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9 Cards That Can Get You Enough Miles for a Free Flight

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You don’t need to travel much or charge significant amounts to your credit cards to earn award flights; as TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen explains, there are several products that offer enough miles or points for a free flight just for meeting the sign-up bonus spending requirement.

In this hobby, we constantly pursue freebies. Whether it’s first-class award tickets on world-renowned international carriers or luxurious hotel rooms for which we’d never pay cash, it’s always a rush when you can use your hard-earned points and miles for at least part of your trip. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a road warrior to take advantage of these redemption opportunities, as many travel rewards credit cards offer lucrative sign-up bonuses that can boost your account (almost) instantly. Today I want to go through several top credit cards that can get you enough miles for a free flight with little effort on your part.

Airplane wing ocean island featured 2 shutterstock 262466249
Jetting off to paradise for free sounds like it’s too good to be true, but many credit cards can help make it happen. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

This post will be broken up into to separate but equally important categories:

  1. Airline co-branded cards
  2. Transferable point currency cards

The former of the two allows you to earn miles in a specific airline’s program, and these cards often make sense if you’re based near that carrier’s hub. This is especially true if you’re interested in perks beyond just the free flight, as many of the cards provide waived baggage fees and other benefits that apply beyond the flight you’d get with the sign-up bonus.

The latter category refers to cards that allow some type of transferability. When you earn points on these cards, you often have the option to use them directly to pay for flights but also have the ability to transfer those points to various partners (this will generally offer a better value). Though you won’t get the added perks that come with a co-branded card, they do allow you to wait until you know how you want to redeem your points before committing those points to a specific program.

Finally, before getting to the analysis, it’s important to point out that the saying “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” does still apply to the points and miles universe. All award tickets impose taxes and fees of some sort, and while you don’t necessarily have to pay cash out of pocket to open a card, it will temporarily affect your credit score. Be sure to factor these into your decision-making process as you evaluate the best option for you and your desired travel plans.

So, which cards can help you get a free flight? Here are my picks (in no particular order):

AIRLINE CARDS

1. Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard

american airlines 777-300er featured
The AA Platinum Select MasterCard is a great option for a free flight, even with the upcoming devaluation.

Current sign-up bonus: Earn 30,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles after making $1,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening.
Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar spent on American Airlines purchases; 1 mile per dollar spent everywhere else
Other benefits: No foreign transaction fees; free checked bag for you and up to four companions; priority boarding; 10% of your redeemed miles back (up to 10,000 miles each year)
Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)

Analysis: This card is a great option if you regularly travel on American given the array of benefits it offers. While the AAdvantage program just went through a significant devaluation, the 30,000 miles you’d earn from the sign-up bonus can still get you a free flight. Note that this sign-up bonus has gone to 50,000 miles before, so you may want to consider holding out in the hopes of another increase.

Here are some sample flights you could book with the sign-up bonus (using the new award chart as of March 22):

  • Round-trip domestic coach flight within the US (25,000 miles)
  • Round-trip coach flight between the US and Canada/Alaska (30,000 miles)
  • Round-trip coach flight between the US and the Caribbean/Mexico/Central America (25,000 – 30,000 miles)
  • One-way business-class flight between the US and Columbia/Ecuador/Peru/Bolivia (30,000 miles)

2. United MileagePlus Explorer Card

united dreamliner featured
The Explorer Card gives some great benefits and opens up some solid redemption options.

Current sign-up bonus: Earn 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open. Plus earn 5,000 bonus miles when you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first three months.
Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar spent on United purchases; 1 mile per dollar spent everywhere else
Other benefits: No foreign transaction fees; free checked bag for you and a companion (when you pay for your ticket with the card); 2 United Club passes each year; priority boarding; expanded award inventory
Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)

Analysis: The MileagePlus program underwent its own devaluation back in 2014, but this card still offers an intriguing value proposition. Note that the sign-up bonus on the card has jumped to 50,000 miles in the past, so you could hold out and hope for another increase this spring. Here are some sample flights:

  • Round-trip domestic coach flight within the US (25,000 miles)
  • One-way business-class flight from the US to the Caribbean/Central America (30,000 miles)
  • One-way coach flight from the US to Southern South America or Europe (30,000 miles)

3. Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express

Delta posted record profit in 2015.
Delta has significantly devalued the SkyMiles program as of late, but you can still get some value out of the carrier’s co-branded Amex cards.

Current sign-up bonus: Earn 30,000 bonus miles after you make $1,000 in purchases on your new card within your first three months, and a $50 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new card within your first three months. Note that you may be targeted for a higher offer through a tool like CardMatch or by changing browsers; I opened Chrome and received an offer for 50,000 bonus miles.
Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar spent on Delta purchases; 1 mile per dollar spent everywhere else
Other benefits: No foreign transaction fees; free checked bag for you and up to eight companions; priority boarding; discounted SkyClub access
Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)

Analysis: Delta is another program that’s seen its fair share of devaluations over the last few years, but there still are some great ways to use SkyMiles. You may even find that they can save the day when your other award options are scant or include less-than-ideal routing. Award availability at the Saver level is generally best on partner airlines like Virgin Atlantic, many of which are now searchable and bookable online. Here are some sample flights (since Delta no longer publishes award charts, these are based on what I found on Delta.com):

  • Round-trip domestic coach flight within the US (25,000 miles)
  • One-way business class flight from the US to the Caribbean/Mexico/Central America (30,000 miles)
  • One-way coach flight from the US to Europe or Southern South America (30,000 miles)

4. Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card

Alaska
I’m a big fan of both Alaska’s Mileage Plan program and its Visa Signature Card from Bank of America.

Current sign-up bonus: Earn 25,000 bonus miles after account approval
Earning rates: 3 miles per dollar spent on Alaska Airlines purchases; 1 mile per dollar spent everywhere else
Other benefits: Coach companion fare every year; free checked bag for you and up to six companions; $50 off new Board Room membership
Annual fee: $75

Analysis: I opened this card last year to take advantage of the terrific companion fare benefit, since you can use it with a stopover, open jaw or on multi-city trips (it also helped that I status-matched to MVP Gold 75K and upgraded most of our flights using Gold Guest upgrade certificates). Alaska miles are also incredibly valuable thanks in part to the varied redemption options and flexible routing rules, and 25,000 miles will easily get you a free flight. Here are some sample itineraries:

  • Round-trip domestic coach flight within the US, including flights on American and Delta (25,000 miles)
  • One-way coach flight from the US to Hawaii, including East Coast gateways (20,000 miles)
  • One-way coach flight from North America to Iceland on Icelandair (starting at 22,500 miles)
  • One-way business-class flight on Cathay Pacific from New York-JFK to Vancouver (25,000 miles)

5. Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card

Southwest gets a bump to Rapid Rewards this month.
Southwest’s Premier Visa can get you multiple free flights, depending on your destination.

Current sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open.
Earning rates: 2 points per dollar spent on Southwest Airlines and Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partner purchases; 1 point per dollar spent everywhere else
Other benefits: No foreign transaction fees; 6,000 points every year after your cardmember anniversary
Annual fee: $99

Analysis: Southwest doesn’t have the same lucrative international redemptions of the aforementioned carriers, but the no frills, no change fees and no bag fees appeal to many travelers. The Rapid Rewards program is revenue-based, so based on Jason Steele’s analysis from last April, these 50,000 points are worth at best $950. You’d likely get a value of closer to 1.5 cents apiece, so you’re looking at $750 toward free flights. Here are some samples of where that can take you based on Southwest.com as of March 15 (using the low fare calendar option for April):

  • Up to 22 one-way flights between Orlando and Atlanta (2,272 points each)
  • Up to 7 one-way flights between Chicago-O’Hare and New Orleans (6,699 points each)
  • Up to 4 one-way flights between Philadelphia and Las Vegas (11,843 points each)

TRANSFERABLE POINT CARDS

1. American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card

Current sign-up bonus: 25,000 Membership Rewards Points after you spend $2,000 on purchases on your new card in your first three months of cardmembership. Note that you could be targeted for a higher sign-up bonus through the CardMatch Tool or by loading the application page in a different browser.
Earning rates: 3x points for flights booked directly with airlines; 2x points at US restaurants, US gas stations and US supermarkets; 1x points on all other purchases
Other benefits: No foreign transaction fees; $100 airline fee credit every year; access to The Hotel Collection
Annual fee: $195 (waived for the first year)

Analysis: The Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card isn’t just a great option for purchasing airfare. It also gives you some valuable transfer partners that allow you to get a free flight out of the 25,000 Membership Rewards points you’ll take home as a sign-up bonus. Here are some of those transfer options that could be enough for a free flight:

  • Delta (25,000 SkyMiles)
  • JetBlue (20,000 TrueBlue points, worth $200 – $280 based on TPG’s most recent valuations)
  • Virgin America (12,500 Elevate points, worth $187.50 – $287.50)

2. Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express

The SPG Amex card is a great option for free flights given the program's 35 airline transfer partners.
The SPG Amex card is a great option for free flights given the program’s 30-plus airline transfer partners and 5,000-mile bonus.

Current sign-up bonus: Get 25,000 bonus Starpoints after you use your new card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first three months.
Earning rates: 2 points per dollar spent at SPG properties; 1 point per dollar spent everywhere else
Other benefits: No foreign transaction fees; 2 stays and 5 nights toward SPG elite status every year; Boingo Wi-Fi
Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)

Analysis: This card is a terrific option for everyday non-bonus category spending. Even though there are some terrific hotel redemptions in the SPG program (like the St. Regis Bal Harbour), you also have the option to convert your Starpoints to airline miles with more than 30 different carriers. Plus, for every 25,000 points you convert, you’ll get a 5,000-mile bonus. You can thus convert this sign-up bonus to 40,000 miles and unlock free flights on the following carriers (with one sample flight for each):

  • Alaska: round-trip coach flight from the US to Hawaii
  • American: one-way coach flight from the US to South Pacific
  • Delta: one-way business-class flight from the US to Hawaii or Northern South America

3. Citi Prestige Card

The Citi Prestige fourth night free hotel benefit is a great perk.
The Citi Prestige carries a host of valuable perks, but it’s also a great option for free flights.

Current sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus ThankYou points after $3,000 in purchases within three months of account opening.
Earning rates: 3 points per dollar spent on air travel and hotels; 2 points per dollar spent on dining and entertainment; 1 point per dollar spent everywhere else
Other benefits: No foreign transaction fees; $250 air travel credit every year; fourth night free on hotel stays; 3 free rounds of golf each year; complimentary lounge access
Annual fee: $450

Analysis: Many new points and miles hobbyists may be deterred by the high annual fee on the Citi Prestige Card, but the benefits can easily add up if you utilize them regularly. The $250 airfare credit could be considered a “free flight,” but you also have 12 transfer partners that can open up additional redemption opportunities as well as the ability to put your points directly towards airfare. Here are some ways to redeem the 50,000-point sign-up bonus:

  • Book an American flight: When you redeem points earned from the Citi Prestige for American flights, you’ll get a value of 1.6 cents per point. The sign-up bonus is thus worth $800, easily enough for a variety of destinations.
  • Book a flight on another carrier: You can also redeem ThankYou points directly for other airlines, though you’ll only get a value of 1.33 cents per point. Still, the sign-up bonus translates to $665, a solid amount of effective “cash” to use for a free flight.
  • Transfer to Virgin America: The sign-up bonus translates into 25,000 Elevate points, worth $375 – $575.

4. Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

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The sign-up bonus from the Sapphire Preferred can get you multiple free flights with certain transfer partners.

Current sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first three months from account opening.
Earning rates: 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining; 1 point per dollar spent everywhere else
Other benefits: No foreign transaction fees; primary car rental insurance
Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)

Analysis: This final card is one of my go-to cards (and a TPG favorite as well). The travel category is quite broad and even includes Uber, though if you have the Chase Freedom, you should be charging your Uber and other ground transportation purchases to that card until the end of March — or to the Capital One Quicksilver Card, which gets you 21.5% off Uber rides through the end of April. The Ultimate Rewards program also has a diverse set of transfer partners, so here’s a sampling of how you can redeem the 50,000-point sign-up bonus (plus 5,000 points for adding an authorized user):

  • Book a flight directly: If you redeem your points directly through the Ultimate Rewards portal, you’ll get a value of 1.25 cents per point. The sign-up plus authorized user bonus thus gives you $687.50 to put toward your flight.
  • Transfer to British Airways for flights under 2,000 miles: When you convert Ultimate Rewards points to British Airways Avios, you gain access to the carrier’s distance-based award chart. While the lowest tier is no longer available in North America, you can still get some great value on short- and medium-haul flights. Your bonus can get you 7 one-way flights of less than 1,151 miles or 5 one-way flights of less than 2,000 miles.
  • Transfer to United: You can also convert Ultimate Rewards points to United miles, unlocking redemptions like a round-trip coach flight to Hawaii (45,000 miles) or a one-way business-class flight to Southern South America (55,000 miles).

Bottom Line

I constantly hear friends and family members claim that they don’t travel enough to earn anything, and in some cases they don’t even bother signing up for frequent traveler accounts (one of the biggest mistakes you can make). Fortunately, you can strategically utilize credit cards to build up your account balances, and there’s a wealth of products out there that can get you one or more free flights very quickly by taking advantage of lucrative sign-up bonuses. The hardest part of this may be deciding which ones work best for you!

Which card would you sign up for to earn a free flight?

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

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  • Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Named a 'Best Credit Card' for Travel Rewards by MONEY Magazine
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
  • No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards
Intro APR Regular APR Annual Fee Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Rating
N/A 16.24%-23.24% Variable Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95 0% Excellent Credit