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How to redeem flights with credit card rewards

minute read

    Whether it's redeeming flights, complimentary upgrades to first-class seats or exclusive airport lounge access, there are ways to strategically leverage your spending habits and turn them into redeemable miles.

    To earn your way to a free flight, here are some key steps you can take:

    1. Considering applying for a rewards credit card that allows you to earn miles or points.
    2. Consider joining an airline loyalty program.
    3. Consider putting as much of your usual spending as possible on your rewards credit card to earn points or miles.
    4. Redeem your earned points or miles from spend in exchange for a free flight.

    In this article we'll break down ways to choose a rewards credit card, ways to earn rewards, and how to redeem your points or miles.

    Choosing a rewards credit card

    If your goal is to earn flights, you may want to consider a travel rewards credit card. It's wise for you to consider several features.

    Airline credit cards​

    One of the best ways to work toward a free flight is with an airline credit card. Some credit cards are co-branded with specific airlines and offer rewards in the form of miles. Typically, these co-branded cards will offer bonus miles when you use the card to purchase flights on that airline. They may also reward you with miles for other non-travel purchases. As you accumulate credit card miles, you can put them toward a flight that then becomes free or discounted.

    Welcome bonus offers

    One of the most lucrative ways to earn miles is to apply for a rewards credit card that offers a welcome bonus. A welcome bonus is a reward, in the form of points, miles or cashback, only for new cardmembers.

    To unlock your bonus points, you'll likely have to spend a certain amount of money within a specified number of months after account opening. Since these bonus points can be substantial, you may be able to redeem the bonus points toward an airline ticket or even a free night at a hotel within just a few months.

    Spend categories​

    When choosing a rewards credit card, you may want to pay close attention to the shopping categories that earn accelerated rewards, which vary among cards and card issuers. When a card earns bonus points in spending categories where you shop the most, you may see accelerated earnings above and beyond the more common 1x on all purchases. Typical shopping categories include grocery stores, gas stations, dining or travel expenses.

    Flexible redemption options​

    Some of the most versatile travel rewards cards offer flexible ways to combine and redeem your rewards. Check out Chase Ultimate Rewards®, where you can redeem your rewards through cash back or gift cards, or even transfer your rewards to multiple hotel or airline loyalty programs. There may be other perks when you book travel through Chase's own online travel portal.

    Join an airline loyalty program​

    To complement the accumulation of credit card miles, you may also want to join an airline-specific loyalty program. These programs offer incentives and perks for your loyalty to that airline.

    Typically, these programs are free to join and offer ways for customers to earn a currency, like points or miles, which can be redeemed with that airline. Redemption options may include flights and exclusive perks like waived fees or travel upgrades.

    To earn credit for all the miles you fly, you need to enroll and receive a frequent flyer number. Then, each time you fly with that airline, you add your frequent flier number onto your reservation.

    Travelers who use their co-branded airline credit card for all their purchases, plus enroll in that same airline's loyalty program could see the biggest bang for their buck when it comes to earning flights or valuable travel perks.

    Start earning rewards

    Since you'll be earning points or miles on purchases, you may want to consider putting many of your normal, everyday expenses on this credit card. In addition to earning points with your everyday purchases, there are several other ways to boost your rewards.

    Online shopping portal​

    Check if your credit card has an online shopping portal where you can earn more points on purchases with certain merchants, only when you check out within that portal.

    Earn an airline companion pass

    Certain airlines offer a chance to earn a companion pass, which allows a second passenger to fly with you for free (not including taxes or fees). Chase has two airline partners that offer this benefit with eligible spend.

    Aer Lingus: Every calendar year that you spend a certain amount of dollars using your Aer Lingus Visa Signature® credit card, you'll earn an Economy Companion Ticket good for 12 months.

    Southwest Airlines: With a Southwest® Rapid Rewards® credit card, all points earned with your card count toward Companion Pass which is the benefit that lets a friend fly with you free of airline charges for a year. (Does not include taxes and fees from $5.60 one-way.

    Authorized user

    Add an authorized user to your account so that their spending earns miles in addition to yours. Be sure to communicate with each other about your purchases and have a plan to pay off your balance in full at the end of each billing cycle.

    Redeem your rewards for a free flight​

    Ready to redeem? Here comes the fun part. While the shortest flights will cost you about 10,000 miles for a free ticket, sometimes you can redeem any amount of miles you have in your account to find reduced fares on participating airlines.

    There are various places to redeem your rewards and you'll want to carefully weigh each option, depending on your number of miles, destination and any perks you may want. Here are some ways you can redeem:

    • Credit card rewards portal: You can log into your credit card issuer's rewards platform to see your reward and redemption options, or even book a flight! On these platforms, you may be able to see reward rates for specific flights, rules about blackout dates, priority boarding passes plus seat or hotel room upgrades. If you book travel through this platform, you may find the conversion rate is the highest value. For example, you may be able to redeem rewards for 1.25 cents per mile vs. 1 cent per mile on an affiliate site.
    • Partner travel sites: Your credit card rewards program may have affiliations with travel sites through which you can redeem your miles. Check to see if you can transfer your rewards to these partner travel sites. This will allow you to use your miles as a payment option during the booking process.
    • Airline-specific loyalty platform: Some travelers may choose to redeem miles directly through an airline-specific loyalty program. Your loyalty account may also keep track of the miles you've earned and provide a clear selection of available redemption options, details about availability, restrictions, and more.
    • Cash back towards a flight: When planning your travel, you may come across flights that have a low cash price, a high price in miles or some combination of the two. In that situation, you could be better off booking the flight with cash instead of redeeming miles.

    Keep in mind that some credit cards are valued between a half cent and two cents per mile. You should always work out the math to make sure the conversion makes financial sense. Converting miles into cash can often reduce the payout to a half-cent or less per mile: so be sure that you count out the value of your rewards before you convert and redeem them.

    What else can my miles be redeemed for?​

    Depending on how you earned your miles and what type of reward or loyalty program you're enrolled in, there may be different redemption and value options available for you. Your credit card miles may be used to redeem:

    • Reward flights
    • Upgrades to first-class seats
    • Hotel stays or room upgrades
    • Priority check-in and free checked bags Credit towards in-flight meals or drinks Access to airport lounges

    In conclusion

    Flying tends to be one of the most expensive parts of traveling. However, it's possible to get a free flight each year with some wise planning. Consider finding a credit card that offers a welcome bonus and the ability to earn miles on your most common purchase categories. You could join an airline loyalty program and redeem your rewards strategically. With some planning and patience, you'll be wheels up in no time.

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