Where do you want to go this year? A friend’s destination wedding? Or the dream trip to Tokyo that always seems just out of reach. Perhaps you just want to bank enough frequent flyer miles for a free flight to use someday.
There are the trips we plan for and the ones we don’t. A free plane ticket could make or break your ability to afford your next trip. So how do you earn a free flight in a year or less? The easiest way—if you have the credit and the discipline to do it—is to take advantage of the sign-up bonuses offered to new customers by co-branded and regular travel rewards credit cards. These card companies want new customers, so they’re willing to reward you handsomely for signing up and using their products. Here are some credit cards that make it fairly easy to score a free flight in 2016.
Airline credit cards
The three major American carriers (United, Delta, and American) offer nearly enough bonus miles to snag a free ticket if you spend a certain amount within the first three months. The upside is that these carriers are so big, they probably have a plane bound for your destination of choice. The downside to these cards is they all carry an annual fee, plus the miles you earn are restricted to that airline.
American’s Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage card
The American Airlines Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard rewards you with 30,000 miles for spending $1,000 within the first three months of account opening.
That’s enough for a one-way MileSAAver ticket to Europe from anywhere in the contiguous US. Or a one-way domestic “AAnytime Level Two” ticket—the most flexible kind, according to American’s award travel chart. If you’re traveling within the 48 states and can find two MileSAAver tickets, your entire fare will be covered with 5,000 miles to spare. These are all economy seats; a first class ticket requires additional points.
My household spends about $150-$200 a week on food for groceries plus a few takeout lunches or dinners. So if I opened the AA card and charged only my food expenses I’d meet the minimum requirement for the bonus miles by the end of month two.
Additionally, American gives you 10 percent of the miles you redeem each year (with a maximum reward of 10,000 miles) and United offers 5,000 bonus miles for adding another person to the account, as well as 10,000 miles for making $25,000 in purchases each year.
United Explorer Card
The United Explorer credit card from Chase is similar: The card also offers 40,000 bonus miles if you spend $2,000 in the first three months from account opening.
You can earn an additional 1,000 Premier qualifying points in a calendar year, earn 25% back on United inflight purchases. You’ll also earn miles for your purchases (two miles per $1 spent on tickets from United and one mile per $1 spent on all other purchases).
According to United’s award travel chart, a domestic economy roundtrip ticket starts at as little as 20,000 miles but may require as many as 50,000 miles.
Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card
The Platinum Delta SkyMiles Card from American Express lets you earn 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) and 35,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new card in your first three months. That’s a total of 40,000 miles available to redeem when you qualify.
If you charge a lot to your card, you can earn an additional 10,000 MQMs after you spend $25,000 on your card in a year and an additional 10,000 MQMs if you spend $50,000 on the card in a year. That’s a lot of charging, to be sure, but if you spend that much or get reimbursed for business expenses, you could load up with 60,000 bonus miles in your first year with Delta, in addition to any other miles earned by spending. (Like other airline cards, the Delta SkyMiles Card lets you earn two miles per $1 spent with Delta and one mile per dollar on other purchases).
Delta Medallion qualifying benefits
There are additional benefits to Delta’s credit cards for travelers chasing Delta’s elite Silver, Gold, Platinum or Diamond Medallion status. The cards help you earn Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) which is part of the formula Delta uses for awarding Medallion status.
Typically, Delta requires travelers to earn a minimum amount of MQMs and spend a minimum amount each year with the airline. For example, to achieve Delta’s lowest elite level, Silver Medallion, one would need to earn 25,000 MQMs and spend $3,000 with Delta in a calendar year. Delta credit card holders can waive the spending requirement, however, by spending $25,000 on the card in a year.
So with a new Platinum Delta SkyMiles card, one could possibly achieve Silver Medallion status without flying a single mile on Delta by:
- Opening a new card
- Spending $1,000 within the first three months
- Spending $50,000 in the first year
That nets you a total of 25,000 MQMs and waives the requirement to spend $3,000 with Delta. Would you do all that just for Delta’s lowest elite level? Probably not. But if you’re already collecting SkyMiles and these additional perks can put you over the top of a higher Medallion level, the Delta card begins to look mighty attractive.
Delta award travel options
Unlike American and United, Delta has done away with an award travel matrix that makes it easy to see how many miles you’ll need for a particular flight. Mileage requirements are now based entirely on demand just like cash ticket prices.
Occasionally, Delta runs specials offering domestic award tickets for as little as 5,000 miles (one-way). Expect, however, that if you want to book an award ticket for a peak domestic route with no blackout dates, you may need upwards of 40,000 or 50,000 miles for a coach round-trip ticket.
Use a regular travel rewards credit card
The advantage of getting a non-branded travel rewards credit card is you don’t have to maintain loyalty to any one airline. All of these cards offer sign-up bonuses and incentives similar to the airlines’ cards, but some are better than others.
Discover it® Miles – Unlimited 1.5x Rewards Card
The Discover it® Miles offers an easy way to earn a free flight in the first year. There’s no sign-up bonus, but Discover will match the miles you earn in your first year as a cardholder. There’s no limit to the award, so if you have 35,000 miles at the end of the year you’ll end up with 70,000 total.
The Discover it® Miles earns 1.5 miles for every dollar spent, which is a better rate than the airline cards. When you want to redeem your miles, you’ll receive $1 toward a travel credit for every 100 miles you’ve earned. You can use that credit to buy a plane ticket or for other travel-related purchases such as a hotel room or a rental car.
For example, to earn 50,000 miles you’ll need to spend about $33,333. That’s a lot, but if you use the card for all regular expenses, it works out to just under $2,800 a month. That kind of spending isn’t for everybody, but if you’re spending that much already, earning the flight is straightforward. You’d end up with a mileage balance of 100,000, which would become a $1,000 travel credit. That will buy a round trip ticket to just about anywhere.
Read our review of Discover it® Miles.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
For a card that works with a number of rewards programs, including United’s, try the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. It’s the card of choice for many savvy travelers because you 5X points on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3X points on dining, 2X points on all other travel purchases, and one point per dollar spent on all other purchases. There are no foreign transaction fees and you can get 25 percent more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 8,000 points are worth $100 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
With the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, you earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. That’s $750 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards® (and could be your free flight right there).
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card also provides a 1:1 point transfer to leading frequent travel programs at full value—that means 1,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards® points equal 1,000 partner miles/points. (Travel partners include United, but not Delta).
One final trick some consumers use is to combine the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card with another card like the Chase Freedom Unlimited®. With those cash back cards, you can earn points at a higher rate on some purchases, but then transfer them to the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and take advantage of the great travel redemption options.
Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express
Another highly touted travel rewards card, the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express gives you a bonus of 25,000 Starpoints when you spend $3,000 in the first three months. Starwood Preferred Guest’s program is notable for several reasons:
- Their points are typically worth more (about 2.4 cents to the usual one cent per point)
- They have more airline partners (31) than just about any rewards program
- And, unlike Chase Ultimate Rewards®, Starpoints do transfer (at a 1:1 ratio) to Delta SkyMiles
- When you transfer at least 20,000 points to a participating partner, Starwood will throw in an extra 5,000 points to the transfer.
Combine cards to earn free travel faster
If you’re willing to sign up for more than one card, you can really turbocharge your miles (and without spending $33,000).
Let’s say you sign up for United’s credit card when they’re offering those 50,000 bonus miles. After you’ve made the $3,000 in purchases necessary to receive the bonus, you could then open an account with Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and spend your way to the 60,000 bonus points they have on offer.
Transfer your Chase points to your United MileagePlus account and you’ll have 130,000 miles in about six months, and for only $7,000 in total spending. That’s enough for more than one domestic flight or a round-trip international flight.
If you’re a loyal Delta flyer, then a better combination would be the Platinum Delta Skymiles American Express Card with its 50,000 bonus points and the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express, with its 25,000 Starpoint bonus. In just six months (three months for the SkyMiles Amex, and three months for the SPG), you’ll be able to rack up 80,000 points (50,000 Skymiles + 25,000 Starpoints + 5,000 Starpoint bonus), which is enough for at least a free flight. All for just $5,000 in spending.
How quickly will you earn a free flight?
Now you know that the credit card sign-up bonuses are the key to earning a free flight in one year or less. If you don’t have the excellent credit necessary to qualify for these cards, or you don’t trust yourself to pay off the balance each month, don’t feel discouraged. You can still sign up for an airline or hotel’s travel rewards program for free and earn points by staying loyal to the same brand. If you travel a lot for work, this could be an equally easy way to earn a free flight within a year.
Keep in mind that some (in fact, most) co-branded and travel credit cards have annual fees, though they are typically waived the first year. And while you can trade in points and miles for the ticket price, you’ll still have to pay the taxes and fuel surcharge, which sometimes add up.
While hardly anything “free” is actually 100 percent free (and these credit card offers are no exception), it is possible to use credit cards’ bonus offers to save a lot of money on your next trip without too much effort.