Ways to Earn Free Travel through Credit Cards
Leah Walker April 21, 2013

I’ll never forget the first time I bought an airline ticket using reward miles. I felt like I’d won the lottery. Never mind I saved for years to accumulate those 100,000 miles. I’ve gotten a bit smarter about earning miles since then.

Clouds from Plane

The day I ran across Chris Gillebeau’s site, The Art of Non-Conformity, I was introduced to a whole new way of thinking in regard to earning and using points and miles to pay for travel. Chris calls it, “travel hacking” and even has a “travel hacking cartel.” By being creative with miles over the last ten years, Chris was able to visit numerous countries without being independently wealthy. After reading a few of his posts and doing a little research on my own, I ditched my old credit card and found the best reward credit card for my needs.

Living in Houston, the Continental card made the most sense for me. Since the airline was based in Houston, I regularly flew Continental and was very loyal to them. It was ridiculous for me not to capitalize on the benefits of holding their credit card. I believe I got 50,000 miles after I spent $1,000 in the first three months. Planning far enough in advance, I can purchase two, round-trip domestic coach tickets with those bonus miles.

A380 Airplane

Obviously, Continental and United merged and now is simply known as United. Fortunately for me, Continental’s miles and redeeming system were retained, and I didn’t have to learn a new way of doing things. One little trick I played was signing up for a United credit card just before the merger was complete. I read that the two airlines were allowing customers to transfer miles between their United and Continental accounts, so I applied for the United card and swiftly collected another 50,000 miles. Once they were deposited, I transferred the miles from my United frequent flyer account over to my Continental frequent flyer account. There’s two more domestic round-trip tickets or a one-way ticket to Asia.

vintage world map

An additional benefit I receive is double miles on flights purchased with the United card. For instance, say I buy a $1,000 ticket. Not only did I get the actual flying miles, but I’ll also get 2,000 miles from the purchase of the ticket. I’d long been leaving those miles on the table by using my old credit card. Another way I was missing out on earning miles is by not booking my rental car through United. Most every major rental car company has an agreement with the airline and offers bonus miles by booking through the United site. If I’m going to need a car, or even a cheap RV rental in Canada, why not get the extra miles in the meantime? Also, I don’t have to buy the car insurance because my specific United card covers rentals.

Sunset from the Plane

Another helpful resource I use is Upgraded Points. It’s a go-to source for finding the best bonus deals  if you want to compare credit cards and learning the best practices for using your miles and points. In fact, I used the site just the other day looking for American Airline and other Oneworld offers. Since I’m flying Royal Jordanian to Amman, I didn’t want to simply lose those miles. The first thing I did was sign up for the American frequent flyer program, since Royal Jordanian and American are both members of Oneworld. The next thing I did was check to see which Oneworld partner had the best bonus offer. I found that American was offering 30,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 in the first three months. I’ve since done that and am just waiting for my miles to be deposited. Combined with my miles I’ll earn on Royal Jordanian and the bonus miles, I should be able to buy a domestic ticket. Simple. All it took was a little research.

Girl in Florence Italy

There are so many advantages to using a airline or hotel branded credit card. The key is to find the card that is best for you and then use it responsibly. As soon as I get my bonus miles on American, I likely will close that account and go back to using my United card. It makes sense for me. One of my very favorite things is redeeming miles as it allows me to travel less expensively and thus more often.

What card do you use and how have you been able to use it to your advantage in your travels?

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, USA Today 10 Best, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel and wine ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's lived in Paris for four years, and was awarded additional time with a Passeport Talent visa renewal. Though, her talent for speaking French is abysmal.

24 Comments

  1. I use a Citi bank American Airlies card and have for 20 years. My family has really been fortunate, with all the trips we have taken with frequent flyer miles. Funny you talk about the pre-merger card with United. I am doing the same thing with a US Airlines card currently! 40k with no annual fee and after your first purchase you receive the miles. Will probably get trimmed soon though! Thanks.
    Mike

  2. Don’t forget about shopping miles. If I am in Lowes or HD and need something, I log onto United Shopping and place the order through there, earning anywhere from 2x to 8x per $’ plus 1x from the United card Within 10 minutes or less, the order is pulled and ready. Do the same @ Sears, etc. Good for 20K miles a year
    Anytime you buy anything, go through the United shopping site. Drugstore.com is usually 8x I wish Amazon was associated with them; I’d never pay for another flight again. But places like Overstock and Wayfair are a good alternative to Amazon and give 2x. E-miles and ERewards are good for another 20K for me.

    1. You are exactly right, Brad. I don’t ever take advantage of that, but I’ve looked at it many times. Thanks for adding that.

  3. We too love flying for free! We found the most bang for our buck with the United Credit Card! Love to see that others are taking advantage of these offers! We have a similar post on our website that compares a bunch of airlines cards, come check it out!

    1. I’ve been very happy with my United card, especially when it was skimmed in London and I found $600 worth of fraudulent charges. It was taken care of and I had a new card in two days.

  4. This is a hard one for me. We live in Memphis, which has terrible air service. Delta controls the market. I’m just not sure if I want to get a card tied to them. For now we use a Citi Thank You card and make all purchases on it. We sometimes fly for free, sometimes have free hotels, sometimes free car rentals. I’m not so sure it’s our best option, though. Thanks for the post, though. It’s good advice I’m going to consider.

    1. Memphis is awful. I agree. You just have to do some research and see what works best for your situation. Everyone’s ideal card won’t be the same.

  5. I remember the day Gerard told me he had enough United points or miles, whatever the term is, to get us roundtrip tickets to South America! Totally made a believer out of me from that day forward. And the time we used points for our Marriott stay in Bangkok.. yup. LOVE ‘travel hacking’.

  6. well, you know it’s hard out of Boston to really have any loyalty to anyone. no hub here. i look for the best fares/flight times and use American Express points to convert to dollars to purchase the tickets. hotel rewards is another thing though…might need to explore that more.

    1. It’s hard to believe there is no hub in Boston. I do understand Amex is good for gaining and using travel points though. You still need to get your Global Entry! It’s free for you!

  7. A good way to get American Miles now is to get the USAir credit cards. Once the airlines merge so will the miles. The Chase Sapphire Preferred is also a great card and allows you to transfer miles to a lot of different programs. I saved a bunch of money on hotels in Toronto by using these points.

    1. Good call, Jeff. I’m going to do that right now. I have a friend that works for Chase and she’s told me that that’s a great card, but I just got that new United card with access to all the lounges, etc.

  8. I have not hit this lottery yet, as I’ve had to putting off getting credit cards until next year, for various reasons. I can’t wait to hack this system for my own personal benefit! My in-laws have a hotel credit card and an airline credit card. They often use the hotel card to buy their flights, which sometimes gives them enough points to immediately book a free hotel on the same trip.

  9. Starwood AMEX all the way. Can’t tell you how many free nights we’ve stayed in Ws and Luxury Collections around the world. Particularly useful on the front or back end of a trip when we’re flying through a big city and don’t want to shell out for a night somewhere nice when we’re only checked in for a few hrs before catching a 4am flight.

    You also get a transfer bonus when you move points over to an airline program.

    I swear, I don’t work for them 🙂

    1. I’ve looked into that card, but haven’t pulled the trigger yet. I like the idea of transferring points. I may need to check it out again.

  10. This is so smart! I loved using my Citi card back in the States to rack up AA miles. Now living in Italy I can no longer continue to grow my miles… the exchange rate on my purchases didn’t seem worth it.

    I have used miles for a few great trips and am holding on to the rest for a big trip or a move back to the States one day.

    Your tips are great, I will have to check out The Points Guy to see what I can do, if anything, from abroad.

    1. Oh, that’s too bad. I didn’t think the issues with living abroad and using an US credit card. Ugh…well, perhaps the Points Guy can help out with that problem.

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