Choosing a Rewards Program
The first step to a free flight is selecting the right credit card rewards program. The two main types are those facilitated through a specific airline, and those facilitated by a credit card company.
The main difference is commitment. A credit card company, such as American Express, allows you to amass points redeemable on any airline, usually without black-out dates. With American Express, you redeem miles by purchasing a flight with your credit card and sending in a request for point redemption; you then receive either mailed check or account credit for the amount of the flight (usually minus the cost of taxes). With this type of program, you can use your reward points to fly anywhere, on any airline; rewards, however, are limited.
A more popular form of rewards program is through a specific airline. I decided to go with American Airlines; once a member of their frequent flier program, I was inundated with credit card offers. I signed up for an AA Advantage Citicard credit card, and received an immediate bonus of 25,000 points for signing up. Then, I received 1 point for every $1 spent.
Maximizing Credit Card Rewards
The easiest way to amass credit card points quickly is to charge everything, every time you can. Of course, this is only beneficial if, like me, you pay off your balance in full every month; otherwise, you´re hit with financing fees that don´t go towards your point accumulation.
American Airlines, as most airlines and credit card companies, has partnerships with other businesses, and you´re often able to gather extra points by making the best of these partnerships. Dining and lodging programs offer extra miles, when paid with your credit card–usually 20-50% more. The restaurants and hotels that participate in these programs, however, tend to be corporate and out of the range for budget travelers like myself.
The maximum points you can receive via your AA Advantage credit card is 100,000 per calender year, a number most of us don´t remotely approach.
Don´t Get Burned!
Make sure to read the fine print in any rewards program. As fuel costs soar, most airlines have slimmed down their rewards programs. American Airlines, for instance, has cracked down on point expiration. Additionally, they have changed the reward structure from round-trip flights to one-way; for instance, you now book two one-way flights instead of one round-trip flight, which usually requires more points.
Redeeming Reward Flights
When it comes time to redeem your points, it´s best to plan ahead and hold out for a long-distance flight, as they tend to be the most expensive.
American Airlines doesn´t maintain black-out dates, but does charge more points for high-season travel. I checked my points often, and figured out when I wanted to redeem my miles based upon season and destination. Booking ahead behooves you–the further in advance you book your rewards flight, the less points will be required.
It took me a little over a year to amass enough points for a rewards flight to Paris; this includes points earned through my credit cards, and through flights. I was responsible only for $73, the cost of taxes.