How to Fly for (Nearly) Free With Travel Rewards

CREDIT CARDS - TRAVEL CREDIT CARDS
Credit card rewards can help you travel more and spend less.
Updated April 16, 2024
Fact checked
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We often use airline frequent flyer programs and credit card rewards to earn award flights that get us around the U.S. and even the world, and you can do it too.

We like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card for the value and flexibility of the rewards it offers. But if you prefer a card with a $0 annual fee, we recommend the Wells Fargo Autograph℠ Card.

Here’s how you can use these or other credit cards along with airline programs to fly almost for free.

In this article

How to fly for free (or cheap) with travel rewards

Learning how to fly for free is easy to start with. Once you gain baseline knowledge, you’ll be on your way to traveling more and spending less.

Here are seven steps you can take to get there:

  1. Sign up for airline frequent flyer programs
  2. Sign up for a travel credit card
  3. Get an airline’s co-branded credit card
  4. Join dining programs
  5. Leverage shopping portals
  6. Maximize the value of your travel redemptions
  7. Look for other travel benefits from credit card issuers

1. Sign up for airline frequent flyer programs

Almost every airline offers a loyalty rewards program, but to start accumulating points or miles, you need to create an account with them. This is typically a free process that you can do via the airline’s website.

Rather than signing up for every airline you come across, concentrate on those you frequently use or have used in the past. Upon joining an airline’s program, you’ll receive a frequent flyer number.

This number isn’t just for direct bookings. You can also use it when booking flights through third-party platforms like online travel agencies. So, remember to input your frequent flyer number during the booking process to ensure you’re earning points or miles for your journey.

Tip
You can also look at airlines that have a strong presence at the airport nearest to you. If one or more airlines concentrate a lot of traffic through your city, it may be worth starting to build points or miles with them.

In addition to accumulating points or miles, frequent flyer programs often feature exclusive elite status tiers. These tiers unlock a wealth of additional benefits when you travel. The specific perks you receive can vary based on the program and the level of elite status you achieve. These perks may include:

  • Priority check-in and boarding
  • Free checked bags
  • Bonus miles
  • Discounted or waived flight change fees
  • Complimentary upgrades
  • Companion upgrades
  • Dedicated customer service lines

2. Sign up for a travel credit card

Many of the best travel credit cards can help you earn points or miles on your travel and everyday spending. Depending on the card, you could use your rewards to book flights directly through the card issuer's travel platform or transfer them to an airline’s frequent flyer program and book flights from there.

There are several factors to consider when you're choosing the best travel credit cards for your needs:

  • Welcome offer: Many travel credit cards can help you earn lucrative welcome offers, potentially worth hundreds of dollars when used for travel. However, you typically need to spend a specified amount within a specific period to earn the bonus.

Perspectives
Yahia Barakah, CEPF
Yahia Barakah, CEPF
Editor

Yahia Barakah, CEPF, is a Senior Editor at FinanceBuzz and has created finance-focused content since 2011. As a Certified Educator of Personal Finance, he has a background in institutional investment and asset management, as well as a deep passion for financial literacy.
HOW I EARNED AN AWARD FLIGHT TO TURKEY

I qualified for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card in 2023, which allowed me to earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. After I received my points, I redeemed them for a round trip to Turkey through Chase Ultimate Rewards to get 25% more value, or $750. This allowed me to fully cover the cost of the flight using the points I earned. Since then, I have continued to use and earn more points using my card and have redeemed them for even more flights.

  • Rewards rate: There are two types of rewards structures you’ll typically see with a travel credit card: a flat rate or a tiered rate. With a flat-rate rewards program, you’ll earn the same rewards rate on every purchase you make. With tiered rewards, you’ll earn bonus rewards on certain spending categories.

Two examples of travel cards we recommend
The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card helps you earn 2 miles per dollar on every purchase, every day, 5 miles per dollar on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5 miles per dollar on Capital One Entertainment purchases through 12/31/25.

On the other hand, the Wells Fargo Autograph℠ Card helps you earn unlimited 3X points on restaurants, travel, gas stations, transit, popular streaming services, and phone plans; plus earn 1X points on other purchases.

  • Redemption flexibility: General travel credit cards typically allow you to redeem your rewards for different types of travel. Some, however, will also give you the option to transfer your points or miles to select airline or hotel loyalty programs.

A great card for travel redemptions
The Citi Premier® Card enables you to move your Membership Rewards points to one of its airline or hotel partner programs. This gives you more flexibility with your redemptions.

On top of these factors, you should also consider the card’s annual fee as well as additional travel perks and benefits a card offers. This may include travel insurance or protection, annual travel credits, access to airport lounges, application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®, and more.

3. Get an airline’s co-branded credit card

If you’re seeking flexibility in your travel rewards, general travel credit cards are an excellent choice. However, if your goal is to accumulate points or miles with a specific airline, you may prefer a co-branded airline credit card.

These are some of our favorite airline credit cards:

Airline Credit card Welcome offer Annual fee
American Airlines Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®

4.3

Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening $99 (waived first year)
Delta Air Lines Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

4.6

Earn 40,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 in purchases in the first 6 months $0 intro annual fee for the first year, $150 per year thereafter
JetBlue Airways JetBlue Plus Card

4.7

Earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases (and paying the annual fee) in the first 90 days $99
Southwest Airlines Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card

4.8

Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening $149
United Airlines United Quest℠ Card

4.6

Earn 60,000 bonus miles and 500 Premier qualifying points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open $250

Many airline credit cards offer special perks on top of the chance to rack up frequent flyer program rewards. For example, you might get priority boarding, a free checked bag for you and others on your reservation, or discounts on in-flight purchases.

Keep in mind
Most airline credit cards also charge annual fees. So you’ll need to either earn enough rewards or use the perks enough to make up for the annual fee you pay.

What we don’t like about airline credit cards is that they typically don’t offer the same flexibility that general travel credit cards offer. While some frequent flyer programs allow you to use points or miles to pay for hotels, rental cars, and other travel-related costs, those redemptions generally aren’t as valuable as using rewards for flights.

4. Join dining programs

Dining programs are another excellent way to earn rewards that you can redeem for award flights. Many airlines have dining programs that allow you to earn additional miles when you dine at participating restaurants.

Here’s how it works:

  • Sign up for a dining program: Most major airlines have dining programs, including American Airlines, Southwest, and United. You can sign up for these programs for free on the airline’s website.
  • Link your credit card: After signing up, you’ll need to link your credit card to the dining program. When you use this card to pay at participating restaurants, you’ll earn miles in addition to the rewards you earn from your credit card.
  • Dine and earn: Each time you dine at a participating restaurant, you’ll earn miles. The number of miles you earn per dollar spent varies by program, but it’s typically between 1 and 5 miles.
  • Redeem your miles: Once you’ve earned enough miles, you can redeem them for award flights through the airline’s frequent flyer program. Some programs also allow you to use miles for hotel stays, car rentals, and other travel expenses.

Tip
The key to maximizing your rewards with dining programs is to use them along with a travel rewards credit card. That way, you can earn rewards on both the dining program and the credit card.

5. Leverage shopping portals

Several airlines and credit card issuers offer shopping portals that allow you to earn extra points or miles when you shop through them.

Here’s how to use shopping portals to your advantage:

  • Find a shopping portal: Most major airlines and some credit card issuers have shopping portals. These include the Ultimate Rewards Shop through Chase, American Airlines AAdvantage eShopping, and Delta’s SkyMiles Shopping.
  • Start shopping: Once you’re logged in, you can browse the portal’s selection of online retailers. When you find a retailer you like, click on their link from the portal. The portal will forward you to the retailer’s website, where you can shop as you normally would.
  • Earn points or miles: Each retailer offers a certain number of points or miles per dollar spent. You can typically find this next to the retailer’s name on the portal. These rewards are typically in addition to any points or miles you earn from your credit card.
  • Redeem your rewards: After you’ve accumulated enough points or miles, you can redeem them for award flights through the airline’s frequent flyer program or the credit card issuer’s rewards program.

Learn more about how many points you need for a free flight.

6. Maximize the value of your travel redemptions

Once you’ve earned enough rewards to qualify for an award flight, look at the redemption options your card provides.

With some general travel cards, you may just need to use your card to pay for the flight and then use your points or miles to get a statement credit for the purchase.

With others, you can book the flight directly with your rewards through your credit card’s online account.

If you have the option to transfer your points or miles to a frequent flyer program, you can request the transfer through your online credit card rewards account and then book the flight through the airline’s program.

If you have an airline co-branded credit card, such as the United℠ Explorer Card, all the points or miles you earn go into your frequent flyer account, so you’ll just book directly with the airline. Some airline rewards programs allow you to combine rewards and cash payments, driving down the out-of-pocket cost of the ticket.

Learn more about maximizing your redemptions using these tips for scoring cheap flights.

7. Look for other travel benefits from credit card issuers

On top of the rewards you earn, many travel and airline credit cards offer useful benefits and perks that can lower flight costs and improve your overall travel experience.

Some of the benefits you can enjoy include:

  • Airport lounge access: Certain premium travel credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, offer complimentary access to airport lounges. These lounges can provide a quiet and comfortable space to relax, work, or eat before your flight.
  • Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® fee credit: Some credit cards, including the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, offer a statement credit for the application fee for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®, which can help you get through airport security more quickly.
  • Annual travel credits: Some premium travel credit cards, such as the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card, offer annual travel credits, which can be used to offset certain travel-related purchases.
  • Travel insurance: Some credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, offer travel insurance benefits, such as trip cancellation/interruption insurance, baggage delay insurance, and travel accident insurance. These benefits can provide valuable protection and peace of mind when you’re traveling.
  • Companion passes: Certain credit cards, such as the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card, can help you progress toward earning companion passes, which allow you to bring a companion on your flight for free or at a significantly reduced cost.
  • Free checked luggage: Some airline credit cards, such as the AAdvantage® Aviator® World Elite Business Mastercard®, offer a free checked bag benefit. This can help you avoid baggage fees, especially if you frequently travel with checked luggage.

Keep in mind
While these benefits can add significant value, they often come with cards that have annual fees. It’s important to weigh the value of these benefits against the cost of the card to ensure it’s a good fit for your travel needs and budget.

Award travel FAQ

What is an award flight?

Award flights are flights that you book using points or miles that you earn through a frequent flyer program or a travel rewards credit card. Instead of paying cash for your ticket, you redeem your points or miles. This can be a great way to save money on travel, especially for expensive long-haul flights. This includes flights to Hawaii, Europe, or destinations in Asia such as Korea.

Are there any restrictions when booking award flights?

Yes, there can be restrictions when booking award flights. You may face limited availability, especially for popular routes and times, so it’s best to book as far in advance as possible. Some airlines also impose blackout dates on their award charts when you can’t use your points or miles. Additionally, you may still be responsible for paying taxes and fees on your award flight.

How you can fly for free?

These are five of the top ways you can earn award flights:

  1. Earn points or miles with your preferred airline’s frequent flyer program.
  2. Sign up for a travel credit card that has a great earning potential and a good welcome offer to quickly rack up points or miles.
  3. Use one of the best airline credit cards to earn travel rewards on your daily purchases.
  4. Take advantage of airline dining programs to earn additional points or miles when you dine at participating restaurants.
  5. Shop at your favorite online retailers via your credit card issuer or favorite airline shopping portal to earn more rewards on purchases you already plan to make.

Traveling (nearly) for free: bottom line

We recommend signing up for airline frequent flyer programs and applying for a travel credit card as two of the simplest methods to earn award flights and reduce the cost of your travel.

You can also boost your knowledge and experience by joining our award travel community as well. Finally, as you use credit card rewards to get free flights, make sure you pay off your credit card in full each month. Interest charges can decrease the value you can get from points or miles — or even neutralize it entirely.

Easy-to-Earn Unlimited Rewards

Benefits

Card Details

  • Earn 25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases
  • Earn 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases
  • Longer intro APR on qualifying purchases and balance transfers
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Apply Now
  • Earn unlimited 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases, with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees and your points don't expire as long as your account remains open.
  • 25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases.
  • Use your card to book your trip how and where you want - you're not limited to specific websites with blackout dates or restrictions.
  • Redeem points for a statement credit to pay for travel or dining purchases, such as flights, hotel stays, car and vacation rentals, baggage fees, and also at restaurants including takeout.
  • 0% Intro APR for 15 billing cycles for purchases, and for any balance transfers made in the first 60 days. After the Intro APR offer ends, a Variable APR that’s currently 18.24% - 28.24% will apply. A 3% Intro balance transfer fee will apply for the first 60 days your account is open. After the Intro balance transfer fee offer ends, the fee for future balance transfers is 4%.
  • If you're a Bank of America Preferred Rewards® member, you can earn 25%-75% more points on every purchase. That means instead of earning an unlimited 1.5 points for every $1, you could earn 1.87-2.62 points for every $1 you spend on purchases.
  • Contactless Cards - The security of a chip card, with the convenience of a tap.
  • This online only offer may not be available if you leave this page or if you visit a Bank of America financial center. You can take advantage of this offer when you apply now.
Bank of <span class='whitespace-nowrap'>America<sup>®</sup></span> Travel Rewards credit card
4.1
Apply Now

on Bank of America’s secure website

Read Card Review

Intro Offer

Earn 25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases

Annual Fee

$0

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Why we like it

Author Details

Ben Luthi Ben is a personal finance and travel writer who loves helping people achieve their money goals. Along with FinanceBuzz, his writing has also been featured on U.S. News, NerdWallet, Experian, Credit Karma, and more.

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