How to Fly for (Nearly) Free With Travel Rewards

Credit card rewards can help you travel more and spend less.
7 minute read | 5/16/19May 16, 2019
Airline aisle with people sitting in the seats

Traveling opens a gateway into a world of opportunities. Whether you’re traveling the world and learning about different cultures, experiencing something new with your family, or just visiting loved ones, travel is a luxury that can improve your quality of life.

That’s why understanding how to fly for free or cheap is such an important skill. Through credit card rewards, it’s possible to earn award flights that can get you where you want to go without paying full price. In some cases, you’ll just be out a few bucks for taxes and fees.

If you’ve seen friends and family members do it and want to learn how to do it yourself, here’s what you need to know.

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

Learning how to fly for free can take some time, but once you gain a baseline knowledge, you’ll be on your way to traveling more and spending less. Here are some steps you can take to get there.

1. Sign up for airline frequent flyer programs

Most airlines have their own loyalty rewards program, but you can’t start racking up points or miles until you have an account. It’s usually free to sign up, and you can do it through the airline’s website.

Instead of signing up for every airline you’ve ever heard of, though, focus on the airlines you already fly. 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.

Different frequent flyer programs have varying status tiers you can achieve, which can give you access to more perks when you fly. Depending on the program and the elite status level you gain, perks can 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. Consider a credit card that offers travel points or miles

There are countless travel credit cards on the market that allow you to earn points or miles. Depending on the card, you may be able to use your rewards to book flights directly with an airline or transfer them to an airline’s frequent flyer program and book flights from there.

As you shop around for a travel credit card, it’s important to know what to look for. Here are some factors to consider:

Sign-up bonus

Some travel credit cards offer sign-up bonuses worth hundreds of dollars if you redeem them for travel. They typically require you to spend a certain amount of money in the first few months to earn the incentive, though. So in addition to picking a card with a good sign-up bonus, make sure you can meet the minimum spending requirement without busting your budget.

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. One example of this is the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which offers up to 10X miles on every purchase.

With tiered rewards, however, you’ll earn bonus rewards on certain spending categories. The Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card, for instance, offers 3x points on flights, hotels, homestays, and car rentals; gas, rideshares and transit; dining in or eating out; and popular streaming services. All other purchases will net you just 1 point per dollar you spend.

As you consider which one is best for you, look at your spending habits to see how you can maximize the rewards you earn.

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.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred, for example, offers 25% more value when you use points to book through Chase, but it also gives you the option to move your points to one of its airline or hotel partner programs.

This type of program tends to give you more flexibility as well as the potential to squeeze more value out of your rewards through program transfers.

Travel perks

In addition to rewards, many travel credit cards also offer certain perks, such as trip protections, fee credits, complimentary airport lounge access, and more.

With the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you’ll get a $300 annual travel credit, complimentary access to Priority Pass lounges, an application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, and various trip protections. As you shop around, think about which perks would make your life easier when you travel.

Annual fee

Most of the best travel credit cards on the market charge an annual fee. While that’s not inherently a bad thing, it can eat into the value you get from the card, so it’s important to do the math to make sure it’s worth the cost.

Some credit cards, such as the Bank of America Premium Rewards credit card, make this easy. The card has a $95 annual fee but also provides a $100 annual airline incidental fee credit.

There’s no single best credit card out there for everyone, so it’s important to know what you want as you compare options.

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

General travel credit cards are great if you want flexible travel rewards. But if you’re looking specifically to earn points or miles with your favorite airline, a co-branded credit card may be best.

Many airline credit cards offer not only the chance to rack up rewards with a particular frequent flyer program but also some special perks every time you fly. For example, you might get priority boarding, a free checked bag for you and others on your reservation, and discounts on in-flight purchases if you have an airline’s credit card.

Be aware, though, that 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 yearly cost.

Also, airline credit cards typically don’t give you the same level of flexibility as you’d get with a general travel credit card. 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 free flights.

4. Maximize the rewards you can earn

If you’re thinking of getting a credit card with a sign-up bonus, make sure you understand the terms before you apply. While some may only require you to make one purchase, others may ask you to spend a certain amount over three or four months. Regardless of the setup, it’s important to have a plan to reach that minimum spend amount before the deadline — without blowing your budget in the process.

Also, focus on how you can earn rewards with your card. Because some cards offer bonus rewards on certain categories, consider getting a card that rewards you more for purchases you make regularly.

If you get a tiered-rewards credit card, however, be aware that the base rewards rate is often low. By using a tiered-rewards card and a flat-rate card with a higher rewards rate in tandem, you can further maximize how much you earn.

5. Redeem your points for travel

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, like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® for example, you may just need to use your card to pay for the flight, 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. And 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 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 are usually automatically deposited into your frequent flyer account, so you’ll just book directly with the airline that way. And if you don’t have enough to cover the full cost of a flight, some airline rewards programs allow you to combine rewards and cash, driving down the out-of-pocket cost of the ticket.

6. Look for other travel benefits from credit card issuers

As you’re busy learning how to fly for free with award tickets, don’t forget about the other credit card benefits that can lower flight costs and improve your overall travel experience.

Credit cards that offer free checked bags, in-flight discounts, complimentary or discounted companion tickets, and insurance in case you need to cancel or rebook a flight may potentially save you hundreds of dollars a year.

The bottom line

Learning how to fly for free or cheap with credit card rewards can make it easier to travel, often without sacrificing other important financial goals. As you take these steps, you’ll start to learn the nuances of different rewards programs and how you can take advantage of what’s available. It may be helpful to join a reward 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.

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