Headed to Europe this fall? The best travel cards for free flights

Cards that earn Aer Lingus miles are among the best off-peak season deals

Lyn Mettler
Personal finance writer
Specializes in writing on travel, family and food

Headed to Europe this fall? Here are the best travel cards for free flights

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It seems as soon as school starts, the cheap fall flights to Europe begin to appear. 

I’m always super jealous. With kids in middle and high school, our family simply can’t travel in the fall. We’re always in the heart of football games, cross country meets and Halloween – which is gangbusters at my house – quickly followed by the winter holidays.

But if you’re lucky enough to be able to take the time to travel to Europe in the fall, here are some of the best cards to help you score the points you need to fly nearly free.

Avios-earning cards

One of the best deals going for flights to Europe is on Aer Lingus, Ireland’s national airline, during its off-peak season, which runs from Sept. 10 through Dec. 14, 2018.

You can fly from several major cities, including New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Hartford, Connecticut, for 26,000 miles per person round-trip plus fuel surcharges (around $100 per person on average).

Aer Lingus uses “Avios” for miles, and Avios may be earned via British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus. The good news is that all three of these airlines have their own credit cards, and you can easily transfer each airline’s Avios to the other to book flights.

The British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus Visa Signature Cards all currently offer 50,000 Avios after a $3,000 minimum spend within three months, an additional 25,000 Avios after spending a total $10,000 within a year and another 25,000 Avios after spending a total of $20,000 in the first year. Each card has a $95 annual fee.

Combined with the 1 Avios per dollar you earn for expenditures paid with the card, you’d easily have enough Avios to fly to Europe on Aer Lingus during their off season.

Chase Sapphire cards

The Chase Sapphire series of cards, including the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve, are my favorite travel credit cards because of their ease of use and flexibility. You can instantly transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards, the points earned by signing up for and using these cards, to a variety of airlines like Southwest, United, British Airways and Aer Lingus.

Both the Preferred and Reserve offer a 50,000-point bonus after meeting a $4,000 minimum spend in three months. Preferred has an annual fee of $95, which is waived the first year. The Reserve has a heftier $450 annual fee, but it comes with some great travel benefits.

My family of four flew to Europe in 2017 entirely on Avios. My husband applied and was approved for the Reserve card when it offered a 100,000-point bonus (no longer available) with a $4,000 minimum spend. After reaching the minimum spend, we had 104,000 points that we transferred to Avios to book all of us on a flight from Chicago to Dublin. 

You can also transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Singapore Airlines miles. The airline offers round-trips from New York City to Frankfurt, London, Milan or Paris for 20,000 miles round-trip, though it’s not as good of a deal as Aer Lingus.

See related: Card or cash? When traveling abroad, you often need both

Starwood Preferred Guest American Express cards

Also among my favorite travel credit cards are the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) cards from American Express. It’s not the free hotel rooms you can score with these that give it my top rating, but rather the experiences you can book through their Moments program and the ability to transfer points to airline miles. Transfer partners include British Airways, Delta, United and Singapore Airlines.

Newly merged with Marriott Rewards, the SPG program allows you to transfer 3 points to 1 airline mile. Plus, they kick in a bonus of 15,000 points for every 60,000 points you transfer. That gives you 25,000 airline miles for every 60,000 points you transfer, which is a great deal.

Currently, the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express is offering 75,000 points after a $3,000 minimum spend in the first three months of card membership, while the Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express offers 100,000 points after a $5,000 minimum spend within three months of opening your account (however, that offer ends Oct. 31, 2018). With 1 point per $1 spent, that’s 183,000 points or at least 75,000 airline miles if you signed up for both cards.

We used SPG points transferred to British Airways Avios in 2017 to book and fly Aer Lingus from Dublin to Paris and also from Bologna, Italy, back to Dublin. 

Delta Airlines cards

Delta also recently had a flash sale reducing the cost to fly to Europe from several U.S. cities to 22,000 miles round-trip. 

To score more Delta miles, consider cards like the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, which currently offers a 60,000-mile bonus after a $3,000 minimum spend in four months, with its $95 annual fee waived the first year. That could get three people to Europe with flash sale prices!

See related: 5 great no-annual-fee cards for travel

Get there if you can

However you plan to fly to Europe, I advise you to do it if you can. Some of my best memories have been exploring the beautiful architecture of Paris, the ancient history in Rome, the charming accents of Dublin and the jaw-dropping beauty of Italy’s Amalfi Coast. 

I’m already jealous … and you haven’t even left yet.


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Updated: 11-19-2018