Here at AwardBookingSerivce.com our focus is to help clients use their miles to book flights. This usually means redeeming miles from major carriers for long haul international itineraries. We get our clients flights for pennies on the dollar since they only have to pay the taxes and fees out of pocket. This is where your “free” ticket isn’t exactly free since there is some (even if minimal) cash outlay involved.
We have been asked by some clients how to make their tickets totally free. There are many ways! It depends a lot on how your are using your miles. These strategies would also apply to airfares you outright buy also!
Option 1: Premium credit card airline reimbursements. Great for frequent travelers!
There are new 3 credit cards (one from each of the big three issuers) that come with a reimbursement scheme for airline fares/fees. Each one has its own quirks.
1. American Express Platinum Card ($450-475 annual fee): $200 in airline “incidentals” on your chosen airline (you can only change once per year). Every calendar year. Airline choices are: Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Spirit, Southwest, or United. You can only select it once you have the card and change it every January if you wish. If you make no change then it will remain the same as the previous year.
2. Citi Prestige Card ($350-450 annual fee): $250 airline reimbursement annually. Any charges that comes from and codes as an airline is credited back to your account up to $250. This can be anything from award ticket taxes, baggage fees, purchased airfare, onboard food and drink, and so on. Great for frequent fliers!
3. Chase Sapphire Reserve (450 annual fee): $300 in travel credits annually. Any charges that code as travel (auto fuel doesn’t count) are credited back up to $300 each calendar year. This is our choice since it is not only airfare. Things like train tickets, taxis, uber/lyft, rental cars, hotels, and air travel all count. They also offer 3 valuable Chase Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on dining and travel purchases. Best all around option!
Note: All of the above credit cards come with expensive annual fees. While you get some money back in the form of these credits be sure that it is money you would spend anyway. All of them also offer airport lounge access which is valuable to a frequent traveler. Do your own analysis to be sure before applying.
Option 2: Credit cards that offer increased/higher value point redemption for cash airfare purchases
1. US Bank Flexperks Card ($49 annual fee): Flexperks points are worth double when redeeming for paid airfare through their booking website. This is a good option for those booking a lot of cash fares that fall close to their award bands ($200, $400, $600, etc). Example: 20,000 points will pay for a ticket that cost between $200.01 and $400.00. Being close to the upper end of the band gives more value!
2. Barclaycard Arrival+ ($89 annual fee): Earns 2 points per dollar (worth 2% cash when redeemed for cash travel purchases) on all purchases. This is great for travel expenses that are $50 each or more (the minimum to redeem for travel). Not limited to airfare! Points can be used for anything that codes as travel once charged to the card. You can redeem points for charges to the card in the last 120 days that are $50 total or more.
3. PNC Premier Traveler Card ($85 annual fee): Earns 2 points per dollar on all purchase (worth 2% cash when redeemed for cash travel purchases). This is probably your best option. They have a $50 minimum redemption BUT you can lump small charges together to reach the $50 minimum. This is great for those $5.60 award ticket taxes, uber/lyft rides, bus/train/subway fares, parking, etc. You can redeem points for charges to the card in the last 120 days.
Option 3: Straight Cash Back credit cards
1. Fidelity Rewards 2% cashback everywhere: ($0 annual fee): This card is arguably the best all around cashback credit card. You earn 2 points per dollar which can be moved over to a Fidelity Investments account (checking or investing) in $50 increments. This is pure cash that can be used to buy anything! The one downside is the $50 minimum which can take a while to reach for small spenders.
2. Discover Card ($0 annual fee): They offer 1% cashback on everything and have 5% cashback bonus that changes categories every quarter. The 5% is limited to $1500 in spending during the quarter so it maxes out at $75 cashback. There is no minimum redemption for cashback once earned and can be applied to your account as a credit once available (each month)
Extra Credit: Earning and using Southwest and/or JetBlue points to fill gaps
Sometimes when booking long haul international award tickets there is no domestic availability between our home airport and the hub airport where your international flight begins. This means we have to get a separate flight to start it off (and sometimes return too!). One option is to buy it out right. Another good option is to use the fixed-value airline points to save cash!
1. Southwest Rapid Rewards: Rapid Rewards points are worth roughly 1.4-1.5 cents each towards the cost of their discount “Wanna Get Away” fares.
2. JetBlue trueBlue: trueBlue points are worth roughly 1.4 cents each towards the cost of discount fares.
If the airport you need to get to is served by one or both of these airlines then redeeming their points to pay for a flight you would purchase anyway is a great way to save some cash. They both offer credit cards to earn their points. We give Southwest the advantage as they have zero change or cancellation fees AND you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to them at a 1:1 ratio! You can also transfer Citi ThankYou points to JetBlue but at a less favorable rate.
The above strategies should give you enough information to to get the right mix of credit cards that can help defray your travel and other costs on an ongoing basis. We always recommend that if you have more airline/hotel points than you can use over the next 365 days then switch to a 2% cashback earning credit card with no annual fee. Cash will always be king but the right mix of points can help you stretch your dollars and cents very far!