What You Need To Know About Airline Credit Cards To Start Flying Cheaply

By | Wednesday, October 14, 2015


Are you one of those people who daydreams about exploring far-off places, of trekking through jungles, or who just wants to finally visit Paris after years of dreaming about it? Have you put off traveling because you think it’s only for those who are bringing home huge salaries? If you’re one of the people who assumes they won’t be able to afford the plane ticket, that’s what I thought too. I’m going to explain how you can travel basically anywhere for free, by using points and miles.

My journey into the points and miles world started years ago, when I was a recent university graduate, who loved to travel, but needed (and wanted) to do it on the cheap. I knew points and miles existed, but I figured I didn’t travel enough to ever earn a free flight, and I was paralyzed by fear when it came to travel credit cards — I only had one credit card from my bank that offered me zero rewards, and so I had no idea where I should start. Now I look back, after having done so much research, and I kick myself for not trying something (carefully), and instead letting myself just avoid making a decision, therefore missing out on thousands of miles. Every day I learn more, but the points and miles world (also known as travel hacking) is complicated, and while there are plenty of websites out there to help you, your initial step should be to consider what you want to get out of your travel card. 

Let’s look at the Paris example; say you want to spend a week in Paris in May. The first thing you need to do is determine how many miles it currently costs to get to Paris, during your desired dates, and with which airline you would like to fly. There are three major US airlines that are all a part of an airline alliance: American, Delta, and United. Flexibility with both your dates and airlines will be extremely helpful as you are searching.

Now that you have identified your goal, you need to determine how you can earn the miles you need. The easiest way to do this is through a credit card sign-up bonus. There are a few different credit card types, all of which offer a sign-up bonus. This is where having a preset goal helps to hone in on the best option for you. Airline branded credit cards, such as the American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum Select card, offer perks like priority boarding and free checked baggage, are a good option if you know you’re definitely going to fly with American. However if you’re considering multiple airlines, this may not be the best choice for you.

Points-based cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, allow you to earn points that you can then transfer to a number of different airlines/frequent traveler programs. This allows much more flexibility, as long as the airline you are hoping to fly is a transfer partner. Cash back cards, like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus card, is a third option, allowing you to earn points that you can use towards removing, or “wiping off,” some or all of an airline purchase on your card statement. Since this requires the outright purchase of a ticket up-front, you may end up spending more, especially for peak season travel. Most cards will also waive the annual fee for the first year, which gives you time to try the card and see if you like it.

Now, it’s time to look at your current spending, to make sure that you will be able to meet those minimum spend requirements, which are different for every card. First, how I go about using my credit cards to get more mileage works for me, because even though I put more expenses on my card, I am in control of paying the expenses off, and am not over buying. The quickest way to earn miles is to charge more purchases that you would already be making to your card, so if you’re at a place in your life where that’s not ideal, or you’ll be tempted to overspend, I wouldn’t recommend this method for you. The stakes are higher with airline credit cards: I absolutely have to pay the balance in full every month because the interest rates on my card is high. I have met minimum spend requirements by charging big purchases, such as my car insurance that I pay twice per year, to my travel card. It’s important to note, however, that since I had been putting aside money each month for my car insurance, I knew I could pay the entire balance off.

To meet minimum spending requirements, I also have charged things for my parents, or items such as my soccer team registration, knowing I would get reimbursed for these things. If your work allows you to charge expenses and then get reimbursed, that’s basically free miles, and from a travel perspective, it’s definitely worth taking advantage of those mile balance boosters. However, from a financial perspective, you need to make sure you are in a stable place to pay off your statement before charging. I offer to pay for dinner when out with friends, and have them give me cash or Venmo me right away, to earn more miles. My Uber account is also linked to my mileage card, as well as a few other subscriptions; anything you can do to meet that minimum spend, without putting yourself at risk of being unable to pay off the card.

The moral of the story here is that there is a smart way to cheat the travel system, and that is through taking advantage of points and mileage. While it requires preparation ahead of time, so that you can know a) that you are in the right place financially to deal with a mileage card and b) what your travel goals are, you can fund your dream trip on mileage. And making your travel dreams come true while saving money is a win-win in my book.

Megan is study abroad advisor, writer, and soccer fanatic. She is often found exploring the world around her, or looking up flights ‘just to see’. She’s the blogger behind Hello Megan O, and you can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Image via Pexels

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