How To Travel & Fly For Free

How to get something for nothing; definitely one of my favourite deals topics.

As general travel costs — and airfare, more specifically — continue to climb, how can you fly for free these days? A fair question. It’s not as easy as it was several years ago, before the recession caused banks and airlines to think twice about giving away valuable air miles willy-nilly.

There are, however, still some good deals to be found. A savvy traveller can fly cross-country, or even overseas, almost entirely for free (you’ll have to pay the $5 Sept. 11th security fee, in most cases that’s not covered by air miles).

Here are some strategies and current deals to help you fly for free —

The right credit card: If you sign up for the Capital One Venture Rewards card right now, you’ll earn 10,000 Bonus Miles, and you’ll also earn 2 miles for each $1 you spend on the card. Capital One’s Venture miles are especially valuable, since you can use them to book travel on any airline. Their system is extremely easy to use and I have already used my own accrued miles to book two free flights, so it definitely works. Apply online and read user reviews here.

The Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card offer is another one that should be on your radar this month if you want to fly for free; you’ll earn 30,000 bonus miles after your first purchase on the card. See details and apply online here; click through to the second page.

Booking at the right time: It pays to book your award airfare at least one month in advance. Short-notice trips can use up more of your points, and many major airlines now charge an additional fee if you use points/miles to book a trip on short notice (United Airlines, for example, now charges non-Premier members a $75 “close in fee” if you book an Award trip less than 21 days in advance).

Zen-like flexibility: Some of the best opportunities to fly for free are unexpected, and come along randomly. I was recently about to board an AirTran flight when the boarding rep announced the flight was over-sold, and that he would need three volunteers to take a flight later in the evening — in exchange, he would give each volunteer 2 free round-trip credits. Think about that. That’s at least a $400 to $600 value, depending on where you jet to, and he said it covered trips to the Caribbean as well.

I had to make my meeting on time or I would have taken that in a heartbeat. In my destination city, the meeting ended up being quite unproductive, and I regretted not taking the 2 free round-trip credits in exchange for 5 or 6 hours of relaxing downtime in an airport bar or wi-fi area.

Loyalty: If you participate in many different reward programs, it can be difficult to accrue enough miles or points to actually earn free flights or stays. I recommend you sign up for the Hilton HHonors credit card if you plan to stay at a Hilton hotel often (you can find a Hilton in almost every major city). The accelerated reward points structure is worth it: you’ll earn 6 HHonors Bonus Points for each $1 spent at participating hotels within the Hilton Worldwide portfolio, plus a one-time bonus of 40,000 Hilton HHonors points after making just $1,000 in purchases on your new card within the first 4 months — enough for several free stays right there, depending on which category hotel you choose.

Another loyalty program to look into, especially if you fly domestically a lot, is Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards. Especially since their acquisition of AirTran, I’ve noticed that Southwest services nearly all of the routes I tend to travel on business within the U.S. There are unlimited reward seats, no blackout dates, and your points don’t expire “as long as you have flight or Partner earning activity every 24 months.”

Date or befriend a flight attendant: This one is for those of you who are truly committed to flying for free. Flight attendant pay is typically not very generous, but there are other perks of the job, including “buddy passes” which can allow their designated friend or partner to fly truly free as long as it’s on the same airline.

Be warned, however — according to one flight attendant, casually hitting someone up for a buddy pass is considered obnoxious: “Do you know this is a HUGE flight attendant pet peeve – asking for passes? You must have no idea how many times people ask flight attendants about their buddy passes, and these are mostly people we rarely even know, like people we just happen to meet in the course of our day! Like the mailman, or a taxi driver, or even a random colleague of the spouse. Just last month my son’s preschool teacher hinted around for a pass. And my mother, who is also a flight attendant, was hit up by a nurse at her doctor’s office.”

Disclosures: We’re a credit card promotions site, and as such we maintain financial relationships with numerous banks and financial institutions, including some of the offers and cards mentioned or featured herein. This article originally appeared in slightly different form on Credit Card Outlaw.

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