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Free trip for a family of 5 to Europe

Gather round.

Two years ago, I was sitting on my couch, recovering from brain surgery, which had kind of come out of nowhere. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t exercise, I could barely stand the stimulation of people around me talking (good thing my house is set up for constant chaos).

We send my MIL back home to Ukraine twice a year. Her mother is 80, her husband is still there, she gets terribly homesick. Also, the only way that anybody in this house manages to not murder each other is that everybody knows that they can count down the days to the next reprieve. So she goes once in the winter and once in the summer and it’s expensive, but what are you going to do?

I decided, right then and there on that recovery couch, that if we could buy a ticket twice a year for her, then we could make it work for my kids to go – Sonya hadn’t been since she was 2, and the others had never met their great grandmother or seen their dad’s culture. My brain was (literally? physically? biologically?) exhausted, but I started to put together a plan.

I chose Delta because I didn’t know shit about shit and the other frequent flyer mile programs intimidated me with all of their flexibility. I knew Delta goes to Ukraine. I looked at some incredibly complicated mileage charts and hoped that we could find tickets for 60,000 miles. We had some extra miles laying around. I needed 300,000. I gave myself a year and a half.

I don’t have any affiliation agreements and I have canceled these cards already, so no bonus for me if you do this, but here’s the Delta American Express site (the bonuses change from time to time).

At that time, the sign-on bonus for the Gold card was 60,000 miles for spending $3000 in the first three months. I signed up for the American Express Gold Delta card, did the minimum spending, and got 63,000 miles. I referred my husband to that card, and got 10,000 more. Then he hit the minimum spending, and we got another 63,000. He referred his mom, who had agreed to help us with this, so he got another 10,000, and then she got 63,000. We were now at 209,000 miles. My husband and I both have side hustles, so we signed up for the business cards (at that time, the bonus was 40,000 miles), and got 43,000 apiece. With some miles that we had from previous flights, that added up to just over 300,000 miles.

We did not do the platinum card, although I was prepared to, because I didn’t want to pay any annual fees (the Gold waves the annual fee for the first year). I knew that 5 tickets to Ukraine would cost us around $7000 (typically around $1400 each during the summer months), and so I hoped I wouldn’t have to do a $495 annual fee, but was ready to. I didn’t have to.

We found tickets for the summer of 2018 for 60,000 apiece. I was checking every few days for several months, with different departure dates, and at times the lowest I could find was 85,000 miles, but eventually, I found 5 for 60,000. Because I was an idiot* (see below), we had to buy them using two separate accounts – my husband bought two tickets with his miles, and then I had to quick quick buy three on the same flights with mine, then I called Delta and had the two itineraries linked together.

*IMPORTANT: If you are going to do this, when you sign up for the card, give them one frequent flyer mile number for all cards. The frequent flyer mile account does not have to be connected to the name on the card. The transfer fee for miles is outrageous – $10 per hundred miles. To transfer 120,000 miles from my husband’s account to mine would have cost us $1200. As it was, because I didn’t know this going in, we had to pay a couple hundred dollars in transfer fees. Ugh the things I would do over if I could.

We also had to pay a small fee for each ticket, so they weren’t technically free. When all is said and done, we got the five tickets to Ukraine for under $500.

We spent a shitton of money on that trip, but not on the tickets!

Some other notes: we booked the tickets for the summer in January, about six months out. We were flexible and were open to going at any point in the summer, so that helped.

We got terrible tickets. The layover in Paris was 12 hours on the way there, and 8 hours on the way back. I was horrified at the idea of spending 12 hours with three small children in an airport after not sleeping on a plane all night, but we turned that frown upside down or whatever, spent the best $80 of my life to get a hotel room in the airport for a few hours so we could pass out on a bed, took a taxi to the Eiffel tower, took a picture in front of it as though we are the kind of people who go to Paris, got back to the airport and flew the rest of the way to Ukraine.

Sonya’s gymnastics team has a thing where they take pictures of themselves doing handstands at the beach or wherever they are on vacation. This picture was worth every frantic awful minute of the 12-hour layover. The kids still talk about when we were in Paris, as though…as though we are the kind of people who spend time in Paris. Whatever, we have the picture to prove it.

P.S. Paris had just won the World Cup and there were riots in the streets and parades and we barely made it out of there alive. P.P.S. You can’t tell that by looking at the picture.

I’ll end with this: I’m intimidated by the bonus programs, but there’s too much money there not to try it. With a bit of advanced planning and basic organization skills, the world is at your fingertips. My next project is a plan for Disney World.

Wait, that wasn’t actually the end. The real end is where I’m supposed to get a little bit preachy about being careful with your credit cards, and yes, sure, be responsible with your credit cards. But I don’t think that these bonuses are only for people who have no debt, or who are in super great financial shape. As a matter of fact, those people probably need the rewards less than the average me.

We have credit card debt. But we were going to have that debt whether we went or not, and my kids aren’t getting any younger. We weren’t going to be able to take this trip if we had to find the $10K to do it. We should be responsible and not go to Europe. We should be responsible and not go to Disney World. But these credit card rewards allowed us to do the impossible, and maybe I could have waited until we are in better financial shape, but if there’s any way for my kids to see their great-grandmother before she dies, or to go to Disney World before they are in their 20s, I’m going to try to make it happen.

So, be careful with your credit cards, but also: these rewards are within reach of anybody with decent credit scores, not just those who are practically FI already.

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