Booked five nights in a cheap Airbnb, paid $691 with cash back from Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard.
  • Florence: Booked four nights in an Airbnb rental for $950, paid with cash back from Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard.
  • Grindelwald: We spent two nights at Mountain Hostel for $400, paid with cash back from Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard.
  • Zurich: We booked two rooms at Hotel Fly Away near the airport with Chase Ultimate Rewards points, normally cost $271.

(We also spent two free nights in Lucerne, Switzerland, due to a work obligation, but I didn’t count those nights in this run-down of our costs.)

We took trains in between each of our city stops, and I was so grateful for the opportunity. Flying with kids isn’t easy, but train travel is a piece of cake. In total, we paid approximately $700 in train fare to get from Munich to Verona, Verona to Rome, Rome to Florence, then Florence to Grindelwald. While most of the trains were cheap (around $20 per person), it was the Switzerland-bound train that really got us; that set us back $400 on its own.

In addition to these transportation expenses, we rented a car for three days in Switzerland via Chase Ultimate Rewards. Although we paid with points, the retail cost of this benefit would have been around $300.

How We Paid for Sightseeing, Day Trips, and Epic Fun

While we paid for the nuts and bolts of our trip with a combination of money, cash back via credit card rewards, and Chase Ultimate Rewards points, we paid for the bulk of our “fun” with Chase points. During our three-week trip, we did all the fun touristy stuff we wanted to do and saw some amazing sites with our kids. The best part is, all of our formal excursions were free.

Here are all of the “activities” we booked with points from our Chase credit cards, along with their retail value:

  • Pitti Palace and Palatine Gallery Walking Tour in Florence: $100 for two of us
  • Small Group Florence Duomo and Museum Tour: $250 for five of us
  • Pizza and Gelato Cooking Class in Chianti: $375 for five of us
  • Nighttime Vatican Museum Tour with Dinner: $228 for two of us
  • Cinque Terre Day Trip from Florence: $375 for five of us
  • Colosseum Small Group Underground Tour: $600 for five of us
  • Pompeii and Amalfi Coast Small Group Tour: $1,355 for five of us

In addition to these rewards-fueled activities, we paid cash for several fun side trips while in Switzerland. For example, we paid $140 (expensive!) to ride a mountain gondola to First in Grindelwald so we could hike to a mountain lake. While this was a big splurge, the views made it worth the expense.

Viv Mountain

My daughter admiring the Swiss Alps

We also drove our rental car from Interlaken to nearby Kandersteg to ride an amazing alpine slide – you know, the kind you see in viral videos. The adventure set us back around $100, but again, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we won’t forget.

Alpine Slide

Lastly, we paid $20 to spend a day swimming in the world’s most beautiful lake in Lungern, Switzerland. This was money well spent for the views alone!

The tiny town of Lungern, Switzerland

The tiny town of Lungern, Switzerland

Other Expenses We Had to Plan For

Before we left on our trip, I budgeted $200 per day for food, miscellaneous expenses, small souvenirs, and taxis. That sounds like a lot, but it’s easy to spend that much (and more) when your group includes five people. On top of that, I didn’t want to cheap out on the food or our experience since we had traveled so far and I’d been planning for so long.

I mean, who wants to go to Italy and avoid pizza, delicious pasta dishes, and limoncello? Not me!

Of course, we had saved and set aside the money we needed before we even left on our trip. Fortunately, we spent less than I’d planned on food, miscellaneous, and taxis. Overall, our grand total for food and miscellaneous spending was around $2,500. Keep in mind, however, that’s after we paid more than $900 out-of-pocket for trains and other components of our trip.

Final Thoughts

Paying $3,500 or more for a vacation isn’t something we plan to do every year, but we figured this year was perfect since our kids are still so young and curious. They’re also not yet bogged down with summer activities that make traveling more difficult.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. I’ll never forget my children’s faces as they studied the death casts in Pompeii, rode an alpine slide down the side of an actual Alpine mountain, or listened to the horrific stories surrounding the history of Rome’s Colosseum. Not only did they learn a lot, but we had weeks of uninterrupted fun where we could bond as a family. And, that’s what vacation is about anyway – spending time with the people you love.

The kids exploring Pompeii, listening intently to their guide

The kids exploring Pompeii, listening intently to their guide

If you’re considering a similar trip or any trip abroad, my advice is to research credit card rewards strategies, start planning early, and of course start building a travel fund as soon as you can. While it’s not that hard to pay for airfare or hotel stays with credit card rewards, travel is never “free.”

To plan a long trip that’s also affordable, you’ll need plenty of time, an attention to detail, a solid rewards strategy and, most importantly, a commitment to put some money in the bank beforehand.

Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of Zero Down Your Debt. Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at ClubThrifty.com.

Related Articles:

Have you ever planned a long trip using rewards? How much did you save and spend? Please share in the comments below!

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *