Travel Hacking

How to Get Your First Free Flight in 6 Steps

Plane taking off at Gravelly Point

Hi there! It’s Carly from 52 Cities, back again to share a step-by-step guide to how to get a free flight using credit card points or frequent flier miles.

Whether you already have a stash of points and miles built up or are just starting out in the world of travel hacking, your goal is probably to redeem your points—i.e., cash them in for a free flight—to help you save money on travel. And while there’s plenty of information out there about how to collect points and miles (including a whole world of information about what credit cards you might want to use along the way), that’s only half the equation!

In this post, we’ll cover everything you’ll need to do in order to snag a free plane ticket—from getting started to taking the plunge and booking.

Step 1: Pick the Destination Where You Want to Fly For Free

Travel hacking is most effective when you have a specific trip or destination in mind. Believe it or not, where you want to go can inform a ton of your decision-making around what type of points to collect and even what travel rewards credit cards to open up and use every day.

Think of every type of point or mile as its own currency, with its own value and unique set of rules about where you can and can’t use it. Now think about the way you use different currencies. Do you go to the bank and take out some Euros, some Vietnamese dong, some Mexican pesos and some Indian rupee just in case you end up in those places? Of course not; you decide where you’re going and then collect the specific currency you can use on your trip. When done right, travel hacking works the same way.

Of course, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to picking your first location. You may be interested in using your points and miles to do something aspirational that you’d never be able to afford otherwise, like an African safari or a honeymoon in Bora Bora. Or you may just want to cut down on more run-of-the-mill expenses, like cross-country trips to visit family and friends. The destination you choose isn’t the important part—having a target is!

Step 2: Learn the Basics of Travel Hacking

Before you go any further, head on over to this beginner’s guide to travel hacking and flying for free. You’ll want to make sure you’re up to speed on some of the commonly used terms before we start dissecting the different ways to redeem your points! The guide also outlines some of the steps you’ll see here in more detail, so it makes the perfect primer.

Step 3: Choose the Right Travel Rewards Card For You

As you read in the beginner’s guide, there are lots of ways to earn points and miles, including flying on paid tickets, shopping, and eating out. But the fastest way is through credit card sign-up bonuses, and unless you’re ineligible for a credit card, that’s probably where you’ll want to start.

(Note: If you aren’t a candidate for a travel rewards credit card, don’t worry! You can focus on some of the other points-earning methods while building up or repairing your credit. There are also points-earning debit card options out there that you can look into!)

Before you jump at the first travel credit card offer you see, take some time to think about what will best suit your needs and the travel goal you set in Step 1. For example, a Southwest Airlines credit card that only earns Southwest Rapid Rewards Points isn’t going to help you get to Europe, as that’s a destination to which Southwest doesn’t fly!

This is also a good time to think about how far you want to go into the world of travel hacking. Are you willing to pay a higher annual fee for a card that earns more points and is packed with perks, or would you rather take things slow and steady with a $95-per-year card? And when it comes to redeeming your points, are you ready to learn all the ins and outs of how to get the best value for your points, or would you rather take the simplest route to scoring a free ticket?

If simplest sounds like you, look into cards whose points you can redeem at a fixed value—for example, 1 cent per point, such that you’ll need 40,000 points for a $400 flight, 12,500 points for a $125 flight, etc. The Capital One Venture and the Wells Fargo Propel are two examples of cards that work this way!

If you’re excited to go all-in, check out a card that earns transferable points (such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the American Express Gold Card), giving you the option to move the points you earn to a variety of different partner programs.

Step 4: Start Earning Points and Miles

No matter which card you get, don’t forget to hit that sign-up bonus; that will be your best shot at earning a big chunk of points and miles in one go. If you need help meeting the necessary spending threshold, consider saving up for a big purchase before taking out the card or asking friends and family if they will put an expense on your card and reimburse you (you can always do the same for them later!).

It’s also worth noting that many credit card bonuses fluctuate throughout the year, meaning one single card may offer higher or lower bonuses during different seasons, so opening it at one time of year may be more advantageous for padding your points than another. Following a site like The Points Guy is a great way to stay on top of which cards are currently offering the biggest bonuses at any given time.

Once you’ve hit the sign-up bonus, you can start incorporating other points-earning methods into your day to day, and you can use as many or as few as you’d like. Check out the beginner’s guide for more info on how to earn extra points through promotions, while shopping, on flights and more.

Step 5: Do Your Booking Research

Once you have the points you need for a free trip, the next step is doing some research about the best way to go about booking it. Depending on the type of points you’ve collected, you may have some options here that you’ll want to compare.

For example, with a credit card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you have the option to book your flight through the Chase travel portal, using your points to offset the cash price of a ticket. You also have the option to transfer them directly to an airline to book an award ticket. This is a situation where you’d want to check both, as one option might be thousands of points cheaper than the other!

If you feel really gung-ho about digging deep and getting the best possible value for your points, I definitely recommend a quick Google search combining your destination and “points and miles” as a search query. You’ll find “Best ways to get to X LOCATION using points and miles” articles for nearly every destination you could think of!

You also might find when picking out flights that cash prices don’t look so bad—and subsequently you may wonder if it’s worth it at all to be using your points on a given trip. Luckily, popular points news source The Points Guy has a handy tool to help you figure that out. It uses a variety of factors to assign a monetary value to points so that you can do some simple calculations and figure out whether the price you’re being charged in points is actually worth more than what you’d  pay in money.

Step 6: Take the plunge

I’ve talked to so many people who have unintentionally turned into points hoarders—people who have lots of points but are too afraid to spend them because they’re worried about making a mistake, overpaying or using their points in a sub-optimal way.

Here’s the thing: Not every redemption you do will be the Best Possible Redemption.

I look back now and cringe thinking of free tickets I booked when I was just starting out in the world of travel hacking, imagining how many more points I’d have today if I had known everything I know now about how to get the best possible deals when using points.

But if you take the plunge and go for it, the worst possible outcome is that you get a free trip (!!!) and it takes you a little longer to save up for the next one. If I’d waited seven years to book my first free flight, I wouldn’t have memories from the Greek Islands, the Maldives, or so many of the other incredible destinations I’ve been able to visit over that time period. And the best part? Even after vastly overpaying, I’ve been able to re-earn enough points to keep taking international trips. Your points will regenerate. Just rip off the bandaid and go for it!

Hope you enjoyed this guide to how to get a free flight! Stay tuned for more posts on how to use points and miles to travel for free.

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