That #wheelsup selfie of your friend in first class is even more jealousy-inducing when you’ve learned that she’s scored that spot for free. Reddit threads, Instagram accounts, and blogs all explain how to maximize miles and points for travel rewards, but they can also seem seriously intimidating if you’re a newbie. And what if you don’t want to juggle multiple credit cards, keep spreadsheets, and track airline blackout dates? What if you just want to book a free flight somewhere nice without totally changing your habits?
Luckily, you can. In fact, with a little research and some organization, getting a flight for free can be a pretty easy task. Get started now, and then start making your destination bucket list.
First, meet “perks.”
Free checked bag. Access to a flight lounge. Snack vouchers. These options, called “perks,” are different than points, because it doesn’t matter how much money you spend each month — you get them no matter what. If you travel regularly (and, hey, even twice a year counts as regularly), look at what perks are attached to an airline credit card, even if the card has an annual fee. (Do some math first, though, to make sure that fee is worth it.) After all, a checked bag is $30 each way. Use this perk four times, and it’s $120 saved — without you doing a thing. Boom: Travel rewards without a spreadsheet!
Then, focus on the points
When you wade into the confusing message boards of airline hacking, you may get caught up on the difference between a mile and a point, or how your miles work with your credit card points. It’s confusing! So for now, focus on the points accruing on your credit card and don’t worry about mileage points — especially if you only fly a few times a year.
Points (also known as “fixed value points”) can be used to book rewards through different airlines, simply by logging into your credit card issuer’s rewards portal and looking for flights. Instead of dollars, you’ll see how many points a flight costs, and can assess from there.
Here’s the thing with points: While it’s important to read the fine print on your specific agreement with your card issuer, in general, points do expire. You’re not likely to get a heads up, so keeping track of expiration dates is essential. On that note, it’s also key to make sure you pay your bill on time, every time, as sometimes any reward points get removed if you’re delinquent on a bill — even if it’s by accident. If this does happen, you may be able to call your credit card issuer, explain the situation, and have the points reinstated. But it’s not a risk you want to take.
And, it’s important that you pay your balance in full, every month. While you still earn points on purchases not yet paid off, the monthly interest on your balance may negate the benefits of any accrued points. Rewards like points are not worth going into credit card debt! So only open a card if you know you’ll be able to use it without accruing debt.
Finally, earn some miles
Even if you don’t travel frequently, it’s worth it to make sure you’re accruing miles as well in your quest for travel rewards. Many airlines offer loyalty programs at no cost to travelers. Different than points, miles programs are exclusive of credit cards (although some co-branded cards roll points and miles into one program) and can even be opened even for minors. Miles can be tricky (but not impossible!) to redeem since they’re often subject to blackout dates, expiration dates, and accrual can take a long time if you’re not a frequent traveler. That said, even taking the baby step of opening an account means you’re earning miles, even if you’re not ready to spend them just yet. Just make sure to know whether your miles will expire, and under what circumstances. For example, some airline miles expire if you haven’t flown on that carrier in over a year.
Have a favorite airline? Consider that airline’s credit card
An airline credit card can combine points and miles, making it simple to keep track of travel rewards. This rewards system helps you keep track of all your purchases (which can accrue points) and flights (which can accrue miles) automatically bringing them together to offer you free flights. This is a smart option if you regularly fly the same airline carrier two or more round trips a year, like if you always take the same airline to visit your family for both summer and winter vacations. But again, it’s not worth it to open a new card unless you know you can pay it off in full each month.
Then, use your credit card for all monthly payments
One way to ensure you’re not overspending is to choose a card with a competitive travel rewards program and then use that card exclusively for things you’re already paying for each month. Think: rent, gym membership, Netflix … You’ll still pay for these each month out of your cash in hand, but automating payments to your credit card (as opposed to your debit card) means you’ll easily accrue rewards.
Time a credit card application to a big purchase
Many reward-focused credit cards have a bonus if you spend a certain amount in the first few months of sign up. If that’s the case with your card, but you don’t usually spend enough to hit that threshold, consider applying for the credit card at a time when you are already planning to make a large purchase, like in the run-up to the holidays or before you’re about to put a deposit down on a wedding venue. That way, you’ll be able to unlock more travel reward options.
Ask for help
If there’s one thing that connects flight hackers and travel reward experts, it’s that (most of them!) love advising others as to how they do it. So next time, instead of feeling jealous over your friend’s free vacation, ask her about the details. Yes, she may pull up Excel spreadsheets. Yes, your eyes may glaze over. But when you’re sitting poolside with a drink in your hand, it’ll be so worth it.