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Shortly after my brother and his wife got engaged last fall and set a wedding date, they asked me for help with redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards points for their honeymoon. Originally, they planned to go to Greece and Italy. A few months ago when it became clear that Italy would probably not be open by early June, they switched gears and decided to end their honeymoon in Mykonos and Athens instead. I know, we all feel sorry for them!
Sidenote: Americans actually can travel to Italy at this time, but on select airlines that offer “Covid free flights”. We had already changed their plans when we learned this information, so we’ll just have to plan a family vacay to Italy soon!
Booking these Greece flights ended up being quite the journey, not because we booked it on points, but because of flight schedule changes and the ever changing policies about entry and transiting through Europe.
If you’re new here, you may want to read our beginner’s guide to award travel.
Also, this post about redeeming Chase and Amex points to book United, Lufthansa, and Star Alliance flights to Europe has a lot more details than what will be covered below.
So here is how it all went down:
Original plan: Houston to Amsterdam (nonstop) on a United flight in business class
- Redemption cost: 60k United miles per ticket plus $5.60
- How we booked: Transferred a total of 120k Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United to book the 2 one way tickets
The reason we booked to AMS is because there was no availability to fly to Athens or Santorini in the range of dates they wanted. In normal times, you know, when a pandemic isn’t an issue, transiting between European countries is pretty easy and usually cost effective either by plane or train. So when your destination either isn’t available on points or isn’t an ideal itinerary, I would encourage people to just book whatever they could to get to Europe, then find a way to connect to the destination.
There are still limited nonstop routes to Europe from Houston, though routes are starting to return and we’re hopeful they’ll continue to return. At the time we booked, the nonstop United IAH-AMS was available in business class to book with miles. At the time, there was a nonstop option to get to Greece from AMS.
As their trip got closer, we knew the Netherlands likely wouldn’t be open by the time they were going, but several EU airports still allow you to transit. Rules and specifics vary from airport to airport and while most EU airports do allow passengers to transit, it was unclear if they would be able to since they would be going to Greece on a separate ticket from their IAH-AMS ticket.
Frankfurt was a little more clear about transit rules, and there are a few flights daily to Greece from Frankfurt, so a few months ago we decided to switch the ticket to have them land in Frankfurt instead of Amsterdam. So then we had a nonstop IAH-FRA, also for 60k miles per ticket. Changing these award tickets was free thanks to waivers still in place due to the pandemic.
As the trip got even closer, all those options we thought they had to Greece from FRA started to dwindle. Long story short, we realized that for just 6.5k more United miles each, we could book IAH-FRA and then Frankfurt to Marseille, France.
Because there was a nonstop between Marseille and Santorini. My brother isn’t a fan of flying, so getting to Santorini with only 2 stops is a dream!
It had just been announced that France would be opening to vaccinated Americans on June 9, so we felt extra safe booking this. The problem with Frankfurt is that while you can probably transit through Germany even if you’re on a separate ticket, Germany isn’t open to Americans. So any irregular operations (cancellations/delay) and you might run into problems.
Final plan: IAH-MRS in business class
- IAH to Frankfurt was operated by United
- Frankfurt to Marseille was operated by Lufthansa
- 66.5k United miles per ticket
- Total: 133k Chase Ultimate Rewards points transferred to United
They had to buy their MRS-Santorini flights, but they were less than $100 each.
Earn your first 60,000 transferable Ultimate Rewards points
The card_name welcome bonus of 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first three months is worth at least $750. But you can potentially get even more value out of those points by using transfer partners. 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points can be converted to 60,000 airline miles in 11 different airline programs. Here are 37 great ways to spend the bonus.
Original plan: Rome to Houston on an Air Canada itinerary in business class
- Redemption cost: 70k Air Canada miles plus ~$75 per ticket
- How we booked: Transferred a total of 140k Amex Membership Rewards points to Air Canada Aeroplan to book the 2 one way tickets
Originally they were booked from Rome. The flight was operated by Air Canada and had one connection in Toronto. The one way in business class was 70,000 Air Canada miles per ticket*
*We could have booked this for just 63k Avianca miles each, but transferring Amex to Avianca Lifemiles can sometimes take up to a day. Most other Amex partners receive the transfers immediately, including Air Canada Aeroplan. At the time of booking, finding 2 business class seats for the dates they wanted during peak season was a challenge, so as soon as we found availability on the dates he wanted, I knew we needed to make sure we booked immediately. I was more comfortable with the fact that his Amex points would show up in his Air Canada account immediately, so redeeming 70k per ticket rather than 63k per ticket didn’t bother us.
Once we figured that Italy probably wasn’t going to happen, we changed the return flight to depart from Athens. There was no change fee to make this switch, but Air Canada did require us to redeem the difference in miles. The itinerary that was available had one stop in Canada and the cost was 81k, so we needed an additional 11k miles per ticket. To get those, we transferred another 22k from his Amex account to Air Canada.
That itinerary got changed and the new itinerary was really bad. There was a super long layover and an extra connection. Because the itinerary change was such a huge difference in arrival and departure time, we were able to make a good case for Air Canada to give them a more ideal itinerary. Even though the award space wasn’t available on the itinerary they wanted, Air Canada agreed to move them to said ideal itinerary since the schedule change was the airline’s “fault”.
For what it’s worth, I found the Air Canada phone agents extremely helpful, which is a change from a few years ago!
I’m not going to post their final return route details since they haven’t yet flown it, but it’s Athens to Houston and the final redemption price was 81k per ticket.
Update August 2021: Air Canada Aeroplan is now also a partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards
So this brings me to an important takeaway
If you have a ticket booked, regardless of if you paid for it or if you redeemed miles, and your itinerary changes due to airline schedule changes, you may be entitled to a free change without having to pay more/redeem more miles.
- IAH-MRS: 66.5k United miles per ticket
- Total: 133k Chase Ultimate Rewards points transferred to United
- ATH-IAH: 81k Air Canada miles plus ~$75 per ticket
- Total: 162k Amex Membership Rewards points to Air Canada Aeroplan to book the 2 one way tickets
Grand total for 2 business class tickets to Greece and back: 295,000 points and less than $200
This may seem like a lot of miles and points, but it’s actually a great value.
You could redeem Amex or Chase points without using transfer partners.
- With American Express Membership Rewards points, your points are worth 1 cent each when you redeem them for flights through Amextravel.com.
- Chase Ultimate Rewards points are worth either 1.25 or 1.5 cents each (depending on which card you have) when you redeem them for flights at ultimaterewards.com.
I would typically expect roundtrip business class seats between the US and Europe to cost at least $4,000 per person. But let’s go even lower and say you found a business class fare for $3500.
- If you redeem Amex points at Amex.com, a $3500 flight would require 350,000 Amex points per ticket.
- If you redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points at ultimaterewards.com, a $3500 flight would require 280,000 or 233,333 points (depending on which card you have) per ticket.
By utilizing transfer partners, the roundtrip total for each person was 147,500.
How to earn American Express Membership Rewards points
The quickest way to earn American Express Membership Rewards points is to open an American Express card that earns Membership Rewards points and earn a welcome bonus. You’ll also earn Amex points on your everyday spending. You can also take advantage of bonus offers to earn even more points by enrolling your card in specific Amex offers that match your spending habits.
The American Express® Gold Card is one of my favorites for everyday spending. It earns 4 points per dollar at restaurants, 4 points per dollar on up to $25,000 annually at US supermarkets, and 3 points per dollar on qualifying travel expenses.
American Express® Gold Card
Current Offer: earn 60,000 American Express Membership Rewards points. The minimum spending requirement is $4,000 in the first 6 months.
The annual fee is a little steep ($250)[See rates and fees], but there are statement credits and benefits that help offset this fee. First, you can receive up to $120 annually in dining credit. See card details page for more info. Enrollment required. Terms apply.
You can choose between a gold or a rose gold card if that sort of thing matters to you!
I have one more tip if you plan to travel to Europe: get a Covid test
If your trip involves transit through any country other than your destination, you may need a Covid test even if your destination doesn’t require it.
There is still alot of uncertainty with testing requirements, and it’s ultimately up to the airline to decide if you have the adequate documentation required to board. Kylie and Brandon ran into some gray area with this because of the French policies.
If France was their final destination, they would have needed documentation proving they were immunized AND they needed a negative Covid test. But since they were just transiting, it was possibly not necessary to have the Covid test.
They departed the US on June 8, but arrived in France on June 9, the day France was opening to Americans. United was going by the rules on June 8, which created further confusion since France wasn’t even open to Americans yet.
They ended up scheduling a rapid PCR test to be done at the Houston airport prior to departure. The test isn’t cheap ($250) and getting their boarding passes to get through security to get to the testing center was a challenge, but in the end, having the test gave them peace of mind in case any country through which they were transiting did need it.
I was going to give more details about specific documentation needed, but I don’t even think it’s worth it because policies are changing constantly. So the point I want to make is triple check requirements for your destination AND and each airport through which you are transiting. Kylie said having a folder with everything printed all in one place was super helpful.
Congratulations to Brandon and Kylie! We’re so happy for y’all and can’t wait to see more honeymoon photos.
Earn your first 60,000 transferable Ultimate Rewards points
The card_name welcome bonus of 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first three months is worth at least $750. But you can potentially get even more value out of those points by using transfer partners. 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points can be converted to 60,000 airline miles in 11 different airline programs.
Bonus categories and benefits have recently been added and/or improved!
- Earn 5 points per dollar on travel purchased via Chase Ultimate Rewards
- Earn 2 points per dollar on other travel purchases
- Earn 3 points per dollar on dining (including eligible delivery services and takeout)
- 3 points per dollar on online grocery purchases (this excludes Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs)
- 3 points per dollar on select streaming services
- Earn 1 point per dollar on all other purchases
The annual fee is $95, but the welcome offer alone is worth a lot more than that. Also, receive credit of up to $50 annually on hotel stays purchased through Ultimate Rewards. New cardmembers will receive this credit immediately and existing cardmembers will start earning after the next anniversary.
Each anniversary, you’ll receive bonus points equal to 10% of total purchases made the previous year. This excludes any welcome bonus points, so it’s only on points earned from spending.
Amex Rates and Fees:
- American Express Gold Card [See rates and fees]
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