Last week, I told you that I was preparing for my first trip to Europe since October of 2019. I promised to answer your questions about how I was gearing up for this trip, which is on Crystal Debussy, cruising the Rhine and Moselle rivers. Many of you wanted to know about Covid protocols and the like, but the majority of you were most interested in two things:
- How I got business class air for $600 each way on Air France,
- How I snagged a deal at the Waldorf-Astoria Amsterdam (paying the equivalent of a stay at a Hampton Inn).
Britton and I will address all of your questions about Covid protocols and what it’s like to cruise these days in our upcoming webinar on October 20. Please be sure to register for Our Experiences On Four Different Ships.
For now, though, let’s get right to the burning questions on our readers’ minds.
How did I manage the cheap business class transatlantic air?
Simple. I used 72,000 Flying Blue points each way. Now I know what you’re thinking. This isn’t the same as paying the equivalent of $600 each way. For me it is, and in fact, anyone can do this, whether they have points right now or not.
Points are a form of currency, and I work to build a small war chest of them.Ralph Grizzle, River Cruise Advisor
Let’s talk about how to obtain points.
For the past decade, I have nearly always used points to book my transatlantic business class air. The cost to travel roundtrip has ranged from $1,200 using points to $2,500 when I have found it better to pay instead of using points. I’ve written extensively about how to find deals and how to use points to fly upfront across the Atlantic in River Cruise 101: Landing Great Airfare and Airfare Hacks: Cheap Business Class Tickets For Your River Cruise.
There are three primary ways to obtain points: 1) spend using credit cards and be rewarded in points; 2) sign up for lucrative credit card bonuses that offer 100,000 to 150,000 points; and 3) buy points when they are on sale.
The points you want in your arsenal are of two flavors: points from credit card companies such as American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards; and points from the airlines, such as American Airlines, Avianca, Alaska Air, Delta and United Airlines.
Pro tip: One of the best points programs comes from purchasing Lifemiles from Avianca, which I discussed in my Airfare Hacks post. Lifemiles currently has a special promotion for points purchases that can be used on Star Alliance carriers such as Lufthansa, SAS and United.
The points from the credit card companies can be used to buy things like gift cards (bad choice), or you can transfer your points to travel partners, such as airlines (good choice, particularly when there are transfer promotions).
I transferred 116,000 American Express Membership Reward miles to Flying Blue during a 25 percent bonus promotion for the required 144,000 miles to fly round trip business class Atlanta-Amsterdam. As noted on CNBC, American Express cardholders generally get either 0.7 or 1 cent per point when using Membership Rewards points to pay for travel — depending on what kind of travel you’re purchasing. So assuming a 1 cent value, I paid $1,160 for my roundtrip business class airfare, or less than $600 each way.
That’s fine, you say, but how did you obtain the Amex miles? By opening credit card accounts with Amex when the company lured me with lucrative offers. I’ve had 11 American Express cards in the past 15 years, and many of those offered up to 100,000 points for opening the new accounts. I also charge everything on my credit cards. The points add up over time.
One note is that some of the cards have annual fees, but those usually can be offset if you use the benefits wisely. For example, American Express’s Hilton Aspire offers a free reward night, which I am using to stay at the Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam.
Full Disclosure: I’m not here to promote American Express, and our sites have no affiliate relationships where we’re paid to endorse these companies. I’m just passing on what works for me in the hopes that it helps you.
I need to add one clarification. I booked my flight through Air France, but I am actually flying Air France’s partner KLM. The same flights at the same points level were not available on KLM’s website. So the process was 1) transfer the Amex miles to Flying Blue, 2) book business class on airfrance.com, and 3) fly on KLM.
Interestingly, I initially began searching on Delta’s website. Had I booked the same flights with Delta, the cost would have been more than 400,000 Delta Skymiles. The lesson is to search around on partner websites.
I also got some help from Juicy Miles. The service costs $200 per passenger to find routes and airlines to maximize use of your points. In reality, you need only pay for one passenger. Just do the booking yourself and book the same routing for the other person.
Snagging A Deal At The Waldorf Astoria. I wasn’t quite done with leveraging Amex. A few years ago I signed up for an American Express Hilton Aspire card. The $450 annual fee is offset by a number of benefits, including free award nights. I used one of those award nights to book a King Superior room at the Waldorf-Astoria Amsterdam, which listed for an astounding 700 euros per night. The Hilton reservations agent who helped me book my room said, “Now this is a good redemption. I have to laugh when people use the award night for booking Hampton Inn.”
I fly on Saturday, and I can’t wait. I’m nervous about Covid, but it’s time to get back out into the world. I will need to show a negative Covid test 48 hours before boarding (if PCR) or 24 hours before boarding if rapid antigen. I will be tested again before boarding Crystal Debussy. I’ll wear masks as much as possible on board the ship. It’s comforting to know that all passengers and crew are required to be vaccinated, and I just got my booster. So I am hoping for the best. I’m also insuring my trip to cover the costs of quarantine should that be required on a positive test during the cruise (I’ll be reporting on that also).
I’ve done all I can do to safely resume river cruising, and I am ready to go. I’m sure after nearly two years of living with the pandemic, we all are ready to return to river cruising. Please let me know your plans for your next river cruise and what you’re doing to prepare for it.
Where We’re Cruising. October 4-14, 2021, I will be cruising the Rhine & Moselle rivers, Amsterdam roundtrip. Follow my adventures on Crystal Debussy via Instagram. Also next week, Britton Frost will be on Avalon Waterways, cruising the Rhone. She too will be posting her adventures on @avidcruiser. Get your double dose of river cruising Europe next week here on River Cruise Advisor.