When it comes to strategizing how to earn free airfare with travel rewards credit cards, there are two main schools of thought. On one hand, you can sign up for your favorite airline’s frequent flyer program and get their co-branded credit card to earn miles through regular spending and flying. Or, you can get a credit card that lets you earn flexible travel rewards good for any airline instead.
Both strategies can be advantageous depending on your travel style and goals. Still, earning a free flight becomes easier when you’re able to make an informed decision about what type of travel rewards card is right for you.
So, which should you choose? Airline miles or travel credit?
Airline frequent flyer programs
While each airline loyalty program works differently, they all follow a similar format. When you pay for a flight, you earn frequent flyer miles based on the cost of your paid airfare and/or the many miles you fly. You can get more points by using the airline’s credit card to pay for it.
The upside of earning airline miles is obvious; through regular flying, credit card spending, or a combination of the two, you can earn miles and redeem them for flights around the globe. With the American AAdvvantage program, a round-trip domestic flight costs as little as 25,000 miles while a round-trip flight to Europe can run as little as 45,000 miles. Since the average domestic flight costs around $400 and the average flight to Europe can cost $1,000 or more, you can score an exceptionally good value for your miles with this program (points are worth 1.6 cents and 2 cents respectively). (See also: Which Airline Loyalty Program Has the Best Value for Their Miles?)
Keep in mind that, on top of your miles, you’ll need to pay government-mandated taxes and fees. These fees are usually $5.60 per leg for domestic flights, but can range in the hundreds of dollars for flights abroad. The fees also differ with airlines. Do your research before you settle on the airline program to pursue miles with. Other factors include where they fly and their partner airlines that you’d be able to get use miles for. Also, blackout dates and award seat availability are factors, too.
How to spot a frequent flyer program
These are the things you should look for when considering a frequent flyer program to join.
No blackout dates or seat limitations
The best programs allow you to redeem your miles for any seat on any flight as long as they haven’t been sold. Some programs designate a specific number of award seats per flight (or on select flights), or they impose blackout dates when you can’t use miles at all. Unless you are a solo traveler with very flexible plans on when and even where to go, you’ll end up very frustrated at your options and may see a lot of your points go unused due to the lack of availability. (See also: 10 Ways to Get Free — or Almost Free — Flights)
Multiple ways to earn miles
Being able to earn miles through other ways than flying with that airline makes racking up miles easier and faster, which means free flights faster. Airline credit cards will often give points for all spending, and maybe even bonus points for additional categories.