Travel Hack: How I’m flying to Italy for $18 in First class

I wasn’t sure if Travel Hacking was a true Side Hustle or not, but I didn’t care. I wanted to share my experience so that more people could take advantage of the methods I used. In August 2017, my wife and I are flying first class (technically Delta One, which is even better) to Italy. The best part of this whole thing, is we paid $18 per person to fly to Venice, Italy (JFK to VCE), where we’ll began our European trip.

How I did it

I first began by identifying our destination, and our departure point. I would be willing to leave from either NYC, or anywhere in Florida (we had to drop our kids with the grandparents – thanks guys!!). I also knew in Italy, we had a few airports – MXP (Milan), Venice (VCE), and Rome (FCO) that we could fly into. A possible alternative was flying into somewhere else in Europe, such as London, Paris, or somewhere in Germany – then hopping over to Italy from there. That wasn’t ideal from a time standpoint, so I kept my search between NYC, Florida, and most airports in Italy.

Step One: Find an Airline and Check Reward Availability

I opened up tabs on United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines. These aren’t all of the airlines out there, but I generally have luck with one of these three for international flights. They also have partner airlines available for booking with reward points, so I knew I had cast a wide enough net.

In my case, I went to each respective airline and searched for reward flights from my destinations. My searches went as such:

  • JFK -> FCO (Rome)
  • JFK -> VCE (Venice)
  • JFK -> MXP (Milan)
  • MCO (Orlando) -> Italy Airports (MXP, VCE, FCO)
  • FLL (Fort Lauderdale) ->Italy Airports (MXP, VCE, FCO)

When I searched, I had to make sure I selected “reward travel” with each airline. They each word it slightly differently, but the point is that you want to search based on points, and not dollars. Here’s what one of my Delta searches looked like.

When you search at each site, you’re looking for two things: availability, and cost. You want to find the option with the lowest cost, that has availability. Part of this, is checking different dates. To give you an idea of how much dates play a role here, I searched for a random date (March 14th) while writing this post, and it showed me an option for 247,500 miles (per person) to Italy. Insane!

I typically will play with the dates several times until I find a good cost. In my case, American Airlines and United were pretty high. Delta, on the other hand, had seats at 62,500 miles.

Step Two: Choose your Credit Card Program(s)

After you know which airline you’ll target (the cheapest one, from a miles standpoint, with availability!) – the next step is to earn your points. In my case, I needed 125,000 points between my spouse and I. Depending on your destination, your results might be different. You might find that American, or United – has better deals on reward travel, so if that’s the case, you can follow the same steps as me, but with your airline of choice.

Next began my search of credit cards that could help me earn 125,000 Delta miles.

The first place to check is always the airlines website. What you’re looking for is cards that offer a signup bonus in the form of points/miles – that’s it. In Delta’s case, you can find some of their current cards here: SkyMiles Credit Cards – Delta. For American Airlines, you can find them here, and for United Airlines, current offers are here.

Protip: The links above will show you available offers for an individual. Each airline typically also has the SAME cards, but classified as “business” with similar offers! You can take advantage of these by signing up “as a business” – in this case, a sole proprietorship, using your Social Security Number as your Tax ID.

My plan looked like the following:

  • Get these Credit Cards and their associated bonuses:
    • Delta Gold Skymiles Credit Card (30k Bonus w/ $1k spend in 3 months)
    • Delta Platinum Skymiles Credit Card (40k Bonus w/ $1k spend in 3 months)
    • American Express Premier Rewards Card (50k Bonus w/ $3k spend in 3 months)
      • This has since changed. The bonus is now only 25k.
      • Note: The American Express card lets you earn points which transfer to the Delta program, so it does NOT show up on the Delta site. For this card, you MUST transfer your points before you close your card, or you will lose them.
    • Total Points: 120k, plus points earned with my spend, so I would be right at 125,000 miles.

Step Three: Get your Miles

The approach is simple: you take a card out, you meet the minimum spend on it – ONLY on items you would buy anyway – and pay it off at the end of the month (or months, depending on how long it takes you). I would close it BEFORE the annual fee (if applicable) hit my account..once I had secured my points, of course. You need to be careful not to close your account too soon, or you could lose your miles.

Typically after meeting the minimum spend on each card, you can expect to wait 1-2 months until your points post. Once that happens, closing the card is up to you. I strongly recommend keeping the card open until your one year anniversary, to minimize the slight impact to your credit score (more on that below).

Step Four: Book and Fly

This is the good part! I booked our trip, and paid my $18 in fees – that’s it! We’ve repeated this process for a few destinations so far: Paris, Norway, Hawaii (multiple times) and many continental US trips as well. The booking process is typically pretty simple: you run your search just like you did at the beginning of the process, but now you’ll follow through and be prompted to log into your miles account to complete the booking.

Won’t this ruin my credit score?

Credit Scores are comprised of a few factors. These include things like:

  • Payment History: Do you pay your bills on time?
  • Diversification of Credit: Do you have a mortgage, credit card, and car payments? Bonus points if so!
  • Length of Credit History: What’s the average life of your credit accounts? Longer is better.
  • Debt Utilization: Are you using most of your available credit? Not good, if so. Too little can be bad also.

With this in mind, the worry about this method is really the third point: Length of Credit History. When you open a bunch of cards, then close them a couple of months later, it should ding your score a bit. If you keep those same cards open a while, it doesn’t drag down your average as much. A key point here, also – is keeping a card open for the long-term. I recommend a card with great rewards and no annual fee, if possible.

So with this method of letting the accounts stay open a while, paying them off monthly, and not overextending myself, what happened to my credit? Well, when I took out a new card, I saw my score dip about 5-10% for 3-4 months. After that, it jumped back up. After having 10+ cards in the past two years, my score is at an all time high, despite conventional wisdom.

Image courtesy of Credit Karma