Don’t Like Paying for Flights? Here’s How to (Mostly) Avoid It

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INSIDER SECRET: Learning how to manage any of the best credit cards for travel you have is just as important as learning how to use the travel rewards you earn.

In a perfect world, travel would be free and unlimited. You’d arrive at the airport with just the right amount of time to walk through security. Boarding the plane you’d be handed a glass of champagne, some nice slippers, and an eye mask. A Ryan Goesling look-alike would be seated next to you and he’d strike up a conversation about how all he wanted was to find the right girl and settle down. Your plane would smell like freshly baked cookies…and you wouldn’t have to pay for any of it.

The good news? Most of these wishes are completely attainable with the best credit cards for travel (one of them clearly is not). By learning how to maximize rewards points for travel and keeping a bit of flexibility in your plans, you’ll find it’s often possible to fly for free and capitalize on upgrades to business and first-class (hello, champagne and extra legroom).

Managing the credit card and points game is something that I learned just a few years ago but quickly became hooked. In fact, looking back at the flights I’ve taken and avoided paying for over the last year, I thought it would be worth sharing my basic strategies.

By maximizing your credit card rewards miles, you can fly so many places for free! (Photo courtesy of anyaberkut/iStock)

Learn How to Use Your Cards

Choose the Right Cards

The biggest piece of the travel rewards puzzle is to first figure out which card is best for you. There are so many options out there, it can feel a bit overwhelming. Instead of looking at every single card before making a decision, I think of it this way – where do I shop mostly (Amazon and Whole Foods), what airlines do I prefer to travel on (United and Southwest), and what’s important to me when traveling (lounge access for extended layovers and TSA precheck). The cards that I use most often are:

  • United℠ Explorer Card
  • Amazon Prime Visa
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card – This is my go-to card for most purchases, especially when we’re on a road because you get extra points when you buy gas or eat out at a restaurant. This card also comes with some really nice perks – I love using the Priority Lounge Pass for extended layovers!

Time Your Sign-Up Bonuses Appropriately 

Most credit cards offer an initial sign up bonus, often in the form of a large chunk of miles. The catch is that you’ll need to spend a certain amount of money within a specific time frame to earn those miles. For example, when I signed up for my United℠ Explorer Card I knew I had a three-week road trip planned. Between hotels, gas, and meals I was able to meet that initial spending requirement.

Understand Which Card to Use When

Knowing when to use each of your cards can start as a game and become a minor obsession. For example, accidentally buying gas on a card that doesn’t offer bonus miles for that purchase can feel like a waste of money. Remember what cards you have in your wallet and memorize the offers on each, then you can truly maximize the points that you earn every time you buy something.

Don’t Be Afraid of Having Multiple Cards

It’s a good idea to start out with just one card and then add more to your wallet as you gain comfort and confidence around how you’re spending. Again, having the right card for the right purchase is key.

Learn How to Use Your Miles

You Don’t Have to Book a Roundtrip Flight 

This might be one of the best hacks/lessons I’ve learned in the last few years. Depending on when you’re flying and what airlines you have miles with – get creative and don’t assume you need to book a roundtrip flight. Often, one-way tickets (even on the same airlines) can save you a ton of money and miles. Many of the flights I’ve taken in the last few years have been one way on one airline and returning on a different one.

Ask for Compensation When Deserved

The airlines want to keep you happy, bottom line. If you’ve experienced serious delays or other inconveniences it never hurts to ask for something in return. I did this a few months ago and received $150 from Delta, making asking a quick question totally worth it!

Keep Your Calendar Flexible

One of the keys to maximizing your travel rewards is to keep an eye on different dates for the flight you want to book. For example, the end of January and start of February typically show cheaper fares since many people are still getting over their holiday travel. Many sites (like Southwest) offer some version of a fare calculator to display when it’s most economical to fly. And remember that you can create some pretty open-ended searches on Google Flights as well.

Flights I’ve Booked and What I Paid in the Last 12 Months

By tracking rewards and paying attention to the way that I spend on my credit cards, it was easy to minimize the money I spent on flights over the last year. I used miles & points to fly to spots like Seattle, San Francisco, Nashville, and Mexico City!

What’s your strategy when it comes to booking flights? Are you comfortable going somewhere last minute, or do you prefer to plan your travel out in advance? How many flights have you been able to take for free (or cheap) in the last year? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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Erin Lizzo is a contributor for Million Mile Secrets where she covers points, miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels and general travel. Her work has also appeared in the Matador Network.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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