One of the reasons that many people get credit cards is to earn rewards like free travel. Using credit card points to get free airline tickets is one way to redeem rewards and gain benefit from your credit card use.
After you’ve amassed enough credit card points, you can turn them in for airline tickets. Even if you don't have one of the best travel credit cards, your points can still get you where you want to go. As long as you pay off your balance each month so you aren’t paying interest, you really can enjoy free travel.
Here’s your guide on how to use the credit card points for airline tickets — including the different ways you can do it and how to determine which way will help you maximize your rewards.
How to get airline tickets through your credit card shopping portal
Many credit card issuers have their own shopping portals, allowing you to easily redeem your points. One example is Chase Ultimate Rewards. If you want to redeem your Chase points for airline tickets, go to the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal and sign into your account (located in the upper right of the page). Then you select travel and search for your flights. You’ll see how many points it will take to book.
In general, your points are worth about one cent apiece when you book through Chase Ultimate Rewards. However, some cards give you a better value for your points. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred’s points are worth 1.25 cents each, and the Chase Sapphire Reserve’s points are worth 1.5 cents each.
No matter which rewards program you have, though, it should be possible to log in and book travel through the rewards portal. Just double-check to make sure you’re getting good value — sometimes a different method of redeeming your points for an airplane ticket can be better.
How to get airline tickets by transferring credit card points to a travel partner
Another way to make the most of your rewards points is to transfer the points to a travel partner. In some cases, you can actually get a magnified benefit for transferring your points.
For example, the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card allows you to move your points to any of its 15 travel partners. This allows you to move your points to an airline where you’re already a rewards program member, giving you more points to work with. Plus, because you earn 2X miles on every purchase, every day with the Venture card, you’re likely earning at a higher rate than you would with your airline’s reward program.
You can also use programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards to transfer points to airline partners. If you have points at a partner airline but not quite enough to book a flight, you can move Chase Ultimate Rewards to that partner, pooling the points and allowing you to book a free flight.
Some cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, offer you a premium if you book through the Chase portal. However, others cards, like the Chase Freedom, don’t offer this enhanced redemption. So, if you want to pool points with an airline partner, it makes sense to take those points that are not receiving a bonus through the Chase portal and move them over to airline partners to get the best value out of them.
How to get airline tickets using a co-branded credit card and frequent flyer program
Another way to use credit card points for airline tickets is to get a co-branded credit card. For example, I use the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card to earn points. I receive points for all the spending I do with this card, and any Delta purchases give me extra points. When I’m ready to redeem, all I do is log into my Delta account and enter my booking information. I can select the option that displays the fare in points and pick which ticket works for me.
Other cards also have co-branded miles programs. I have an American Airlines co-branded card from Citi that I got a few years back when I lived near an American Airlines hub. United also has branded cards through Chase that provide a number of perks on top of directly earning you points through United’s program — the United Explorer Card for personal use and the United Explorer Business Card.
To find the best airline credit card, consider which airlines you’re likely to use most, since it’s not always as easy to transfer points from a co-branded card to other airlines once they’re earned.
How to use points to erase your airfare
One way to keep things simple is to use points to erase your already-paid airfare. For example, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card allows you to erase such purchases.
When redeeming, you simply use your Venture Rewards card to book your flight as usual. Then, when you log into your Capital One account, you’ll see travel options, including “redeem travel purchases.” Simply indicate which travel expense you want taken care of, and the points you’ve accumulated will be used to erase that cost. This can be useful when you buy discounted airfare through a third-party aggregator like Orbitz and, therefore, use fewer points.
The downside of this strategy is that you might miss out on extra loyalty points when you buy through a third-party website. Sometimes you aren’t credited the extra travel points because you used an aggregator website instead of booking directly with the airline. You still get miles from flying on the airline, but you might not get the extra points for using the credit card. Figure out the math before you make your decision.
Not all points are equal
Remember that not all points are equal. Not every program values their points the same way, and points might take on different values depending on how you choose to redeem them. When you travel, the type of ticket (first class or coach) you get as well as other factors go into what points end up being worth. When using your credit card points for airline tickets, make sure you pay attention and do the math.
For example, say I used Southwest Rapid Rewards points to book a flight. I pick out a roundtrip ticket for $312 or for 21,237 points. By dividing the cash cost by the points needed, I can get a value for the points. In this case, $312 / 21,237 = 0.01469, or about 1.5 cents per point. That’s a pretty decent value.
Different methods of redemption, like using the Chase travel portal, give you different point values, so you need to figure out how each program works for you and where you’ll get the most value.
How you book airline tickets is up to you
Once you learn how to use credit card points for airline tickets, you can employ different strategies to ensure you’re getting the best value. For example, I was once able to redeem a flight for fewer points simply by flying from a different airport and choosing to fly on another day of the week.
Start out simply by doing what’s easy. As you get more practice, you can change to more advanced strategies — like learning how to navigate fare charts and redemption schedules. Before you know it, you’ll be a pro and get more free airline tickets, no matter what rewards program you use.