Visiting Europe is expensive. Most people scrimp and save to be able to afford a very basic trip to a city like Paris or Rome, staying in cheap hotels and enduring a brutal flight in a cramped seat. But budget-minded travelers don't have to accept this fate. With the help of a few travel hacking tips, it's easy to book a trip to Europe for less.
1. Off-peak awards
The standard redemption level for a round-trip ticket to Europe is 60,000 miles. However, some airlines offer discounted redemptions for travel during the off-season. American Airlines defines the off-season as Oct. 15 to May 15, when economy-class redemptions are as low as 40,000 miles round-trip. Factor in the 10 percent discount offered to Citi AAdvantage Platinum cardholders and the total redemption is just 36,000 miles round-trip.
US Airways offers discounted off-peak redemptions of 35,000 miles round-trip, though dates are a bit more limited -- Jan. 15 to Feb. 28 of each year. Since US Airways has joined the Oneworld alliance and is in the process of merging with American Airlines, you can book the same partner airlines using US Airways Dividend Miles.
2. Distance-based awards
Distance-based award programs can offer even cheaper award flights to Europe. For example, at a distance under 3,000 miles, economy tickets between Boston and Dublin can be redeemed for just 25,000 British Airways miles round-trip. Business-class tickets are just 50,000 miles round-trip. A traditional zone-based frequent flier program would require 60,000 miles in economy and 100,000 in business class for the same itinerary.
With the British Airways Visa Credit Card currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles (after spending $2,000 within three months), one credit card sign-up bonus would cover two economy class tickets to Ireland -- a terrific deal.
3. Airline and hotel credit card perks
Once you make it to Europe, the challenge is booking affordable accommodations. If you're strictly a rewards traveler, the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Credit Card is a great option. Cardholders earn 97,500 points after spending $2,500 within the first three months of opening the account, which is enough for up to 10 nights at a Club Carlson hotel, such as the Park Inn Budapest. Cardholders who book an award stay get their last night free. On a two-night award stay, you are essentially getting a two-for-one redemption rate, which is a great way to further stretch your points.
Many hotel rewards credit cards offer some level of elite status, giving the cardholder access to perks like complimentary breakfast, Wi-Fi, room upgrades and club lounge access. The best example is the Hilton HHonors Reserve Card issued by Citi, which comes with instant HHonors Gold status. Gold status members are guaranteed breakfast either in the hotel restaurant or in the club lounge. With club lounge access, cardholders can munch on snacks and appetizers throughout the day, helping reduce the cost of meals and freeing up their travel budget for other expenses. HHonors Gold status can also be leveraged to get a status match with other rewards programs.
Home exchange sites like Airbnb can also help you secure comfortable accommodations for less. Airbnb is especially helpful for those traveling with a group, since renting an apartment is cheaper than booking two hotel rooms. As an added bonus, Airbnb is categorized as a travel merchant, so charging the stay to a card like the Barclay Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard means you can redeem your Arrival miles at a rate of 1.1 cents each.
4. Discount airlines
The recent trend in discount international carriers has resulted in competitive fares between the U.S. and Europe. For example, Norwegian Air has round-trip fares between the West Coast and northern Europe for under $500 round-trip. Purchasing these fares on a flexible rewards card like the Barclay Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard can be a great option because points earned from that card can be redeemed to reduce the cost of airfare. A $500 fare would require 45,000 Arrival miles, which is still significantly less than the standard 60,000 mile redemption required for a round-trip economy flight to Europe.
With that in mind, discount carriers do tack on fees for checked bags, in-flight meals and the ability to choose your own seat. Since these expenses can quickly add up, these fares aren't necessarily for everyone. However, if you skip the extras and carry your own bag onboard, you'll get to Europe for less.
5. Mistake fares
Every once in a while, airlines or travel booking sites make mistakes that result in super low fares and hotel rates. A first-class ticket to Hong Kong redeemed for just four frequent flier miles; $150 round-trip tickets between New York City and Milan and a $29 nightly rate at the Hilton San Francisco all come to mind. I personally booked all three of these mistake fares. The last two were honored, while the first was not.
There's always a possibility that mistake fares will be canceled within 48 hours, but booking them when they're convenient doesn't hurt. The best way to find out about mistake fares is to follow @TheFlightDeal on Twitter or keep an eye out on the FlyerTalk forums.
It takes a bit of work, but leveraging rewards currency and following the travel hacking world can make travel to Europe and beyond much more affordable. What's more, you can travel more comfortably and use your freed up travel budget to enjoy all that Europe has to offer.
See: How to Get Upgraded on Your Next Flight
Ariana is a travel writer who enjoys helping others navigate the world of travel hacking though her blog, PointChaser. You can follow Ariana on Twitter or connect with her on Google+.