We pay money, quite a bit of money for that matter, to stand in long lines with other cranky travelers, get unceremoniously groped by security, and sit in seats designed for people with shorter legs and no claustrophobia, because that’s how close you are to the row in front.
There’s not much we can do about those headaches, but one way to make your air travel more palatable is to eliminate the cost — it’s harder to complain about something when you get it for free.
What follows are 10 strategies for acquiring free plane tickets (or very close to free). I’m not a fan of every technique that follows, but I’ll share with you nonetheless.
#1. Sign up for a credit card promotion
This is by far the easiest way to get free flights! I can’t even count the number of credit cards I’ve signed up for to take advantage of lucrative bonus offers. How they typically work is like this…
Step 1: Choose a card you haven’t had before. In order to qualify for a sign-up bonus, you generakkt must be a first-time holder of that particular card (altough there are some exceptions). It’s OK if you already have another credit card from that bank, but if you already have (or recently have had) that exact same card, you may not be eligible for the bonus.
For example, if you already have the American Express Blue Cash, then you can still sign up for the American Express Delta Gold Card and qualify for its promotion – the bonus miles you earn might be enough to score a flight (though you will still have to pay any applicable taxes and fees out of pocket, but those are very reasonable). Terms and Restrictions apply.
Step 2: Apply and get approved. Most travel and airline credit cards require good to excellent credit to qualify. If your credit is less than desirable then this way might not work for you.
Step 3: Complete the spending requirements. Some cards give you the bonus after your very first purchase. But more likely they will require you to spend a certain amount, like $1,000 to $3,000, during the first 90 days before they give you the bonus. Note: it can also take up to 8 weeks before the bonus shows up in your rewards account, so don’t go planning your dream trip too soon.
Step 4: Use your bonus miles/points. Once you receive the bonus, go ahead and book a flight with it! Please note that you will still be required to pay any applicable taxes and fees out of pocket if you’re using miles earned from an airline card.
General-purpose travel cards work a bit differently. Your bonus will come in the forum of generic points or “miles,” which are worth a fixed value (often 1 cent each). You’ll book a ticket on any airline and then cash in those points for a statement credit. The Capital One Venture is an example of this type of card.
#2. Voluntarily get bumped from a flight
I have only done this one and in exchange, they gave me a travel voucher for $250 (to use on future travel) as well as an upgrade to first-class on the flight I was bumped to. Although that may sound like a sweet deal, I’m usually not a fan of this strategy and here’s why:
- Caveat #1: Time is money and you’re spending it. By volunteering to get bumped, you’re giving up your time. How valuable is that to you? Only you know and I’m sure the answer will vary depending on your schedule. Is it worth being a few hours late to get a couple hundred bucks?
- Caveat #2: The incentives are less generous than before. Years ago the incentives for getting bumped were a lot more grandiose. You would typically get a certificate good for any domestic flight (if you were flying domestically). But now, they typically only give $250 to $300… that’s not getting a free flight, it’s more like getting 1/2 or 2/3 of a flight.
- Caveat #3: Delays can lead to more delays. If you get bumped from a flight, who’s to say the next flight will be on-time? And if it is, who’s to say it won’t also be full? If you get bumped twice though, then at least you will get 2x the incentives.
In order to get bumped from a flight, arrive at the gate early and ask the attendant if it’s a full flight. If they say yes, then ask what the incentive is for being bumped – if it’s a good enough incentive for you, then have them put your name on the list (which is first come, first serve). It also doesn’t hurt to ask for an even better incentive than what they offer you.
Keep in mind that even if you are on the to-be-bumped list, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will be. Airlines intentionally overbook their flights because they know a few people won’t show up. The only time they need to bump people is if more passengers show up than expected.
#3. Open a brokerage account
Some brokers, like TD Ameritrade and Fidelity, sometimes give away frequent flier miles for opening a new account. Here’s an example…
Unfortunately there are a couple drawbacks…
- You need big money. Sorry, but opening up a TD Ameritrade account with the minimum $1,000 or $2,000 deposit isn’t going to cut it. These mileage may require an absolute minimum of $25,000, and the only way how to get a free airline ticket is to deposit even more than that… typically it takes $50k in order to score 25k miles (which is enough for a domestic flight, excluding fees/taxes).
- Not all account types will qualify. When I opened up a 401k, I was hoping to score some miles but that never came to fruition because retirement accounts didn’t qualify. The same usually holds true for business accounts, college savings accounts, and custodial accounts.
Yes, you can even earn miles for eating out at restaurants. Some airline frequent flier programs award you miles when dining at partner restaurants.
My favorite program that does this the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Dining. You simply enroll any debit or credit card (it doesn’t have to be theirs) and then every time you eat at the participating restaurants, they will credit your Rapid Rewards account with miles. They have a large number of participants if you live in a large city. When searching within a 30 mile radius of the below zip codes, here’s how many I found to give you an idea:
- Los Angeles, CA (90038) = 405 restaurants
- Ann Arbor, MI (48103) = 84 restaurants
- Bangor, ME (04401) = 4 restaurants
Conclusion? In large cities you’ll have plenty of options, in smaller cities not so much.
This strategy alone won’t get you a flight for free by next week, next month, or even next year. However if you pool these miles with those earned from your credit card and other sources, it will help you reach that flight faster.
Same as above – a number of frequent flier programs will award you miles when shopping at participating retailers. You can enroll any credit or debit card to do this.
The downside? Most of the “participating retailers” are online and the types of places you might not shop often (think florists, gift basket services, and car rental companies). However some programs DO feature some brick and mortar stores. Take the United Airlines MileagePlus as an example…
Okay, so the selection isn’t good, but you should be able to find a few stores in your area. Keep in mind those miles are in addition to what you earn with your credit card.
Let’s say you made a $200 purchase at Bebe…
2 miles/dollar from program = 400 miles
1 mile/dollar from United credit card = 200 miles
Total Earned = 600 miles
Obviously that’s not enough miles to get an airline ticket for free. However, using these offers at the places you would be shopping at anyway will help you rack up miles faster.
#6. Complain about a problem
I normally don’t fly first class, but I was able to score it for just $176 more per round trip, thanks to a computer glitch on Delta’s website (which was quickly fixed afterward). However I was extremely disappointed with my experience that flight – due to electrical problems, the TVs, lights, and on-board internet (which I paid for) stopped working. To add insult to injury, my pre-ordered meal was messed up. Definitely wasn’t the first-class experience I was expecting.
When I returned, I submitted a complaint thru Delta’s website telling them what happened. What did they do? Give me a $100 voucher. If you honestly experienced a problem on your flight, here’s how to voice your concern:
- Contact the airline through its website. Don’t even bother whining at the airport, because the workers there are used to hearing complaints all day long. You won’t get sympathy from them. Another options is ranting on the airline’s Twitter/Facebook.
- Tell the truth. Be honest. Don’t exaggerate. Just calmly tell them what happened and be polite when you do so.
- Express your disappointment. Conclude it by saying how extremely disappointed you are. You may wish to ask “how are you going to make this right?” That’s a statement that directly asks for action, not just a canned apology.
#7. Take longer routes when flying
Some airlines give you 1 award mile for every mile flown (although legacy carriers are gradually shifting to a model based on money spent rather than distance). If your airline still rewards you for miles flown, one strategy to earn more is to take longer flights – those with a layover off the beaten path or even multiple layovers.
The reason I highly advise against this is because it’s not worth your time. Case in point…
Let’s say you were flying from Austin to Los Angeles. The normal distance for a direct flight would be about 1,200 miles. But if you had a layover in Memphis, that number jumps to around 2,200 miles. Is it really worth an extrafour hours or your time to earn 1,000 miles more? If you value each mile at 1.5 cents each, for that extra 4 hours it’s like earning only $3.75 per hour! That’s a pretty inefficient way how to get free plane tickets if you ask me.
#8. Take out a mortgage
Okay, obviously I’m not saying you should take out a mortgage just to get a free plane ticket! However if you happen to be in the process of taking out a mortgage, than you might as well score some free miles in the process. Here’s an example:
But you should ONLY do this if the lender is also giving you the best interest rate. It would be foolish to choose a specific lender to get 25,000 miles and as a result of having a higher APR, pay $25,000 more over a 30-year period.
#9. Try to win free travel
Trips are a popular giveaway for contests, but rarely are they worth your time to enter. We’re talking tens of thousands or maybe even millions of entries for a prize that’s only worth a few thousand dollars.
If you want to increase your chances at winning, then only bother with the contests where you have decent odds. Which ones have the best odds? Usually radio contests. Why? Because the entry pool is smaller.
Think about it… a contest on Facebook may run 24/7 for months before it closes. How many entries will it receive during that time? A lot! Meanwhile, a radio contest may only select from people who call in at a specific time (i.e. if you’re caller 83 when you hear this song). I remember a friend of mine was telling me his aunt has won multiple trips and prizes from radio stations for this very reason – not many people participate (when compared to to contests that run 24/7).
#10. Use companion tickets
If you’re willing to buy a ticket at full price, you may be able to get the second one for free (or close to it). However be careful, because there are lot of scams out there.
As far as legit companion airfare deals, here are a couple…
The Platinum Card® from American Express: The $450 annual fee won’t be worth it for everyone. But if you have high income and typically fly first class when traveling internationally, then seriously consider it. With the card you get companion airfare on nearly 20 participating airlines when you buy a regular priced business or first class ticket for an international flight thru American Express. Check out my review for more info. Terms and Restrictions apply.
Platinum Delta SkyMiles® and Delta Reserve: My favorite credit cards that come with a companion airfare benefit are the Platinum Delta SkyMiles and Delta Reserve cards from American Express. As a cardmember, you receive a companion voucher once per year (you still have to pay applicable govt. taxes and fees on the 2nd ticket, but fortunately those aren’t much). Terms and Restrictions apply.
Updated Jan. 9, 2015