When my husband discovered “travel hacking” 10 years ago, he was determined to master it. We had a trip to Oregon coming up, so that was the first test of his newfound knowledge. It took about six months of planning, but, sure enough, he booked our tickets there and back for free. Since then, we’ve gone on over 50 flights, and almost all of them were free or almost free using credit card points.
In those early travel hacking days, I had some concerns about our credit score going down, but my husband Jeff is an award-winning financial advisor, and he assured me that the free flight method only requires two rules to avoid any potential issues, and those steps are things you should already be doing, i.e. paying your credit card statement balance on time to avoid paying interest and keeping several credit cards open for the long-term.
With those two simple rules in mind, I’ll break down exactly how you can earn and use credit card points to book that dream vacation and fly there for free.
Credit Card Points 101
Most simply put, travel hacking for free flights is just a strategic approach to making the most of credit card rewards and airline loyalty programs. By selecting travel reward credit cards, meeting spending requirements to earn substantial sign-up bonuses, and avoiding annual fees, you can accumulate points or miles. Those rewards can then be redeemed for free or significantly discounted flights. The process involves some planning, understanding specific credit card terms, and using available perks to maximize the value of your accumulated travel rewards.
With that overview in mind, here are the six steps to earning and using credit card points for free flights.
Step 1: Choose Your Destination and the Month You Want To Travel
Choosing your destination and planning your travel dates strategically is the first and most crucial step. Since you’ll need to earn a significant number of points to cover the cost of a flight, you need some time to use the credit card and earn the points. Jeff recommends selecting your destination at least seven months in advance. This timeline allows you to accumulate the necessary reward points and access a wide variety of flight options, providing flexibility and efficiency in your travel plans.
Step 2: Research Flights
Another benefit to planning months in advance is that it allows you to find the best flight prices, which then allows you to maximize your points. Tailor your flight search based on your location, exploring airlines with competitive prices and availability in your region. Southwest Airlines and American Airlines are two solid options, but we’ve had success with others as well. Use the calendar view on airline websites to identify the best prices for your desired month. If initial searches fall short, consider adjusting your travel dates or exploring alternative airports for potential savings.
Step 3: Find a Credit Card Sign-up Bonus of at Least 50,00 Points or Miles
Credit card sign-up bonuses are your ticket to free flights. Aim for bonuses of at least 50,000 points or miles because those have substantial monetary value when redeemed for airfare. You can keep an eye on reputable websites like nerdwallet.com or thepointsguy.com for the latest credit card offers, and don’t delay in applying, as these promotions often have limited availability.
Credit Card Options To Get You Started
AAdvantage Aviator Mastercard: Earn 60,000 AAdvantage Miles after making your first purchase in the first 90 days. It waives the annual fee for the first year and lets you avoid the first checked bag fee on domestic flights for you and up to four others.
Chase United Airlines Explorer Card: Grab 60,000 bonus miles by spending $3,000 in the first three months. It waives the annual fee for the first year, waives the first checked bag fee on domestic flights for you and a companion, plus gives up to $100 statement credit for TSA PreCheck.
When choosing a card, always evaluate the initial sign-up bonus, annual fees, and the card issuer’s reputation before making a decision. Personally, we look for cards that waive the annual fee for the first twelve months like the two I suggested above, but these offers are becoming less common.
Step 4: Maintain or Improve Your Credit Score
Most travel rewards cards require a credit score of at least 690 for approval. You can stay on top of your credit score by getting your free annual credit reports from the three main credit bureaus at annualcreditreport.com. Regular check-ups make sure everything is correct and help you catch any issues early.
Additionally, Jeff usually cancels the travel rewards credit card after our trip is completed but before the end of the first year because that allows us to avoid the annual fee. As long as you have at least one other credit card with a 3+ year credit history, canceling the travel rewards card will not significantly impact your overall credit score. To better understand how credit scores work and for tips on improving yours, visit thepennyhoarder.com.
Step 5: Get That Bonus
Meeting the spending requirements for your credit card bonus can be achieved by redirecting your monthly expenses to the new card. Beyond everyday purchases, consider making larger purchases within the initial three-month timeframe. Again, you should use the card responsibly by paying your balance in full each month and avoiding interest payments.
Step 6: Redeem Your Points
Once the bonus lands in your account, explore the various redemption options offered by your card. Some cards provide better redemption bonuses when booking through the credit card issuer’s website, but most rewards are redeemed directly through your frequent flier account and the airline’s website. While booking, make sure to check different dates and flight times to find the best value for using your points. Then be sure to book your chosen flights promptly to secure the best prices and travel dates.
A Note About International Travel
This method works well with most domestic flights. It’s possible to use your points to book international flights as well, but it’s more complicated. For more information about international flights, plus some additional tips for taking your travel hacking to the next level, you can check out Jeff’s super short ebook The 15-Minute Guide to Free Flights.
Conclusion: Your First Free Flight Is Just the Beginning
Trying your hand at travel hacking can definitely be intimidating, but you have everything you need to take the first step. With a little bit of planning, research, and strategic spending, free flights are totally within your reach. And the best part is this isn’t just a one-time thing – you can keep doing it. As you score more free flights, you might just discover that you’re a travel hacker too!
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