If you dream of seeing Europe but your time and budget are limited, consider planning a cruise. Mediterranean and Adriatic cruises with stops in Spain, Italy, Croatia, and Greece are particularly popular, but you could also cruise through the Norwegian Fjords or through greater Scandinavia. River trips with brands like Viking River Cruises are also well-liked since they let you traverse smaller waterways and get up close and personal with some of Europe’s most beautiful cities.
But why cruising? Most cruises offer a lot of bang for your buck since they let you see more than one destination for a single price. Pay for flights to your departure city and your cruise fare, and you get to wake up in a new place for a unique adventure every day. Food, some drinks, and entertainment are also included on cruises, making them an especially good deal. (See also: 10 Little-Known Secrets to Saving Money On Your Next Cruise)
Still, the term “good deal” is relative since European cruises aren’t exactly cheap. Plus, you have to pay for international flights upfront, which could easily add thousands of dollars to the cost of your trip.
If your goal is seeing as much as you can for as little as possible, it’s wise to come up with a comprehensive plan to use travel rewards. With the right travel credit cards and some patience, you could even book this trip for $1,000 or less. Here’s how:
Pay for flights to your departure city with airline miles
For the purpose of this example, let’s say you’re a family of four. You need to cover transportation expenses for four people and a cruise cabin big enough to accommodate your family.
The first step to planning this trip is making sure you have the airline miles to cover your flights. Fortunately, there are several ways to get to Europe on the cheap — even if there are multiple people in your party.
One of the easiest rewards programs to pay for flights to Europe is Air France/Flying Blue. While this airline doesn’t have its own co-branded airline credit card, you can transfer points to this program from several other popular credit card rewards programs.
While Air France/Flying Blue no longer publishes an award chart, one-way economy flights to Europe are typically just 25,000 miles. This means that a family of four could fly round-trip for just 200,000 miles, plus airline taxes and fees.
Those fees usually amount to between $100 and $125 per person, though they can be higher, especially in London. For most destination airports, however, your family will pay $400-$500 in airline taxes in addition to your miles. Considering that round-trip economy flights can cost $1,500 each or more, this represents a huge savings.
To rack up the miles you need, you’ll want to sign up for flexible rewards cards that let you transfer points to airlines, and in particular, to this program. While 200,000 miles is a lot, you could earn these miles easily with some time and with both spouses earning their own signup bonuses.
You could also opt for airline-specific rewards, including the American AAdvantage program. This frequent flyer program is fairly easy to accumulate miles with, since several credit cards earn American AAdvantage miles. Off-peak MileSAAver flights to Europe, which can be booked from November through April with blackout dates over the holidays, are only 22,500 miles each way plus airline taxes and fees. (See also: 6 Money-Saving Items to Bring On Your Next Cruise)
Shop around for an affordable cruise and matching available flights
Your next step is comparing cruises to find the best deal. While many cruise lines offer similar itineraries in Europe, their prices can be all over the board.
If you’re cruising with kids and need a cruise line that’s family-friendly, you can look for a cruise line that lets kids cruise for free. MSC Cruises offers numerous options out of various European cities such as Venice, Italy and Barcelona, Spain. Kids ages 11 and under cruise free on many of their itineraries.
Use a travel portal like Expedia.com to search for inexpensive cruises, then try to line up potential cruises with airfare you can swing based on award availability.
Let’s say you find ideal flights into and out of Venice, Italy for the month you want to travel. From there, you can look for cruises that embark from this cruise port on your preferred dates using an online search engine.
Cover your hotels
You may want to fly into the cruise port a day or two early to get your bearings and make sure a flight delay doesn’t cause you to miss your cruise. You may also want to stay a night in your departure city once your cruise is over. In either case, you’ll want to earn some rewards to cover a few nights in a hotel.
Co-branded hotel credit cards can work splendidly in this regard, although the card you should get will depend on the city you need to stay in. In Venice, for example, the IHG Rewards program could be a good option. You can book the Holiday Inn Venice — Mestre Marghera, which is on the mainland and fairly close to the airport and public transportation, for just 20,000 points per night.
Cover your cruise with flexible rewards
Once your flights and potential overnight stays are covered, you’ll need to rack up rewards to cover your cruise. The best way to do this is by earning flexible rewards points you can redeem for any type of travel.
There are several credit cards that offer big signup bonuses and two points for every dollar you spend. These cards let you redeem points for statement credits to pay for any type of travel, including cruises. When you redeem, you’ll get a rate of one cent per point.
This is where pricing is important. If you’re redeeming rewards for a cruise at one cent per point, more affordable cruises will be easier to cover with points.
Fortunately, there are many inexpensive cruises you can book in Europe. With Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, you can book an inside cabin for myriad cruises out of cities like Venice and Rome for less than $2,500. Meanwhile, MSC Cruises offers cruise deals out of European cities for slightly less on itineraries where kids cruise free.
Keep in mind, however, that even “free cruises” for kids come with government taxes and fees. Also, most cruise lines charge gratuities that are added to your onboard account at the end of your cruise.
Ideally, you will book an affordable cruise you love for less than $2,500 all-in. If both you and your spouse or partner sign up for cards with big signup bonuses, you could easily rack up $2,000 in flexible travel credit over the span of a year.
Cover the difference and enjoy all the free food and entertainment on your ship, and you could end up with your out-of-pocket expenses at $500 or less.
Book cruise excursions with rewards
You can get off your ship and look for free things to do, but it’s likely you’ll want to maximize your time in Europe while you’re there. One of the best ways to cover excursions in Europe is to sign up for a credit card that earns points that can be used for cruise excursions. One particularly popular program offers many of the same cruise excursions you can book through Viator.com and ones that are similar to what you can book via your cruise line. The difference is, you can book with rewards points and save your cash for something else.
But what kinds of trips can you book? It really depends on your cruise stops and your interests, but nearly anything you want to do is a solid possibility. From vegan food tours in Barcelona, to skip-the-line access to the Colosseum in Rome or a Game of Thrones tour in Dubrovnik, Croatia, credit card rewards bring Europe’s greatest treasures and cities within reach. (See also: Once-in-a-Lifetime Experiences I’ve Booked With Credit Card Rewards)
Following this plan, you’ll pay $400-$500 for flight taxes and fees for your family, plus an estimated $500 on cruise expenses, putting your total for this trip at a very modest $1,000 or less for a family of four. To make it work, get to work earning those credit card rewards.