How to Fly Cheap or Free with the Best Airline Credit Cards

Flying Over Maui Haleakala

(If your flight was free, would you go to a tropical island halfway around the world? Danielle did!)

Airline credit cards are one of several ways to earn free travel, and you don’t have to ruin your credit or go into debt to do it. Credit cards are simply the easiest method for a lot of people because your existing monthly expenses and daily spending habits can earn you free travel, thus saving you hundreds to thousands of dollars in travel expenses. Miles credit cards often come with opportunities to earn 25,000–50,000 bonus points, which is the equivalent of a roundtrip domestic flight! Usually you only have to pay for minor taxes and fees, which we have seen for as low as $2.50 each way. This means your current expenses can earn you a nearly free flight simply by reallocating them to a miles credit card and paying it off by the due date.

Where would you fly if you go for $5? This is a real question Danielle has been faced with many times, and her answer has, so far, taken her to Paris, Chile, the island of Grenada, Hawaii, and many trips to visit her family across the U.S. Below are the details on how you can fly for free with airline credit cards.

Step 1: Determine If a Miles Credit Card Is Right for You

First, make sure there are no surprises in your credit history. Get your free Credit Score and More, and sign up for a credit monitoring service that will monitor all three major credit card bureaus, such as TrueCredit 3-Bureau Credit Monitoring. Also consider whether you might be taking out a big loan in the next two years (equity, house, student, etc.). According to MyFICO, applying for credit cards reduces your score by approximately 3–5 points per application, which is a relatively small decrease, although any decrease could affect your chances for a big loan approval. Do the research to be confident that you will get your loan first, then apply for credit cards.

On the plus side, as you use a new credit card, your credit score may increase over time because of the increase in available credit. Your credit score may also increase as you continue to pay the bills on time.

If you have trouble holding yourself back from charging more money than you make or not paying off your entire bill every month, then a credit card might not be the best option for you. We don’t recommend going into debt for a free airfare ticket because eventually that wouldn’t equate to “free”. But don’t worry, there are several other ways to earn free travel that don’t involve credit cards. Before making any credit decisions, please read our Credit Card Disclaimers.

Step 2: Sign Up for the Best Airline Credit Card

Many airline credit cards have sign-up bonuses of 25,000 – 50,000 miles or points, which is usually the equivalent of a roundtrip domestic flight. Depending on where and when you’re flying, you could be saving $300–$1,000 on that one flight alone! Combining credit card bonuses and points can get you overseas, sometimes even in business or first class. If you have more than one card holder on your credit card account, you may be able to earn bonuses and rack up miles faster than with a single card holder.

You can maximize your airline credit card rewards by following these three steps:

  1. Read our 4 criteria on How to Determine the Best Airline Credit Card for You
  2. Apply for one or two cards from our list of The Best Airline Credit Cards, Right Now
  3. Stagger your credit applications over several months to help ensure you don’t end up: earning more miles than you can use before they expire, unable to charge enough to earn the signup bonuses, or with a lower credit score due to multiple credit applications in a short period of time

Step 3: Use Everyday Expenses to Earn Free and Cheap Travel

The easiest way to earn free travel is to make your existing expenses work for you to earn sign up bonuses and keep earning points on every charge thereafter. You can easily do this by setting up all of your bills that you already pay in full every month (car payment, rent/mortgage, utilities, phone, Internet, TV, etc.) to automatically charge to this credit card, and then set up the credit card to automatically pay off the balance in full every month so you do not incur interest charges. Paying interest on credit cards is not worth it, even if you are earning miles and points!

Make sure you allocate enough charges to this new credit card to earn the sign-up bonus in the given timeframe. Spending requirements may range from a few hundred to $10,000, with most in the $1,000–4,000 range. The spending timeframes may range from the first purchase to six months, with most falling in the first one to three months. You will find out the exact requirements based on your credit score and credit history when your application is approved.

At certain times of the year, credit card companies may offer additional bonuses, such as double points on dining purchases. You often have to sign up or request to be part of these promotions, so be on the lookout for these and sign up for our Travel Newsletter to get alerts.

Step 4: Redeem Miles for Max Value

Let’s say you have enough miles to fly first class, take two domestic coach trips, or one coach trip to an international destination— which is the best option? We recommend redeeming travel rewards for the most expensive, furthest destination that you couldn’t have otherwise afforded at regular price. For example, an actual American Airlines rewards flight redemption from Dallas to Cleveland at one time cost $57.50 while Dallas to Rio de Janiero was $66.50. It was only $9 more to fly to Brazil versus Cleveland! Consider that a regular airfare to Cleveland costs around $330+ while Rio costs around $1000+. Rio is a MUCH better value, and this is true of most domestic versus international reward flight redemptions. This is how Danielle ends up with free flights to far-flung places like Chile, Grenada, and Paris. Her motto is once you have a free flight, you might as well max out its value!

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