Travel Hacks

Travel Hack: Ultimate Guide To Get Free Flights Through Credit Card Rewards

Victor Kung
January 16, 2024

This article first appeared on Victor's blog, The Remote Lifestyle, and we partnered up so the U30X Community wouldn't miss out on such a great #travelhack.

Flying For Free is Real

This month, I booked a roundtrip ticket from Chicago to Shanghai for $35.76. All I had to pay was taxes. I’m basically flying across the world on free flights thanks to my credit card rewards.

Don’t believe me? Here is the proof:

American Airlines Confirmation Page

How did I do this travel hack? I booked my flight using the reward miles I accrued from my Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select Card.

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 I tried out the advice that I read and found everything to be true!

In this article, I walk you through the 5 steps I took to booking a free international roundtrip flight. The whole process takes around a year, with the first step taking more than half  the time. To summarize, they are:

1) Sign up for a low-interest / beginner-level credit card and build your credit score.

2) Sign up for an airline credit card with 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 the airline’s rewards booking system.

1. Build Your Credit By Signing Up for a Credit Card

This is the most time-consuming step but the most important. It can take between 6 months to a year.

If you’re just starting out, 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 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 youre 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:

For detailed information on each of the categories, read this.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Keep your credit card debt low.  Pay 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.
  3. Avoid opening too many new accounts at once; new accounts lower your average account age, which makes up part of your credit score.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

2. Picking the Right 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:

Whereas United Airlines offers the following cards:

For your purposes, you want to look at the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select Card and the United MileagePlus Explorer Card.

Essentially, both cards do the same thing, just for different airlines. Each card does the following:

  • 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*

50,000 miles is almost the equivalent of an entire roundtrip international flight!

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.

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.For example, at this time United Airlines offers 50,000 bonus miles for the MileagePlus Explorer card for a limited time. In contrast, American Airlines currently offers only 30,000 bonus miles for its Citi AAdvantage Platinum select

For example, at this time United Airlines offers 50,000 bonus miles for the MileagePlus Explorer card for a limited time. In contrast, American Airlines currently offers only 30,000 bonus miles for its Citi AAdvantage Platinum select card.

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.

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.

The Perfect Beginner Combo

Now it’s time for me to share with you my favorite credit card and arguably one of the best in the market: the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

It’s a truly exceptional card that allows you to earn 2x points on travel and dining, along with 1x points on all other purchases. In addition, there are no foreign transaction fees when you travel. The only downside is the annual fee, but you can always call the card company and ask them to waive it 😉

The awesome thing about Chase credit cards is that you can make purchases through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portals, where you can book travel for almost 25% off. Another amazing thing is that if you have other Chase cards, such as the Chase Freedom card, you can lump your reward points together.

In fact, 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.

  • Apply for the Chase Freedom card here
  • Apply for the Chase Sapphire card here

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.)

So this means that purchases have to be actual spending, for example, groceries, restaurants, stores, and so on so forth.

If you are having trouble spending that much, I have found a loophole around this so don’t worry.

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.

Then click on “Request Money” and follow the instructions

2) Pay your friend through Paypal using a credit card!

Paypal will treat you as a vendor providing some type of business service to your friend, so it will actually be treated as a “purchase” as opposed to a money transfer. 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.

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. Check 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.

Click on “AAdvantage” on the top right of the page. And select “Award Travel” from the dropdown menu.

Select “View AAnytime & MileSAAver award chart”

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.

The first step will be to select your dates of travel.

Now you can select your flights.

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!

American Airlines Confirmation Page

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.

Bonus: 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:

Happy travel hacking!

This article first appeared on The Remote Lifestyle.

Victor Kung
Victor runs The Remote Lifestyle ( where he teaches you step-by-step how you can become a successful digital nomad.


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