How to Use Travel Rewards Credit Cards to Earn Free Flights

People all over the world use travel rewards credit cards to earn free flights and seat upgrades. You too can reap these benefits when you know which credit cards will reward you for the type of travel you do most.

There are a variety of travel rewards credit cards out there. Some are best for people are frequent flyers of a particular airline. Others are great for travelers who don’t stay loyal to one carrier.

This guide to the best travel rewards credit cards will tell you about the most popular card options, and it will show you how you can quickly get on the path to earning flight comps and perks.

What Kinds of Travel Rewards Cards are Out There?

Among travel rewards credit cards, you’ll find those that are sponsored by certain airlines (like American Airlines and United Airways) as well as cards issued by banks (such as Bank of America).

Airline-specific cards typically allow individuals who consistently fly one carrier to earn free flights fast.

All sign-up bonuses and points earned from spending (we’ll more about this in a minute) on these cards can be used toward comped flights or seat upgrades on the airline that issued the card.

Generic travel rewards cards feature bonuses and points-for-spending programs too. But, it usually takes longer to accrue the points necessary for comped flights because points-per-dollar-spent are lower.

These cards are great, however, when you want access to other statement credits, rental car discounts, or reduced hotel rates.

What’s the Value in Using Travel Rewards Credit Cards?

Travel rewards credit cards bring value to people who normally put their day-to-day expenditures on their cards – or are willing to. The folks who benefit from these rewards cards will charge everyday purchases and then earn points – or miles – for every dollar spent.

If you pay for daily expenses with a credit card, you could be earning your way to free flights and upgrades if you switch to a travel rewards credit card.

If you mostly pay expenses and bills with cash – or check – consider putting them on a travel rewards card instead and then paying off the balances at the end of the month with the money you’d normally use for your bills.

You’ll spend the same amount and get benefits that you would have missed out on.

One real-life example someone using a travel rewards card to get free flights is a frequent flyer who put all of his purchases on a Citibank rewards card. In just a short amount of time, this individual redeemed his earned points for 2 free Europe flights, $300 cash USD, and free Hilton Honors Gold membership with 60,000 Hilton Honors points.

How to Earn Free Flights and Upgrades with a Travel Rewards Credit Card

Typically, you earn free flights and upgrades with a travel rewards credit card by accruing points or miles.

Credit card points are a type of currency, if you will, that the card issuer gives you for signing up for the card or for making purchases.

You normally receive a certain amount of points upon sign up, and then you continue to accrue points (at a pre-specified ratio of points per dollar) for spending on a card.

Points can be cashed in for free flights, seat upgrades, benefits like Wi-Fi and airport lounge access, and more.

Sometimes travel rewards credit card issuers give cardholders miles for signing up and making purchases – instead of or in conjunction with points. Miles are used, as you might imagine, toward miles flown in the air.

Should you opt for a card that gives away points or miles? The choice is really not that simple. As well see in a moment, you need to weigh all of the benefits of each card and then decide – and maybe even carry 2 cards to suit different purposes.

What to Look for in a Travel Rewards Card

The following are some things that you’ll want to look for in a travel rewards credit card:

  • Sign-Up Bonuses – Travel rewards cards that offer sign-up bonuses (which can be points or mileage bonuses) are very attractive because the points or miles you earn from the start may be enough to get a free flight or upgrade right away.
  • Points or Miles for Dollars Spent – Travel rewards credit cards offer varying amounts of points or miles earned for every dollar spent. It may seem like a good idea to choose cards that give you the most points or miles per dollar, but sometimes cards that offer a lower ratio are best (for instance in the case of cards that reward you with extra perks for staying local to a certain carrier).
  • Low Spending Minimums – Often, a travel rewards card requires you to spend a certain amount before you can start earning any type of benefits. Find out what these spending minimums are, because you don’t want to have to put $5,000 worth of purchases on a card in just 3 months if you wouldn’t normally spend this much. These cards might be a good choice for someone with a bigger budget, however.
  • Annual Fees – Many travel rewards credit cards have annual fees that range from $50 to $200. This may sound like a negative, but sometimes these cards give you tremendous savings that allow you to recoup the fees rather quickly.
  • Foreign Conversion Fees – Cards that waive the typical 3% foreign conversion fee for credit card usage are great for travelers who fly overseas often. Foreign conversion fees can add up fast, so this type of card can be of greater benefit than those with large sign-up bonuses.
  • APR (Annual Percentage Rate) – A credit card’s APR is the rate that’s charged annually for any balances carried on the card. When using travel rewards credit cards to earn free flights or upgrades, we suggest you pay off your balance in full each month or you might lose money instead of gaining benefits.

The Top Travel Rewards Credit Cards

The following are the top 5 travel rewards credit cards and a brief summary of their benefits. We recommend you check out these cards in detail to see if they’ll give you the savings that you want:

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card – The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card allows you to use earned points toward free flights and upgrades on Southwest, United MileagePlus, British Airways, Singapore KrisFlyer, and Korean Air.

This card offers a huge sign-up bonus, a low annual fee, and reduced fares when you book through Chase’s online travel tool.

Capital One Venture Rewards Card – The Capital One Venture Rewards Card is a popular card that lets you redeem earned miles as a statement credit against travel expenses.

This card allows you use miles to purchase flights on any airline, and it gives you 2 No-Hassle Miles for every dollar you spend.

With the Capital One Venture Rewards Card, you earn bonus rewards for nearly everything you put on the card – like flights you’d take anyways and even hotel accommodations. This card also features a 0 Foreign Transaction Fees program.

BankAmericard Travel Rewards Card – If you’re looking for a travel rewards card that has no annual fee, no blackout dates for reward travel, and no foreign transaction fees, opt for the BankAmericard Travel Rewards Card.

This rewards credit card gives you 1.5 points for every $1 spent, as well as a sign-up bonus of 10,000 points that can be used toward your first $100 in travel-related purchases.

The card that’s best for you is one that addresses your most pertinent travel needs. Your ideal card may be different from the one the passenger on the plane next to you uses and that’s okay.

Before you take your next flight, sit down and study your travel plans. Then, evaluate these rewards cards in depth to compare savings in terms of free flights, upgrades, comped services, and more.