Using Credit Card Rewards for Free Flights: A Beginner’s Guide

One of the (many) perks of marrying my husband is his extensive knowledge of how to use credit card rewards for free flights and hotel. We can visit places like Ireland and San Francisco because we’re paying for flights and hotels with points! Often, our only travel costs are taxes and fees, ground transportation, and sightseeing.

If you are anything like me, this world of credit card rewards is confusing and intimidating. So, I asked Jay to break down his strategy for those who are just starting out. This is a lengthy, but useful beginner’s guide to using credit card rewards for free flights. Stay tuned for a separate beginner’s guide to free hotel stays!

Cashback Credit Cards

If you want to start off simple, we recommend a credit card that gives cashback. You can use a generic cashback card or one that focuses on travel, like Discover It Miles or Bank of America Travel Rewards. Those two cards don’t offer airline miles, or let you transfer points for airline miles, but their cashback is called “miles.” Generally, one mile is worth $.01, so 10,000 “miles” equals $100. These “miles” are earned from signup bonuses and regular spending. Then, you can redeem your “miles” for cashback on your statement when you book any flight. This is great if flights aren’t expensive or you’re only flying yourself and maybe one other person.

A Better Option

If that’s not the case, cashback credit cards probably aren’t the best option. You will want to find credit cards that offer actual airline miles. Those are often worth more than $.01/mile. For example, you can find a round trip flight in the continental United States for 25,000 United miles. The cash cost of that same ticket might be $400. $400 / 25,000 miles is a rate of 1.6 cents/mile. International flights are often an even better deal. United offers some international tickets for 60,000. If the ticket’s cash cost is $1,200 the value is 2 cents/mile.

How Many Airline Miles Do I Need

The first step toward free flights is to identify the large airport(s) closest to your home. Then, lookup which airlines have the most flights out of those airports. A quick Google search can tell you if it is an airline’s hub or just which airline uses it the most. These are the airlines you want to focus on.  The more flight choices from an airport, the better chance of getting an excellent deal with airline miles. For my example, Newark is one of the closest large airports to us. It is a United hub, meaning United uses Newark as a central point to get flights from one destination to another. In layman’s terms, there are a ton of United flights!

After you identify your main airport and airline, sign up for that airline’s rewards program on their website. Then, pick a destination. Let’s say I want to go to Milan, Italy. I would go to United’s website and search for flights at a random date.  Select the option to show flights cost in reward points instead of dollars. I picked July 25th to July 29th for my vacation from EWR to MXP (Newark to Milan).

On the way to Milan, there is a direct flight for 30,000 miles one way. Keep in mind there’s no way around the taxes and fees, which you’ll usually have for international flights. On the way back, there’s a flight for 70,000 miles. Obviously, that’s a lot more miles so I can click on the award calendar and see different dates to come home. On July 30th, there is a flight for only 30,000 miles, giving me a grand total of 60,000 miles needed for this trip.

The purpose of this exercise is to identify approximately how many miles you need for a free flight. It varies depending on domestic vs international. Plus, the time of year and destination will cause miles needed to fluctuate. However, ultimately you’ll have a general idea of how many miles you need for a free flight. For the two of us, roundtrip flights to Milan in Economy on United will require 120,000 miles. That’s the goal! Now I must figure out how to get those United miles…

Earning Airline Miles

You used to simply have to fly a lot with a certain airline to rack up miles. Now, there are a variety of ways to earn them. Credit cards are the easiest way to start. If you go to your airline’s website, they’ll offer a basic sign up bonus for their credit card. United is currently offering 40,000 miles at the time of this post. If you’re willing to do a little more work, you can research whether there’s a better offer available. Doctor of Credit is one website we use. Also, a quick Google search for the airline’s current credit card offers may help. Feel free to reach out to me as well! Jay keeps a constant eye on credit cards, so he’ll know your best bet.

Keep in mind, in addition to the sign up bonus, you’ll also get around 1 mile per dollar spent on that credit card. If I spend $3,000 a month, that gives me 3,000 points a month. At this point, we’re still don’t have enough, though.  Now we are going to get into a little trickier ground, transferring points.

Transferring Airline Miles

American Express and Chase credit cards each partner with certain airlines to transfer credit card points to miles. Here are links to the American Express transfer partners and Chase transfer partners. Often, these cards have higher sign up bonuses. For example, Chase Sapphire Preferred’s sign up bonus is 60,000 points. Those points can be transferred to United at a 1:1 ratio. That results in 60,000 miles, a much better deal than 40,000 with the United card! Plus, if you open one of each card, that’s a total of 100,000 miles. So close to the amount we need!


Additional Ways to Earn Airline Miles

Most airlines and bank credit cards have a shopping portal that allows you to earn points when you shop online. United, American, and Southwest airlines and Chase and Barclays bank cards offer this option.  CashBackMonitor can help you identify which rewards programs give the most points/miles for each website. Often it ranges from 1 point/$1 to 5 points/$1 spent. You can access the shopping portal by heading to your airline or bank rewards account, logging in and finding the earning miles section.

Booking Rewards Travel

Once you have the amount of points needed for your trip, you can use your credit card rewards for free flights! On your airline’s website, search for flights to your destination and once again select points instead of dollars.  Continue through the process and the points will be deducted from your rewards account. Most domestic flights still require a payment of ~$6 per flight for taxes and fees. On international flights this can cost around $100. After this, you’re ready for your vacation!


Additional Tips

1.The 5/24 Rule – Chase has a special rule called the 5/24 rule. It means, you won’t be approved for their credit cards if you have opened five or more accounts (home, auto, credit card, student loan, etc) in the past 24 months. This isn’t limited to just Chase accounts or total Chase accounts, just those OPENED by any bank in the past 24 months. American Express also only allows a certain number of credit cards at one time and you can only earn the sign up bonus for a specific card once in your lifetime.

2. Fine Print – Read the fine print before opening any credit card since each card has different rules.

3. Credit Card Scores – Often beginners worry about the effect of multiple credit cards on their credit score. Jay opened dozens of credit cards in a few years and currently holds 13 with a credit score of 820. Opening a new credit card will ding your credit report a few points for a month or so. However, new credit lines aren’t the biggest factor in determining your credit score.

Here’s a rough idea of how it’s calculated: 35% – payment history, 30% – amount owed, 15% – length of credit history, 10% – new credit, 10% – credit used. These are subject to change, but essentially 65% is making payments on time and not running up a balance. Plus, since credit card history is a factor, as you open credit cards and hold onto them, it will help improve your score.

Jay recommends getting at least one no annual fee credit card in the beginning so you can hold on to it. If you do open a credit card with an annual fee, don’t be afraid to call them and ask if you can downgrade to a no annual fee card or to waive the fee. The agents are usually friendly and happy to work with you.

4. Avoid Carrying a Balance – Besides affecting your credit score, carrying a balance will cost you more in interest. Thus, overruling any benefit you may get in free travel!

5. Advanced Travel Tactics – We haven’t touched on more in-depth travel rewards point benefits such as transferring to different airlines, using airline alliances, stopovers, open-jaws, and more. If you want to know more about a specific topic, let us know in the comments and I’ll get back to you!

Good luck using your credit card rewards for free flights! Don’t forget to check back soon for a similar beginner’s guide to use points for free hotel stays!


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