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Europe in 5 cities for 50,000 AAdvantage miles + $168

Zurich, Berlin, Oslo, Helsinki, London in 12 days out of San Francisco Airport. I was surprised at how much of Europe I could visit on one trip using 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles for three one-way economy class award tickets and no other transportation except to and from airports on city trains, trams and busses.

No car travel.

Miles and miles of walking.

Lesson #1  Travel with two small bags and a small backpack if you plan to walk with your luggage.

In Oslo, London and Chicago overnight layovers I  traveled without my one checked bag.

Common in all the European cities were small sporty packs,  stylish and colorful or women carrying handbags.

My wife says she won’t wear a backpack. She is a purse kind of girl.

Just saying nobody is snatching my camera, computer and phone off my back as easily as taking a purse from her hand. I am cautious when traveling, rarely worried. Nobody has ever robbed me traveling.

Unless you arrange transportation suitable for larger luggage, then you are limited to two small roller bags and a small backpack to be free to easily travel on public transportation. One small roller bag is better, but difficult to do in winter or for extended trips of more than a week.

Two fully packed bags need to be easily manageable carrying up a flight of stairs.

European cities depend on the underground transportation network. Most places require using stairs some of the time to move down under and get back up again from the train system. There are frequently escalators and sometimes elevators, but not always. Getting around on public transportation means you need to be able to easily carry all your luggage up or down stairs.

Escalators are common. Tourist 101 to know in Europe and especially Germany is the sight of an escalator not moving does not mean it is not working. In the USA we see an escalator not moving and walk directly to the stairs. In Germany and much of Europe, electricity is used only when needed. Many escalators  are set to only start once a person steps on. Hotel corridors commonly have lights that only turn on when motion detected.

I came across one escalator in Berlin not moving and the escalator actually did not work when I stepped on it.


Small roller bag, light, easily lifted up stairs. Black backpack for Europe travel. A third slightly larger roller bag was my checked bag.

Minutes before departure on March 3, 2013 Fiona sits under my trench coat and Theron looks on.

The rolling bag I have is a $40 Jansport from Ross. It also has straps for backpack conversion. This bag carried a pair of shoes, goretex raincoat and clothes for two days. Temperatures dropped to 10-15 F with wind chill factor on a few days in Berlin, Oslo and Helsinki.

Backpack on left, also from Ross for $20, held:

  • laptop,
  • cameras,
  • extra camera lens,
  • electrical cords,
  • water bottle,
  • paper/notebook for writing,
  • sunglasses and spare glasses
  • phone
  • toiletries
  • weight about 10-12 pounds (5 kilos)with full water bottle.

12 days itinerary (March 3-15, 2013)

Hotel Stay #1:

San Francisco, California (March 3)

Holiday Inn Express San Francisco Airport North

Cost: Free


Free hotel night at San Francisco with IHG Best Price Guarantee approved claim. I drove 105 miles to SFO from Monterey the night before 7:05 am flight.


AAdvantage Award Ticket #1

San Francisco – New York – Zurich – Berlin for 20,000 AAdvantage milers + $31.30. American Airlines AAdvantage Economy MileSAAver Off-Peak Award.

Monday, March 4

Ticket #1, Flight # 1

San Francisco-New York American Airlines.

  • Flight Time: 5 hours 30 minutes.
  • Flight Distance: 2,586 miles.

Visited JFK American Airlines lounge as AA Platinum elite (50,000 miles level) with Oneworld Sapphire privileges. Given one complimentary drink coupon upon entry.

I was able to access airline lounges at each European airport I traveled from prior to departing the country.

Monday, March 4

Ticket #1, Flight #2:

New York JFK – ZRH, Zurich, Switzerland

American Airlines.

  • Flight Time: 7 hours 55 minutes.
  • Flight Distance: 3,931 miles.

6 hour 55 minutes layover in Zurich, Switzerland. I spent 2 hours 45 minutes walking in downtown Zurich on Tuesday, March 5.


Ganymede statue at Lake Zurich waterfront.

Airport Train Transportation: ZRH – central Zurich = 13.20 CHF Swiss francs = $14.46 USD for roundtrip 2nd class train. Travel time 15 minutes into Zurich city center.

Visited Radisson Blu Zurich Airport hotel and enjoyed Swiss beer in oneworld lounge before the Air Berlin flight.

Tuesday, March 5

Ticket #1, Flight #3

Zurich XRH-TXL Berlin, Germany Tegel Airport, Air Berlin

  • Flight Time: 1 hours 25 minutes.
  • Flight Distance: 410 miles.

Six days in Berlin for ITB Berlin 2013 travel trade show.

Berlin Transportation

28 euros = $37 USD to buy a 7-day Berlin travel pass for unlimited rides on city metro system including U-bahn subway, S-bahn trams and city busses including to and from Berlin Tegel Airport. The card is a savings on single fare tickets once you reach the 12th ride. Single fare ticket price = 2.40 euros.

Tuesday, March 5

Hotel Stay #2

Holiday Inn Alexanderplatz, Berlin

4 nights on Points & Cash award.

This new hotel located in the center of Berlin adjacent to Alexanderplatz shares the building with Hotel Indigo, another IHG hotel brand. Hotel is 250 meter walk from U-bahn subway station Alexanderplatz.

The hotel award category dropped from 15,000 points to 10,000 points per night in  January 2013 Priority Club hotel award category changes.

Originally I booked four nights at this hotel using Priority Club Points & Cash award buying 10,000 points for $70 each night and redeeming 5,000 points per night.

Original reservation was 20,000 points + $280 for a 4-night award stay.

After the hotel dropped in price in January, I cancelled the first reservation and 60,000 points deposited back into my account.

Then I rebooked the hotel for 40,000 points for four nights.

My Cost = $70 per night.

Lowest published rate 129.25 euros = $170 per night.

Savings on four night hotel stay buying Priority Club points = $400.

Saturday, March 9

Hotel Stay #3

Radisson Blu Berlin

2 nights on Club Carlson 2-for-1 weekend rate 160 euros = $210.

My cost = $105 per night.


Aquadom in Radisson Blu Berlin is world’s largest cylindrical aquarium holdng one million liters of water.

Club Carlson Gold elite member access to 2-for-1 exclusive rates provided savings = $210.

This hotel was 500 meters walk from Holiday Inn Alexanderplatz.

Award Ticket #2

Berlin-Oslo-Helsinki = 10,000 AAdvantage miles + $57.10  within Europe economy award.

Monday, March 11

Ticket #2, Flight # 1:

Air Berlin. Berlin, Germany TXL-OSL, Oslo, Norway.

  • Flight Time: 1 hours 35 minutes.
  • Flight Distance: 535 miles.

Lounge access at Berlin Oneworld  lounge before Air Berlin flight to Oslo.

International layover in Oslo = 22 hours 15 minutes.

Oslo Gardemoen Airport Train OSL to Oslo city center = 90 Norwegian kroner = $16 one-way for local train. Travel time 25 to 30 minutes. Flytoget Express train 170 NOK = $30 one way. Express train travel time = 20 minutes.

Central train station to Radisson Blu Plaza Oslo was 100 meter walk by train station side door.


Monday, March 11

Hotel Stay #4

Radisson Blu Plaza, Oslo

50,000 Club Carlson points for one night with category 6 hotel award.

Published room rate at time of booking = $351.37.

Value of points:

$351.37 / 50,000 points = $7.02 per 1,000 points.

My cost for points = about $100 during one of the Club Carlson promotions for 50,000 points for one night Radisson stay promotions in 2011 and 2012.


View from swimming pool room 35th floor Radisson Blu Plaza Oslo

Tuesday, March 12

Ticket # 2, Flight #2


Oslo, Norway OSL-HEL Helsinki, Finland

  • Flight Time: 1 hours 25 minutes.
  • Flight Distance: 476 miles.

Helsinki as my award ticket destination meant I could have stayed longer, but lack of AAdvantage saver award availability meant a stay longer than one night increased the cost of the award ticket to 20,000 miles.

Helsinki stopover for 22 hours and 0 minutes.

Finnair Oslo-Helsinki flight departed 40 minutes late. I stayed in Oneworld lounge in Oslo for about 1 hour 45 minutes writing Loyalty Traveler, drinking Norwegian beer and eating food. Based on dining prices in Oslo the Ringnes pilsner beer and salmon sandwiches made this airport lounge visit a $100 value.


Adore this 24 hour sun photo collage at Oslo Airport oneworld lounge.

My flight arrived  one hour late and I lost an hour with the time zone difference. I was on the Finnair bus by 8:15pm and needed to be back at the airport for a 7:30 pm flight to London the next day.

Helsinki Vantaa Airport Transportation

Finnair Bus = 6.30 euros ($8.25 USD) one-way to central train station. Local bus 4.50 euros. Either bus option leaves every 20 minutes and ride takes 20 minutes. Helsinki Vantaa is scheduled to open train service in 2014.

Tuesday, March 12

Hotel stay #5

Hotel Kämp, Starwood Hotels Luxury Collection, Helsinki, Finland

Hotel was 500 meter walk from central train station Helsinki. This was a tougher walk with all the gravel and ice on the sidewalks jamming up luggage wheels.

My cost:

SPG category 5 Cash & Points award using one SPG suite upgrade certificate for one night = 68.37 euros + 4,800 points.

68.37 euros = $89.43.


Hotel Kämp, Suite 411, Helsinki, Finland

SPG elite member late checkout privilege until 4pm at Hotel Kämp was a great benefit for my Helsinki stay.

AAdvantage Award Ticket #3

Helsinki-London-Chicago-San Francisco for 20,000 AAdvantage milers + $79.60. American Airlines AAdvantage Economy MileSAAver Off-Peak Award.

Wednesday, March 13

Ticket #3, Flight #1 Helsinki, Finland, HEL-LHR, London, UK.


  • Flight Time: 3 hours 10 minutes.
  • Flight Distance: 1,151 miles.

Finnair lounge in Helsinki at Gate 36 was another stylish location.


Finnair Lounge, Gate 36 Helsinki Vantaa Airport

London Transportation

London Underground single fare ticket 5.50 GBP ($8.32 USD) for London Heathrow Airport to Westminster Station central London. Paid with debit card.

Travel time: 1 hour with change of train. LHR to Hammersmith on Piccadilly tube line. Change to District line for Westminster.


View of Big Ben from Westminster Underground Station.

London layover: 20 hours 35 minutes.

Wednesday, March 13

Hotel Stay # 6

Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, London

My cost: 50,000 Club Carlson points for one night using category 6 award. Published rates 200 GBP or $300 USD.

Hotel 200 meter walk from Westminster Underground station.


View from corner of my 10th floor room at Park Plaza Westminster Bridge.

Time on ground in central London 10:00pm to 2:00pm following day for 16 hours of sleeping and walking.

Back to London Heathrow Airport on Underground for 5.50 GBP. I was given three boarding passes at Helsinki check-in so I went directly through security and entered the Cathay Pacific airport lounge by 3:30 pm before my 5:15 flight.

The Cathay Pacific lounge had Chinese, Thai and Indian food dishes and I had a nice London Pride beer.

Thursday, March 14

Ticket #3, Flight #2.

London, UK LHR-ORD, Chicago, USA .

American Airlines

  • Flight Time: 9 hours 0 minutes.
  • Flight Distance: 3,953 miles.

Thursday, March 14

Hotel Stay #7

Holiday Inn Chicago Ohare area, Northbrook, IL

My cost = free on IHG Best Price Guarantee approved claim.

For an airport hotel this property seemed to have a totally inadequate transportation shuttle for the eight hours I was there. Far more guests needing transportation than the hotel shuttle was capable of carrying and only runs every 45 minutes.

Friday, March 15

Ticket #3, Flight #3.

Chicago, Illinois – San Francisco, California.

American Airlines

  • Flight Time: 4 hours 50 minutes.
  • Flight Distance: 1,846 miles.

My one checked bag did not arrive with me. The bag came to SFO six hours after me. Still not delivered to Monterey after 36 hours. Update: Bag delivered to my home 48 hours after I arrived in Monterey. This is my roaming bag. This is the same suitcase that traveled to Miami Beach at Christmas without my wife accompanying it on the same itinerary.

12 days car parking at SFO = $100.

Total Airline Tickets Cost = 50,000 American Airlines + $168 USD.

Total Hotel Cost = $580.

Total Ground Transportation Cost for travel to and from airports and around cities = $116.60 for Zurich, Berlin, Oslo, Helsinki and London.

Only three hotel nights of 11 included breakfast. I ate and had beverages in six different airport lounges.

Money spent on food and drink during 12 day trip = $200 USD. All grocery store purchased food in Europe, except for one Asian restaurant noodle meal per day in Berlin.

Kelley does not like to travel with me in this kind of style as a poverty jet setter. The trip would have cost much more with her accompanying me.

The cost of five new car tires is where I am putting the bulk of my discretionary spending this month.

The only item I purchased in Europe for Kelley were handmade silver earrings from Libya purchased at their tourism booth during the ITB Berlin travel convention.

My objective for this trip was to experience more than just a week in Berlin with my American Airlines AAdvantage miles award ticket flights.

Using my miles and hotel points, I was able to attend the ITB Berlin conference and visit four other countries in Europe on a 12 day trip for under $1,200.

Total Flight Time: 34 hours 30 minutes.

Total Flight Miles: 14,888 miles.

Airports Visited:

  • San Francisco SFO
  • New York JFK
  • Zurich ZRH
  • Berlin Tegel TXL
  • Oslo  Gardemoen OSL
  • Helsinki Vantaa HEL
  • London Heathrow LHR
  • Chicago OHare ORD

Countries visited:

  • Switzerland
  • Germany
  • Norway
  • Finland
  • Untied Kingdom

Hotel points earned = 15,926 points in Club Carlson with paid stay at Berlin Radisson Blu during triple points promotion.

This trip is a description of the value I get with points and miles loyalty programs for my travels.

These kind of experiences using points and miles to save on cash expenditures are why I am a loyalty traveler.


  • James K. March 17, 2013

    Thanks so much for this detailed report!

  • Daniel C March 17, 2013

    Bravo! Beautiful trip report full of real world, current and very actionable tips. Thank you so much!

  • Rik March 17, 2013

    DId you do all this with your wife or solo? Kudos if she came along for the ride!

  • i love that word poverty jetsetter!! great trip report.. I will be staying in Hotel Kamp in Helsinki as well in Oct so this was pretty useful. I thought there was a train station from HEL to the central train station??

  • SA March 17, 2013

    I always enjoy reading your posts because there are detailed and thorough. This one was, but also succinct. I am assuming the flights were in coach? Were you upgraded/offered an upgrade? Or did you just make it work? I ask because I will be traveling soon long distance in economy on points, and hoping to make it. Thanks.

  • P T March 17, 2013

    Love it! Thanks for report.

  • A6BN March 17, 2013

    You really got amazing value from the minimum amount of miles and points. Thank you for the excellent post.

  • Sarah March 17, 2013

    I thought Aadvantage award redemption within Europe is 15,000 miles or is there an off season rate here? Kudos for you piecing this all together, even though one night stops are not my idea of fun.

  • TWA44 March 17, 2013

    Great post! I wish I could do more travel during off peak times. I see from your website that you do not help with readers’ bookings. I know a few of the bloggers I read do make additional money helping others book award travel. Would you be willing to recommend a few bloggers/companies that do that? I think I could handle the hotel piece but might benefit from some help squeaking the most mileage out of my points/miles, especially since I travel most often during peak times. Thanks for any suggestions you can offer and also for this great post.

  • Lively March 17, 2013

    I appreciate your report, too. We will be doing what you did: 3 cities in 3 days (23 hours each city). I’m a little apprehensive now that it is getting closer. Hope it works out as well as your did.

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  • Ariana March 17, 2013

    Nice! Do you get stay credit for that Holiday Inn SF Airport stay?

  • Pan March 17, 2013

    Can’t add add the 2 segments of your ticket #2 (txl-Osl-hel) to your ticket #3 and save the 10,000 miles for ticket two ? Since you stop in osl and hel for less than 24 hours. Is it due to the no of segments restrictions for aa awards? I believe this can be done with UA award.

  • Carl P March 17, 2013

    Do you have the Club Carlson credit card? Using that hotel stays 4 and 6 could have had a second night free. Or maybe that just didn’t fit into the plans

  • Ron B. March 17, 2013

    Di you try to ticket both ticket #2 & #3 on one 20k ticket? You’re flying OneWorld carriers with all < 24 stopovers.

  • Ric Garrido March 17, 2013

    This itinerary was pieced together using the booking website. I tried to ticket the segments on one 20K ticket. The only way I could work in London without big taxes for the layover was through Helsinki.

    There might have been a way to do it only using 20K, but I didn’t see it. I had five segments going Berlin to San Francisco. I don’t know if you can do a 5-segment one way on an AA award.

    I really am more focused on hotels and I have been out of this maximizing international flights game for several years.

  • MDR March 17, 2013

    LOL typo “Amexanderplatz”, made even more humorous since you are not into credit card pimping…

  • Ric Garrido March 17, 2013

    @Carl P. – Club Carlson credit card free award night would not have helped in this case. These cities were only possible as international award airport layovers for less than 24 hours before flying to the next city.

    Helsinki was the only city where I could have stayed longer, but I was already set on staying at Starwood Hotels Hotel Kamp and I would have stayed there longer if I had a second night.

    The last night free awards are a fantastic benefit for Club Carlson credit card. I plan to get the credit card in 2013 primarily for that benefit.

    I saw a Radisson Blu in Helsinki just one block away from the central train station. That is a nice area for a tourist by the train station. The restaurants and shopping and sites are all nearby and the train station area was not scummy at all in Helsinki.

  • Ric Garrido March 17, 2013

    @ Jamison – Poverty Jet Setter is a term I picked up from Doug Coupland’s book Generation X.

  • Ric Garrido March 17, 2013

    @MDR – Spell check does not work in my WordPress, so I rely on being a good speller. I spell better than I type though.

  • Scott March 17, 2013

    Not so fast! You claim to be in London in January, but the photo of Big Ben from your corner room shows sunshine!

    Seriously, How well did you know the places you were traveling to/through? How far in advance did you book? What’s your language fluency for these countries? This is something I’d love to try, and I understand that many Europeans speak English, but I’d like to try not to be the Ugly American.

    Thanks for the report and very informative. There’s enough here that I feel like I could replicate a similar trip without too many problems!

  • Marcus March 17, 2013

    Thanks for the detailed post on how to get the most out of Europe for the lowest miles and money. I’ll definitely share this with my readers.

    The comment on how your trip would cost a lot more if Kelley accompanied you made me laugh. Povery jet setter, indeed!

  • Ric Garrido March 18, 2013

    @Scott – I was in London Wednesday and Thursday March 13-14 this past week; not January.

    I visited the same area of London for 9 days in 1989. That is how well I know the Westminster area. The London Eye had not been built yet.

    Berlin Alexanderplatz is a place I last visited in 2000. I was in Dresden, Germany in 2007. I lived in Germany as US military brat teenager. I never learned much German which shows when I try to order from a restaurant menu.

    This was my first time to Norway and Finland and I don’t know any words in those languages.

    I booked my hotels the week before I left for Berlin.

    I am not sure what you mean about your comment “The Ugly American”. Most tourists to Norway and Finland will not know the local language. South America is a tough place to travel without knowing Spanish. Europe is not too difficult only knowing English.

    Be polite is the number one rule for travelers, wherever you are.

    Some people research their travel destination extensively. I read a little information, but seriously, I just go and figure out what to do and how things work when I get there. Cities are generally set up for tourists with information booths and people to help you get from the airport and train stations to your destination.

    I occasionally stop in hotels to ask questions, get directions and maps. Hotels generally have someone who speaks English well and has a map.

  • Ric Garrido March 18, 2013

    Ariana – I did get stay credit for the San Francisco Airport Best Price Guarantee room. For some reason I had to pay and then IHG reimbursed me for the room payment. I deposited their reimbursement check yesterday. My other Best Price Guarantee free rooms posted as nonqualifying stays. I stayed in the hotel and made no payments for the room stay.

  • M March 18, 2013

    Is the two small roller bags vs. one big bag restriction imposed by the local transport or just a recommendation?

  • Ron B. March 18, 2013

    Ric – I recently booked a six segment AA award including AA, Finnair & Air Berlin on one ticket with stopover in BOS to visit family. Did need to call AA to get it done & pay $25 fee per ticket. But was only 20k pp.

  • Ric Garrido March 18, 2013

    @M – a recommendation. I was on several buses where a thin rollerbag could fit in the overhead on the bus. A larger bag is a pain to carry up stairs and a pain to get inside trams and busses and sometimes trains.

  • Jackie March 19, 2013

    Hi Ric. Have been reading your blog for a few years & enjoy it! Have a similar perspective on travel. Liked your term poverty jet setter – made me laugh & think of how my husband & I call ourselves hobos as an inside joke when we travel and get spg suite upgrades & airport and hotel lounge access while doing lots of other very economical things to save money in order to travel in a fun and often luxurious style. I love taking public transport to/from the airport to save money & time. And we pride ourselves on having only carryon bags on most trips & ALWAYS being able to handle our own bags. We even pack a toaster wrapped in bubble wrap and packed into a shoebox on some long domestic trips, but I realize that might be pushing the hobo thing a bit too far!!! In the midst of 2 free nights in NYC right now courtesy of the hyatt visa credit card sign up & this am enjoyed a lavish complementary breakfast at the Andaz on 5th ave overlooking the NYC library. How? I completed a diamond challenge in the fall based on my spg plat status & have reaped hundreds of dollars in hyatt diamond perks, points, & upgrade benefits already! Oh, the life of a hobo!

  • Ric Garrido March 19, 2013

    @Jackie – A couple of years ago some bloggers suggested I call myself the HotelHobo. The domain name was available as we sat in the bar. The next week it was gone.

    Hobo is an apt term for me. I work enough to pay for my travel and travel enough to not feel I work too hard.

    Poverty Jet Set is a phrase from Canadian writer Doug Coupland’s book Generation X.
    Page 6: “Poverty Jet Set: A group of people given to chronic traveling at the expense of long-term job stability or a permanent residence. Tend to have doomed and extremely expensive phone-call relationships with people named Serge or Ilyana. Tend to discuss frequent-flyer programs at parties.”

    The book was written in 1991 before email and Skype made those long-distance relationships so much more affordable.

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  • Hilde July 28, 2013

    Ric I will be staying at the Alexander Platz Holiday Inn in Sept. were you able to get breakfast included? It seems to be very steep. If you ate breakfast somewhere else, can you please post?
    How did you get free rooms through Best PRICE guarantee? I am not familiar with this.

  • Ric Garrido July 28, 2013

    @Hilde – Breakfast was not included. I bought food at the supermarket in Alexanderplatz and ate on my commute across the city to the Berlin Messe at the staions waiting for subway trains.

    There are several fast food places and cafes around Alexanderplatz for dining.

    IHG has a best rate guarantee policy that a room locted within 24 hours after booking the same room type through IHG includes a rate match and first night free.

    I found the rate discrepancy through a search, booked a room with no penalty cancellation on the room through IHG, and then submitted a claim for the free night. My one hotel night stay at SFO was free.

  • Hilde July 28, 2013

    One more question about the best rate guarantee. Do you have to book the trip at IHG for $$ rather than points for you to file a claim if you find it cheaper?

  • Ric Garrido July 29, 2013

    You have to book a published cash rate with IHG to apply the Best Rate Guarantee to a lower published rate on a different website like or other online travel agency within 24 hours of making your IHG reservation.

Comments are closed.