The Key To Earning Free Travel With Your Credit Card

Free Travel with Your Credit Card

Suvarnabhumi Airport Terminal in Thailand

Airline frequent flier miles have a bad reputation these days.

And they deserve it.

Carriers keep dangling the prospect of a free flight in front of their customers, only to offer no availability at the lowest mileage levels when it comes time to redeem miles for award flights.

Worse, they add booking fees and fuel surcharges to what was once a free flight after taxes.

Fortunately, there are still ways to find value in the miles that they so freely give out in return for your travel and your credit card spending.

The key to doing so is to realize that there are two equally important aspects of this game; earning as many points and miles as possible, and spending them as wisely as you can.

3 Ways to Earn the Most Miles

1. Get big sign-up bonuses. Do you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on your credit card? Neither do I. But I still earn hundreds of thousands of points and miles each year. The key is to constantly receive new sign up bonuses. Each airline will offer a business and a personal card, and there is no reason why you can’t get them both.

Better yet, the annual fee is normally waived the first year. I simply cancel the card when the annual fee comes up, and reapply 6 months to a year later. Like all reward card use, it is only recommended for people with great credit who always pay their balances in full.

2. Maximize bonus spending categories. I keep multiple cards in my wallet, each for a different use. One card will offer extra points at restaurants, while another earns a bonus on gas. When I find a card that offers bonuses at office supply stores, supermarkets, or drug stores, I use that card to buy gift cards that I use at other merchants.

3. Complain. When you travel, things will inevitably go wrong. Bad service seems most common on the airlines, followed by the hotels and rental car companies. In each of these situations, you have the opportunity to alert these companies to their failures.

In fact, you shouldn’t feel guilty as you are actually doing them a favor by taking the time to alert them to their failures that are hurting their business. In return, you are virtually guaranteed to receive a few thousand points or miles. Combine this with the rewards you earn from your credit card already, and you are that much closer to a free trip.

4 Ways to Spend Your Miles Wisely

1. Think partners.  Airlines are incredibly stingy with their award seats at the lowest mileage levels. And while they have extensive partnerships with other airlines, they rarely display these options when you search for award seats online.

For example, a US Airways customer can search all day at their web site for a flight to Europe, yet only find the very few seats that they make available for a low priced award. Yet a call to US Airways will allow their agents to search for awards on one of their many Star Alliance parnters including United, Luftansa, Swiss, and Austrian airlines. Likewise, American Airlines is part of the OneWorld alliance and Delta is part of SkyTeam.

2. Look for luxury. Getting value from your miles is all about getting the most cents per mile or point spent. And one of the fortunate quirks of these programs is that luxury hotel rooms and premium class international travel actually returns far more value per point than flying in coach and staying at budget hotels.

For example, a business class international ticket usually costs about 4-10 times as much as a coach flight, but redeeming miles for an award seat in that class usually costs only 50%-100% more. The same is usually, but not always true for luxury hotels.

3. Go far. Americans are rather unique and quite lucky to earn all sorts of miles from our credit cards, hotels and other partner promotions. The rest of the world actually has to travel in order to earn miles. What this means is that most of the miles in the world are actually held by Americans who tend to stay close to home.

Accordingly, it is very hard to find domestic awards and outbound flights overseas since there are too many Americans chasing too few seats.  However, once you leave North America, award space tends to be wide open on many of the partner carriers. When I book awards to the other end of the earth, the hardest part is finding an award seat on a flight out of my home airport.

4. Use an award booking service. It can takes hours of frustrating searches just to use your miles to find an available flight. But fortunately, there are experts in this field that can not only do this work for you, but use all sorts of tricks that you would have never known about.

These services include Points Pros and Book Your Award, but there are many others to be found if you Google “Award booking services”. These services are not cheap, but they can be worth it when you want to fly internationally in  business class with the miles you have.

Airline mileage programs are a pain in the butt these days, but all is forgiven when I settle into my business class seat for a long flight that I booked with my miles.

By earning and spending points and miles as efficiently and as wisely as possible, you can earn free travel that is worth far more than any other credit card rewards.

Image by The Wandering Angel

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About Jason Steele

Jason Steele is a travel and credit card expert. He contributes regularly to The Points Guy and a variety of notable travel and finance publications. Jason lives in Denver and enjoys traveling with his family and cycling. Follow Jason on Twitter @realjasonsteele.


    Speak Your Mind


  1. Liz Thackeray says

    I find these tips very appealing, but I do have one question: how does canceling and reapplying for credit cards affect your credit score? (Of course this question is based on paying off the monthly balance in full each month.)

    • The effect is negligible. Getting a new card increases you credit lines, lowering your debt to credit ratio (for a given amount of debt). That can improve your score. If you apply for too many cards, those recent applications will lower your score by a small amount, and the effect is temporary. The two tend to offset each other so long as you don’t go crazy. In the end, paying your bills on time and keeping little debt is far more important than applying for and cancelling a few cards a year.

  2. OneSmartDollar says

    Jason your knowledge on credit card points never cease to amaze me 🙂

  3. It’s amazing what a well documented complaint can get you with the airline companies.  Would be interested to see what their payout is for dissatisfied companies.