How Our Family Flew to Europe for Free

Our family flew free: 7 easy ways to earn free airfare to Europe... or anywhere else in the world ( are not a family of frequent fliers. Quite the opposite, actually.

Yet with a little ingenuity and intentionality, we amassed enough “frequent flyer” miles with American Airlines a few years back to get ten free tickets to Europe, then spent three weeks backpacking across the Continent with nine children in tow (our lap baby flew free, even without a ticket).

How did we do it? It wasn’t as hard as you might think.

Granted, it took several years of saving to earn enough tickets for our big crew, but we accumulated those miles without a big time investment or change in lifestyle/spending habits.

We put forth a little energy up front to fill out the initial registrations for the programs listed below, then waited and watched as the miles added up over time.

For the sake of simplicity, our family stuck with American Airline’s AAdvantage miles (or point programs that easily converted to AA miles), but there are many different travel reward programs out there, and the following tips will translate to most of those, as well (or possibly even in addition to, if you get really ambitious).

It’s really easy, so give it a try. If you only do #2 and #6 below, you can earn enough miles for one round-trip ticket in the continental US, almost instantaneously!

  1. (In)Frequent Flying
  2. This is the starting point. Even if you don’t fly frequently (or at all), you’ll still need to register with an airline program as if you did, so that you’ll have an account to which the miles you earn from all other programs can be deposited. Once you get an account number, make note of it, and use it whenever you sign up for any other point program.

    As I said before, we joined the American AAdvantage rewards program, which you can do, too, by following this link: AAdvantage Miles Quick Enrollment

    A few things to note about these mileage accounts: If you do happen to fly somewhere, you can obviously earn miles that way, too. If you are flying with another family member, you can both earn miles, but they will have to be deposited into separate accounts – your miles will be deposited into your account and the miles earned by other family members will be deposited into their individual accounts.

    Just be aware that the miles in anybody’s reward account will usually expire after about a year, if the account goes for six months or so with no further activity. That’s where the following programs can help infrequent flyers like us hang on to our miles.

  3. Credit Cards
  4. There are lots of credit cards available that will reward you with a mile or more per dollar spent using their card. This can be a great way to accumulate miles with only a small adjustment to your purchasing habits.

    Some cards carry an annual fee, but the ones our family has used in the past did not, or else they were willing to waive the fee upon request (never hurts to ask!). If you pay off your balance every month and don’t use your card for cash advances, you can avoid paying any interest or service fees, as well.

    The year we built our house, we ran as many purchases through our AAdvantage card as we could — after getting a 30,000-mile bonus just for signing up! For more information on how you can do the same, click here: Earn miles with every purchase with AAdvantage

  5. AAdvantage Dining
  6. This program allows you to rack up miles every time you eat at any restaurant enrolled in the program. To earn the points, you will need to pay for your meal with a credit card, but any card will do (it needn’t be a AAdvantage Reward card), provided you’ve registered it with the program in advance. .

    Doing so is a one-time process. Once it is done, you don’t have to think about it again, nor do you need to tell your waiter you’re participating in the program — everything is done automatically. Our family has even earned miles dining at restaurants we didn’t know were in the program until afterwards when we saw the miles post to our account.

    Dining for miles is especially easy to do when you live in a big city, as there are usually lots of participating restaurants to choose from. But even if you live in a small town that offers no AAdvantage Dining options, you can still earn miles while traveling. Our family will be vacationing in New Mexico later this summer, and I’ve already charted restaurants all along the route there and back that will earn us 5 miles/dollar spent, with a 2500-mile bonus if we eat at five of them before the end of the month.

    Want to earn miles next time you eat out? Follow this link to register for the program: AAdvantage Dining

    Please note: There are other dining programs out there, such as iDine and IHG Dine & Earn, but they are all powered by the same company (Rewards Network) and, as best I can tell, you are only allowed to join one of them. (You can view a complete list of participating programs here). If somebody else knows differently, please share details in the comment section below!

  7. Special Promotions
  8. If you keep your eyes open, especially while you’re grocery shopping, you might spot a special airline promotion. These are not super common, but when you find them, they can really pay off. When we were saving for our trip to Europe, selected brands of cereal came with a coupon for 100 AAdvantage miles printed on the box. Several were brands we bought regularly, anyway, so we stocked up on the specially marked boxes. In fact, one of our ten free tickets to Europe was paid for entirely by those cereal boxtops!

    And if that impresses you, you will really be inspired by this story about a man who earned 1.2 million miles buying 25-cent pudding cups and donating them to charity. He’s our hero!

  9. Strategic Shopping
  10. You can also earn miles by shopping online through airline reward portals such as the AAdvantage eShopping Mall. You can shop the same online stores you normally visit, but by clicking there through this site, any purchases you make will earn you mileage rewards.

    I’ll be honest: Our family doesn’t use this method very often — primarily because we’d rather go through Ebates and earn cash back instead of miles on our online purchases — however, occasionally a participating merchant offers a deal we can’t pass up, like 40+ miles per dollar spent.

    You can find an alphabetical list of all AAdvantage Mall merchants here. Click on the box in the “All Online Stores” bar to view them by reward level.

  11. Energy Rewards
  12. Although this program wasn’t available in time for our family’s last European adventure, we are counting on it to help pay for our next one. My husband recently learned that Everything Energy offers a 5000-mile switching bonus for new customers, as well as crediting them 2 miles/dollar spent on energy costs — which for us, incidentally, has been about half as much as we were paying before we switched!

    There’s no switching fee or long term contract, although you must stay with the company two (2) months to get that initial signing bonus. It’s a win-win situation. Just choose your reward program, plug in you number, and watch the miles accrue monthly without doing anything more, except deciding how to spend them.

    If Everything Energy is not available in your area, try Energy Plus — they offer a similar switching bonus and reward schedule. Or try Googling “energy providers with mileage reward programs” … and let you electric company power your next escape!

  13. Hotel Miles
  14. Virtually every hotel in America has some sort of preferred guest program to reward customer loyalty. They are free to join, you’ll earn points every stay, and can redeem those points for free nights and other perks, which often include airline miles. Sometimes programs even allow you to “double dip” by awarding you with points and miles every time you stay at one of their hotels. Others — including our family’s favorite, Embassy Suites, which is part of the Hilton Honors program — allow you to exchange points for miles.

    I received a notice from American AAdvantage just yesterday, in fact, notifying me that I could get a get a 20% bonus by converting my Starwood Preferred Guest points to AAdvantage miles this month, which I happily did.

    There is really no advantage here to joining the loyalty programs for hotels you never use, but you are missing out if you ever stay at any of the chains listed below and don’t earn points/miles for doing so!

    • Points earned can be redeemed for airline miles. Bonus: If you book your stay through Ebates, you’ll earn cash back in addition to the miles.

      Hotels affiliated with Choice Privileges include: Ascend – Cambria – Clarion – Comfort Inn – Comfort Suites – Econolodge – Mainstay Suites – Quality Inn – Roadway Inn – Sleep Inn – Suburban


    • This is the hotel program that earns our family the most miles. HHonor points can be redeemed for free nights at the hotel of your choice or exchanged for miles on your favorite airline. Follow this link to sign up: Hilton HHonors Program

      Hotels in the Hilton Program include: Conrad – Doubletree – Embassy Suites – Hampton – Hilton – Hilton Garden Inn – Homewood Suites – Home2 – Waldorf Astoria

    • Hyatt’s Gold Passport program allows you to earn 5 points/dollar spent at their hotels, with easy point-to-miles conversion with over 30 travel partners (including American Airlines). Bonus: Earn additional cash back on Hyatt hotel and resort stays when you book through Ebates.

      Hyatt affiliated hotels are easy to spot — they all have HYATT in the name: Grand Hyatt – Hyatt – Hyatt House – Hyatt Regency – Hyatt Residence – Hyatt Zilara – Park Hyatt

    • IHG boasts that it is “the world’s largest hotel loyalty program.” You must specify whether you prefer to earn points or miles when you sign up, which you can do by following this link: IHG Rewards Program. Book Holiday Inn Stays through Ebates to earn 4.5% cash back, in addition to your points or miles.

      Hotels included in the IHG family include: Candlewood Suites – Crowne Plaza – Even Hotels – Holiday Inn – Holiday Inn Express – Hotel Indigo – Hualuxe – Intercontinental Hotels – Staybridge Suites

    • Best Rate Guarantee. No Cancellation Fees.You must choose when you sign up for this program whether you prefer to earn points or miles.

      Hotels in the Marriott family include: Autograph Collection Hotels – Courtyard – Edition – Fairfield Inn – Gaylord – Marriott – Moxy Hotels – Renaissance – Residence Inn – Ritz Carlton – Springhill Suites – Towneplace Suites

    • As I mentioned earlier, you can earn a 20% bonus whenever your redeem your SPG points for airline miles. That’s a great deal!

      Hotels included in the Starwood family: Aloft – Element – Four Points – Meridian – Sheraton – St. Regis – W Hotels – Westin

    • With Wyndham Rewards, you can choose to earn miles instead of points from the get-go, or you can trade points for miles once you’ve accumulated 6000. Your choice. Also, you will earn a cashback bonus in addition to points or miles when you book select Wyndham family hotels through Ebates.

      Hotels participating in Wyndham Rewards include: Baymont – Days Inn – Dream Hotels – Hawthorne – Howard Johnson – Knight’s Inn – Microtel – Night – Ramada – Super 8 – Travelodge – Tryp Hotels – Wingate Inn – Wyndham Hotels & Suites

To make your miles stretch further, you can choose to travel economy class and/or off-season. Check out this awards chart to see how many miles it’ll take to reach your dream destination

Our family is currently saving our miles for a repeat trip to Europe with the children who were born after that first adventure, or were too young at the time to remember it. We can use all the help we can get, so if you know of any good ways to earn miles that we’ve not already listed, please let us know about them in the comment section below.

If you know of others who would like to learn how to fly for free, please share this article via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or any of the other options below.

Thanks for reading… and bon voyage!

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Blessings upon your heart and home,


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7 Responses to How Our Family Flew to Europe for Free

  1. Holly says:

    I see that this is a few years old, but if you’re still saving up those miles, check out the brand new Chase Sapphire Reserve card…100,000 bonus miles if you charge $4000 in the first three months.

    • Jennifer Flanders says:

      Thanks for the tip, Holly. I’ll check that out, as we are definitely still saving points. Hoping to make a return trip in the next couple of years. 100,000 miles on top of what we’ve already saved would get us almost enough tickets to go now!

  2. Pingback: Why And How We Are Taking Our Whole Family to France – Dr. Sarah Bartel

  3. Theresa says:

    At the beginning of this piece you talk about points expiring. If you are planing for a trip 3 years from now how do you keep your points valid to save up enough for the trip?

    • Jennifer Flanders says:

      The points will only expire if you go for many months with no qualifying activity in your account. That period of time probably fluctuates from airline to airline, but for American Airlines AAdvantage miles, it has been 18 months for as long as I can remember. This DOES NOT mean you have to USE your miles or fly somewhere every year and a half. It just means you’ll need to do SOMETHING — whether it’s staying at a hotel or eating at a restaurant or making a purchase with a credit card or any of the other ways listed above — that will earn you some miles during that time. Every time you do this, it keeps ALL your miles from expiring, even if you earned some of those miles a decade (or more) earlier.

  4. Jen says:

    We were planning an Alaskan vacation this summer, so my hubby and I EACH got an Alaskan Airlines credit card. It does have a $75 per year annual fee, but it also offers a companion fare for $100 once a year. Not only did we each get a 30,000 mile bonus for signing up, but I got more for “referring” him AND we were able to get two of our $850 tickets for just $100 each. I used our Capital One Travel Purchase Eraser to reduce the cost of some of our excursions while there, so we have saved quite a bit overall! Also, calling and talking to a real live person helps…one employee told me about a coupon that saved us $60! It takes a little homework, but to me, it’s worth it!

    • Jennifer Flanders says:

      Alaska sounds WONDERFUL, Jen! And I agree — talking to a live person really is the way to go a lot of times.

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