Roughly 20 seconds, give or take, after international travel opened for vaccinated U.S. travelers, airline prices started to soar. It’s a perfect storm of limited routes — it takes time for airlines to open routes that were closed during lockdown — and pent-up travel demand that broke like a dam when countries reopened.
If you’re one of the many who have been itching to hit the skies, you’ve probably already started browsing tickets. And you may be wondering how you’re going to make your travel dreams a reality in the face of high prices.
Luckily, there’s one way you can fly wherever you like, without emptying your wallet: credit card rewards. That’s right, it’s finally time to dust off your travel credit cards and put those rewards to good use.
Airline miles can save you thousands
There are three main ways you can use your travel credit cards to get free flights. The first, and arguably easiest, is to use a co-branded airline credit card that directly earns frequent flyer miles.
With airline cards, you simply make purchases like normal, and instead of cash back or generic points, you earn miles on your purchases that go straight into your airline frequent flyer account. For example, if you have a Delta credit card, you’ll earn Delta SkyMiles.
Co-branded airline cards are fantastic if you regularly fly the same airline as you not only earn miles, but you can also get perks like free checked bags and airport lounge access. The downside to co-branded airline credit cards is that they’re tied to a single airline. If you don’t fly with the same company very often, then a co-branded airline card can be very limiting.
The second option is a travel rewards credit card that earns transferable rewards. With these cards, you’ll earn points or miles that you can then transfer to an airline loyalty program. Since most transferable rewards programs have half a dozen or more airline partners, this gives you much more flexibility in which airline you can fly.
And third, if you want more versatility, you can even use your points or miles to book your travel more directly. Most travel rewards programs have a travel portal that lets you book flights on any airline and use your rewards to pay for the flight. In some cases, you could even use your credit card to book the flight directly with the airline, then retroactively use your rewards to “erase” the purchase.
Credit card sign-up bonuses = free flights
Many of us have spent the last 18-plus months accumulating travel rewards we haven’t been able to use. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we all have the points or miles on hand to fulfill our post-quarantine travel dreams. That’s where sign-up bonuses can come in handy.
Whether you’re looking for a co-branded airline card or just want a good travel rewards card, the key to using your points and miles for free travel really is the sign-up bonus. A good sign-up bonus can mean tens of thousands of points or miles, and a single good bonus can be enough for a free round-trip flight to just about anywhere.
As the name implies, sign-up bonuses are only available when you sign up for a new credit card. Once you open the account, you’ll have a set period of time — typically 90 days, though some bonuses will give you up to six months — to meet a preset spending requirement. Spend the required amount in the required time, and your bonus should hit your account a few weeks later.
One thing to watch out for when it comes to sign-up bonuses is that you don’t want to start making purchases just to reach the spending requirement. If you can’t pay off your card, you’ll start accruing interest, and credit card interest can get very expensive. Make sure you can comfortably afford to meet the spending requirement before applying for a new card.
It’s been a long wait for travel to reopen — and it’ll be a longer wait for airline prices to stabilize. With a few thousand points or miles, you can finally put an end to the wait. Happy travels!