Flying For Free is Not a Myth
We’ve all heard stories of people who claim that they “fly for free”.
Total BS, right?
Sorry to break it to you, but I recently booked a round trip ticket from Chicago to Shanghai for just $35.76.
All I had to pay was taxes.
So yeah, I’m one of those travel hackers who fly across the world for almost nothing ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
But don’t worry, travel hacking is not rocket science.
If you wanted to, you could travel to your dream destination for free as well.
How about this? Keep reading and I’ll show you exactly what I did each step of the way to book my free flights and how you can do the same.
How to Fly for Free – Online Course
Before I get into the exact steps that I took to book my free flights, I wanted to share with you an amazing opportunity. My friend Daniel Stanford created an in-depth course called “How to Fly for Free: Master the Points Game & Travel Cheap”, in which he goes through everything I discuss in this article and much more.
This course is an absolute steal. It includes high-definition video lectures and over-the-shoulder tutorials so that you learn everything you need to become a travel hacker.
The Secret Behind Flying for Free
I’m going to tell you my secret up front. I booked my free flight using credit card reward points.
It’s that simple.
I’ll be honest. When I first got into travel hacking, I was skeptical. It didn’t make sense to me how or why airlines would let people fly at little to no cost. Cheap travel and free flights seemed like a myth.
But after I tried out everything for myself. I found everything I read to be true!
In this article, I walk you through the 5 steps I took to booking a free international roundtrip flight. To summarize, the steps are:
1) Sign up for a low-interest / beginner-level credit card and build your credit score
2) Sign up for a travel or airline credit card that offers a signup bonus.
3) Spend the amount necessary to earn the promotional offer.
4) Check your airline’s rewards chart to see what you can redeem for the amount of miles you have.
5) Book a flight through your airline’s rewards booking system using your hard-earned miles.
1. Build Your Credit By Signing Up for a Credit Card
This step is for beginners who have no credit history and have never owned a credit card before. If you already have a credit card and have a credit score of 600 and above, feel free to skip to the next section.
This is the most time-consuming step of the process and can take between 6 months to a year. But it’s also the most important. Once you build up your credit score, you have done 90% of the hard work.
If you are a total beginner and have never had a credit card before, the first thing you need to do is to apply for a credit card and build your credit.
Before we get to that, what is a credit card?
A Credit Card Allows You to Borrow Money from Your Bank to Make Purchases
It’s that simple. The difference between a debit and credit card is this:
- When using a debit card you are spending money directly from your bank account.
- When using a credit card you are borrowing money from the bank, money that you need to pay back.
As you are applying for a credit card, you’ll come across a lot of fancy sounding words that will confuse you. Here’s an awesome guide by NerdWallet that goes through everything you need to know.
By far the most important thing to remember when it comes to credit cards is to pay what you owe on time and in full!
As someone with no credit history, you’ll have to stick with credit cards for individuals with limited credit history, which don’t offer a lot of rewards. If you’re a student, you can start out with student credit cards.
Credit Card Recommendation: Chase Freedom
For beginners, I personally recommend getting the Chase Freedom credit card. It’s one of the first credit cards that I have ever had and I still use it even today.
Here’s what you need to know about it:
- You earn a $150 bonus after spending $500 in your first 3 months
- Earn 5% cash back on rotating categories every 3 months
- Unlimited 1% cash back on all purchases
- No annual fee
Credit History and Your FICO Credit Score
The FICO Credit Score ranges from 0 – 800. The higher the number the better your score.
Your credit score serves as a track record of how responsible of a customer you are. If you are a good customer who pays on time and never owes money, your score will go up.
As your score goes up, you’ll be able to apply for more lucrative credit cards, which offer more perks and rewards.
At the same time, your credit line will increase, meaning you can borrow more money and spend more using your credit card.
Your FICO Score consists of the following:
A good score is in the 700s range and will allow you to apply for top-tier credit cards.
Don’t worry if that sounds really high. It’s not that difficult to build good credit. All you need is to establish good habits. Here are tips:
- Make 100% of your payments on time, not only with credit accounts but also with other accounts, such as utility bills. Bills that go unpaid may be sold to a collection agency, which will seriously hurt your credit.
- Keep your credit card debt low by paying your balance in full each month, but if do you carry a balance from month to month, don’t let your debt balance exceed 30% of your credit limit.
- Avoid opening too many new accounts at once; new accounts lower your average account age, which makes up part of your credit score.
- Keep accounts open for as long as possible. Unless one of your unused cards has an annual fee, you should keep them all open and active for the sake of your length of payment history and credit utilization.
- Check each of your credit reports annually for errors and discrepancies.
For more information on building credit, read the following articles:
Checking Your FICO Score
There are a few ways of checking your FICO score. I personally use a website called CreditKarma to check my score. You can set up an account for free! Just enter your information and they’ll retrieve your score for you.
Your score will come out something like this:
2. Pick the Right Travel Credit Card at the Right Time
The second step is to pick the right travel credit card. Since your credit score will be pretty high by this point (in the 700s), you should be able to pick from all the cards out there.
As I am currently based in the United States, I will be focusing on the two of the major airlines: American Airlines and United Airlines.
Both of these airlines offer credit cards. American Airlines offers the following cards:
Both cards are pretty similar. Here are the specs:
- Allows you to earn award miles when you pay using the card
- Enable you to use the card abroad without foreign transaction fees
- Has an annual fee of $95 that is waived the first year (Read: 6 Ways to Avoid Paying Your Annual Credit Card Fee)
- Offers a generous signup bonus for earning miles*
*The last point is particularly significant!
Look at the Credit Card Signup Bonuses
The most important thing to consider when looking at an airline credit card is the signup bonus. For example, at the time of writing, United Airlines offers 50,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open*
If you use this credit card as your primary spending card for the next three months, you can easily hit the spending threshold and qualify for the bonus miles.
To put into context, 50,000 miles is almost equivalent to the number of miles needed for a free, international roundtrip flight, which is valued anywhere between $700-1500USD!
Think about it: you get all of this for free – just by spending what you would normally spend anyway.
Credit Card Signup Bonuses Vary Throughout the Year
Keep in mind that different credit cards offer limited-time promotions at different times during the year. I suggest that you wait for the special promotional offers before you apply for a card. It makes a huge difference and you can get two times the number of miles just by waiting.
As a rule of thumb I would only consider signing up for a credit card if it offered at least 50,000 miles as a signup bonus.
Travel Credit Cards Don’t Have to Be Tied to an Airlines
Before we go to the next step, I have to mention that travel credit cards aren’t limited to cards with airline affiliations. In fact, some of the best credit cards and my favorite are not. Here’s a list of NerdWallet’s Best Travel Credit Cards of 2016.
Card Recommendation: Chase Sapphire Preferred
Now it’s time for me to share my favorite credit card and arguably one of the best in the market: the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.
It’s a truly exceptional card for the following reasons:
- Allows you to earn 2x points on any travel and dining spending
- Earn 1x points on all other purchases
- No foreign transaction fees when you use it outside of the United States
- Travel insurance benefits
The only downside is the annual fee of $95. But even so, this fee is waived the first year. Plus, you can always call the card company and ask them to waive it using the tricks I showed you ?
This card is my go-to card and the primary card I use all the time. Since there are no foreign transaction fees I can take it with me on my travel.
The Perfect Beginner Combo: Chase Freedom and Sapphire
There are a few reasons for this.
- You get 2x points on food and travel related expenses (Sapphire)
- 5x points for rotating bonus categories (Freedom)
- You get 1% on everything else
- Since it’s all under Chase bank, you can combine your points together
- You can make purchases through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, which can give you up to 25% on travel
This combination is so awesome that The Points Guy wrote about it here: Why Chase Sapphire Preferred and Freedom Unlimited are the Perfect Beginner Combo.
I highly recommend you read this. These are the two credit cards I use on a daily basis when I’m not signing up for new credit cards and trying to get the signup bonuses.
3. Spend Money, Get Miles
What Qualifies as a Purchase?
According to United Airlines: “Purchases” do not include balance transfers, cash advances, cash-like charges such as travelers checks, foreign currency, and money orders, any checks that access your account, overdraft advances, interest, unauthorized or fraudulent charges, or fees of any kind, including an annual fee, if applicable.)
This means that for something to count as a purchase it has to be actual spending. This includes groceries, restaurants, stores, and so on so forth. But this can be annoying when you’re trying to get that spending bonus.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way for you to hit your spending numbers without actually spending money?
I figured out how to do this, with what I call “The PayPal Loophole”.
Spending Hack: The PayPal Loophole
If you have Paypal and you have a friend who has Paypal, here’s a nifty trick you can use.
1) Ask your friend to request money from you on Paypal.
2) Pay your friend through Paypal using a credit card!
3) Get your friend to transfer the money back to you.
Paypal will think that you’re paying your friend for a service so it will be listed as a “purchase”. The only thing you’ll be spending on is a nominal credit card transaction fee, which is around 3% of your payment.
The first few times you do this, Paypal will take around 2 weeks to process your payments because you are a “new vendor” in their system. But it’s worth it!
I’ve used this technique in the past when I was trying to hit my spending threshold for two separate credit cards at one time.
Remember: As You’re Spending to Get the Bonus, You’re Already Accruing Miles
At this time, you are probably only focused on using your card regularly so you can hit your spending threshold. That’s all good, BUT don’t forget that for every dollar you are spending you are already accruing 1 mile!
As you keep using your card for spending purposes, you will keep growing your miles over time without having to think about it. Of course, it’s still no match for the sheer size of your signup bonus!
The benefit of this, however, is that you hardly have to think about it. Just go on with your normal life and you’ll find that your miles grow over time.
4. Checking Your Airline’s Rewards Chart
Now that you have built up some miles, it’s time to look at what rewards you can get. I’ll give you a walkthrough of how to do this on the American Airlines website.
On this page you’ll be able to find all the different reward options and how many miles it costs.
5. Time to Book Your Trip… for FREE
It’s finally time to book your trip! Go back to the “Award Travel” page, and this time, select “Book award travel”.
5.1 – Enter basic information for your search
You’re going to want to enter some basic information for your search. Everything on this page should straightforward.
I’d recommend selecting the following fields to make sure you use your miles in the most efficient way:
- Search by: Dates Flexible
- Cabin Service Preference: Economy
- Award Type Preference: MileSAAver
- Carrier Preferences: AA + AAdvantage Participating Airlines
5.2 – Selecting your flights
Now you’ll have an opportunity to select your flights. Play around with different dates to see what the best deals are for you.
5.3 – Selecting your seats
This is a very important step that I take to make sure that I get the best seats and fly in the most comfortable way, even on Economy class.
Here’s what you need to do:
1. Take note of your flight number. You will be able to see this from the previous page where you selected your flight.
2. Search for the Flight on SeatGuru.
3. Click “View Map” if your flight is searchable.
At this point, you will be able to get detailed information about your flight aircraft. This information includes which seats are good or bad, photos of the aircraft interior, customer reviews, along with aircraft amenities (WiFi, entertainment).
I always refer to Seat Guru whenever I am traveling internationally because it would suck to be on a 10+ hour flight with no personal entertainment system!
Now You’re Also Flying for Free!
There you have it. This is all it takes to book an international flight for free.
You’re spending nothing more than what you would usually spend in your day-to-day, and you’re getting anywhere between $700 – 1400 USD back in free flights.
Please share your experiences with booking free flights in the comments section below! And please share this with your friends and family who would find this helpful.
Best Credit Card Resources
Don’t just take my word for it, here is a list of my favorite blogs for learning more about the credit card industry and trends:
Dive Deeper into Travel Hacking
If you want to learn more about travel hacking, check out the in-depth course “How to Fly for Free: Master the Points Game & Travel Cheap” that my friend Daniel Stanford created.
It goes through everything we have discussed and more in through a series of video lectures and over-the-shoulder tutorials.
Happy travel hacking!