By Greg Rodgers
In 2006 I flew to Alaska for free (first class even!) just because I used my travel rewards credit card for two years. Here’s how!
The dinging “fasten seatbelt” sign woke me from my peaceful, Dramamine-induced sleep. The flight attendants scurried around the cabin collecting cups and asking people to raise their tray tables. I stowed the book in my lap and raised the seat back on my first-class throne. I felt great, having spent the last eight hours riding stretched out in first class rather than the usual coach fetal position. I half-heartedly slid open my window and gasped at what I saw below.
Glowing in the light of a never-setting sun was mile after mile of unspoiled, milky white wilderness. Volcanic mountains ripped up from the landscape and between them lakes of dark water reflected the colors from the sun. The time was 11:00 at night, but the landscape was lit wondrously in bluish alien tones which almost didn’t seem real. I could only imagine what kinds of wildlife and adventures were waiting for me on the ground.
I was looking down at Alaska for the first time…and even better, I had flown here for free!
No, I am not sleeping with, involved with, or bribing someone from Delta. I learned a simple trick which works every time: I funneled all my bills through a decent travel rewards credit card. The points accumulated over time, and I was able to secure a free flight all the way to Alaska.
Before I began vagabonding full time, I had the usual American suburbia setup: a house with ridiculous mortgage, utilities, 300 useless cable channels, etc.
Aside from all the obvious and usual expenses, I had a whole bucket of hidden financial leeches, silently sucking away at funds every month. That $10 a month here and there adds up. Auto clubs, online fees, gym memberships, mobile phone replacement/insurance, magazine subscriptions, and hidden fees for bank transactions. How many ATM fees did you pay last year?
One day, out of frustration of having to mail bills on different days throughout the month, I consolidated all of my expenses onto one travel rewards credit card. This gave me a chance to pay everything at once, on time, with a few snappy mouse clicks on the credit card website.
I no longer had to pay late fees for my procrastination, I could manage it all from remote which made being away from home easier, and a nice side effect was the history tracking, which allowed me to see where all of my hard-earned cash was going.
I used my card faithfully for everything that I could — and paid it off on time each month so that no interest was accumulated. Gas, eating out, drinks, movie tickets — literally everything went onto plastic when it could. My utilities were automatically billed to the same card, as well as my internet access, health/auto/home/life insurance, groceries, and all other accumulated monthly expenses.
I was pleasantly, unexpectedly surprised when I went to cash in my points for the first time and saw that I could afford a long-haul domestic flight. And I paid nothing but a very small fee to use the travel reward!
How to Get Free Flights Faster
- Choose a card that offers maximum flexibility. There are many out there. I happened to have used the American Express Blue card (which also offers free travel baggage insurance and other perks for travelers).
- Cards that offer no annual fee are best, but it may be worth a small fee if you know for sure that you can earn a free flight. Some of the cards offer as many as 17,500 bonus miles when you sign up — which puts you nearly half way to a free flight. The fee for such cards is usually around US $50 a year, but that is still quite a cheap flight.
- Delta Skymiles do not expire. The miles in some other rewards programs do expire. Check the fine print carefully.
- If you already have an existing balance with a non-rewards card, you will have to decide if it is worth the hit to your credit to transfer the balance to another card. On the positive side, you will probably get a lower introductory interest rate for a while on the new card, and a lot of points from the transfer.
- Use the SAME credit card for everything. Don’t accumulate rewards in different places.
- Take advantage of automatic billing by your utility companies, mobile phone, and anyone else that offers it. Many times there are instructions on the reverse side of the statement.
- Nothing is too trivial to put on your card — those Starbucks lattes add up to a lot of miles by the end of the year!
- If you live with a very trustworthy roommate, volunteer to pay all the joint expenses on your card and have them write checks or give cash to reimburse you — that way you get the points.
- Check on bonuses offered by the card issuer — many offer double points some months for booking airline tickets, buying gas, etc.
- Finally, the most important thing to remember — ALWAYS pay your card balance on time. Using credit is not a negative thing, and is actually good for your credit rating, assuming that you pay off the balance in full each month.
One thing to note: it is not always easy to get the exact flight that you want when you are squeezing an airline for a freebie ticket. I had to wait an additional two weeks past the date that I wanted to fly, but was compensated by the airline with an upgrade to first class.
Be flexible, research multiple options, and don’t rely only on internet booking entirely. Sometimes rewards flights don’t show on the website. Call and talk to a human who can help you out. If you are charming enough, an operator can usually override what the database is telling you about availability.
So, the moral of the story is: if you are going to spend the money anyway (and you probably are) then you may as well get something for free every year. Get a good travel rewards credit card. Even if it takes two years, be patient — a free rewards flight is a free flight!