Airline rewards cards and travel credit cards allow you to earn free flights, sometimes much faster than you can with a simple cash back credit card. Using miles to pay for your flights can make budgeting for your dream vacation much easier.
You can earn credit card rewards to get free flights in the following ways:
— Earning cash back on purchases with cash back credit cards.
— Earning miles on purchases with travel credit cards.
— Earning points on purchases with credit cards that allow you to transfer points to airline partner programs.
— Earning miles on purchases with airline credit cards.
— Earning cash back, miles or points with credit card sign-up bonuses.
— Earning miles through special programs or promotions.
Earning Rewards With Your Purchases
To book a free flight, you need to earn the points or miles required to pay for the flight. You can earn airline miles for the purchases you make every day, such as 1 mile for every dollar you spend, by using a credit card that offers miles for the airline of your choice, says Stephanie Hammell, wealth advisor at LPL Financial.
“I believe with thorough planning, the strategy of using reward points on credit cards for travel is completely effective,” she says.
The number of miles you earn per dollar spent varies based on the credit card and maybe on the category of your purchase. For example, you might earn 3 miles per dollar on airline purchases with a specific airline, 2 miles per dollar for restaurants and hotel accommodations, and 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases. It could take a lot of time for miles to add up to enough for a free flight if you’re only relying on the miles you earn on your purchases, says Hammell. Thankfully, you can earn miles in other ways, too.
[Read: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards]
Earning Points With Sign-Up Bonuses
If you want to earn airline miles quickly, a sign-up bonus could accelerate earnings. Credit card sign-up bonuses can be worth tens of thousands of points. It’s not uncommon to see cards that offer 60,000 miles or more for signing up and then spending a few thousand dollars with them in the first few months. That would take $30,000 of spending to achieve if you were earning 2 miles per dollar on purchases.
With a sign-up bonus, you can earn the same number of miles with a fraction of the spending. “Whichever cards you choose to sign up for, be sure that you know of the spending requirements required in order to earn the maximum bonus,” says David Bakke, writer and contributor at personal finance website Money Crashers.
If you don’t spend the required amount within the allotted time frame, you get nothing other than the points you earned for your purchases. For example, if your card offers 2 miles per dollar and a 50,000-mile bonus when you spend $3,000 within the first three months, you’ll earn 5,000 miles if you spend only $2,500 during the bonus period. But if you spend $3,000, you’ll earn 56,000 miles between the bonus and regular miles earning.
Even so, Bakke says you shouldn’t make purchases beyond your usual spending to qualify for a sign-up bonus. If you do, the extra money you spend may end up outweighing the benefit of the sign-up bonus.
If there are multiple adults in your household, a sign-up bonus doesn’t have to be a one-time bonus. Hammell says, “I also had my significant other get the same credit cards. This can basically double the amount of points you’re getting.” This strategy can help you build up enough miles to pay for flights much faster than only getting one card per couple.
How to Redeem Credit Card Rewards for Free Flights
Each credit card and airline may have its own points or miles redemption options.
If your credit card earns airline miles or allows you to transfer points to an airline miles program, you usually redeem your rewards through the airline’s booking system. Each airline has its own way of calculating how many miles you need for a flight. Some airlines base the number of miles needed on the cost of the flight. Others use the distance your flight travels or the zones your flight travels between to determine the cost in miles. You can learn more about the specifics of how miles work in U.S. News’ airline miles guide.
Another option is a travel rewards credit card that allows you to earn miles you can then redeem for a travel statement credit. The travel statement credit can offset the cost of booking your flight. Credit cards that focus on travel statement credits tend to offer about the same value as the top cash back credit cards. Technically, you can use a cash back credit card to book free flights, too. Simply save the cash back you earn until you have enough to pay for your flight.
Even though understanding how to get a free flight is more straightforward with cash back cards, it usually takes longer to earn flights with them than with an airline co-branded card. Additionally, you don’t get to take advantage of unique pricing opportunities that boost the value of your airline miles.
For example, a round-trip business class Delta flight from Seattle to Tokyo could cost 120,000 miles plus taxes and fees, roughly the equivalent of a $1,200 value. If the same round-trip flight costs $4,586 plus taxes and fees, that’s a major savings if you’re able to pay with miles instead of money.
[Read: Best Airline Credit Cards.]
Free Flights With Companion Certificates or Companion Passes
Certain airline credit cards give you the ability to earn a companion certificate or a more valuable companion pass. For example, the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express offers a companion certificate each year when you renew your card. The companion certificate allows a person to fly with you on one round-trip main cabin domestic flight for free, with the exception of taxes and fees. However, the renewal comes with a $195 annual fee, too.
Southwest allows you to earn an even more valuable perk: the Companion Pass. A Companion Pass allows a designated companion to fly with you for free, except for the cost of taxes and fees, whenever you purchase a ticket on Southwest for yourself. To earn a Companion Pass, you have to fly 100 qualifying one-way flights with Southwest or earn 110,000 qualifying Rapid Rewards points with credit card spending or flights within a year. Points earned through credit card sign-up bonuses and on purchases count toward this requirement, allowing you to earn a Companion Pass even faster.
Unique Ways to Earn Miles
While sign-up bonuses and purchases are some of the most common ways to earn airline miles, there are a handful of other methods to help you build your miles balance faster.
You may want to sign up for dining rewards programs your airline or credit card offers, as those purchases often result in earning extra miles, says Bakke. In United’s MileagePlus Dining program, you pay with your registered credit or debit card at participating restaurants and earn up to 5 miles per dollar spent.
Credit card companies can even allow you to earn miles without making purchases. Barclaycard awards miles for completing your travel community profile and additional miles for telling travel stories within its online community.
Companies sometimes run promotions where you can earn an airline’s miles when you make purchases with that company. For instance, you can link your Delta SkyMiles account to Lyft and earn 1 mile per dollar on normal Lyft rides and 2 miles per dollar on airport Lyft rides.
[Read: Best Rewards Credit Cards.]
Make Sure Your Free Flights Aren’t Costing You Too Much
Free flights are amazing, but only when they’re actually free or close to it. Because using a credit card to earn rewards is one of the main ways to get free flights, you need to be careful that you aren’t paying for those flights.
“Make sure that you always pay off the balance on time and in full so you don’t end up in credit card debt,” says Bakke. The interest you pay for carrying a balance, as well as any other credit card fees you may have to pay, reduce the value of your free flights. If you’re not careful, you might end up paying more in interest and fees than the value of the flights you thought you were getting for free.
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