Cost is one of the biggest obstacles to travel. A lot of people presumably would go a lot more places if getting around were cheaper or, better yet, free. That’s why so many travelers play the points and miles game: Plane tickets can be booked for nearly nothing, after nominal fees.
Earning enough miles for a free ticket can be slow going, however. The old-fashioned method — earning frequent flyer miles by flying frequently — can take forever and requires paying a small fortune in airfare in order to earn an award ticket.
But there are ways to speed up the process considerably. Here are the fastest ways to get a free or nearly free plane ticket using miles.
Get a credit card sign-up bonus
If you have good credit and you can responsibly charge a few thousand dollars in the next three months, that could translate to a free plane ticket or two. Apply for a credit card that will pay you a big chunk of bonus points or miles if you make a certain amount of purchases on the card within the first 90 days or so. These spending minimums usually range from $500 to $5,000, with $3,000 being fairly common.
To find the best credit card for you, first decide where you want to go, see which airlines serve your destination from your home airport, then search for credit cards that will give you miles for that airline. But don’t pull the trigger just yet. Research some flexible rewards cards that have their own points programs or offer statement credits for travel or even cash back.
For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® offers the following sign-up bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $900 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
Next, research cash fares to your destination to see whether the points from the flexible rewards program will take you farther than the airline miles on offer with a co-branded credit card. Include annual credit card fees into your calculation, as they put a real dollar cost on those nearly free plane tickets.
Remember that if you can’t pay off those balances in full before they start accumulating interest, working the credit card points bonus angle may not be for you. Also note that credit card companies look poorly upon applying for cards for the bonus alone, so have a plan to use the card for the long term.
» Learn more: How to choose an airline credit card
Rev up your spending strategy
Most rewards credit cards pay you points or miles for every purchase. But there are often ways to accelerate this process. Note whether your card has category bonuses, which pay more points on gas, groceries or drug store purchases. Check out airline shopping portals where you log in before clicking through to retailer websites to earn miles for buying stuff you would buy anyway. Check out your preferred airline’s dining rewards program, too. With these, you just register a credit card and earn miles when you use it at participating restaurants.
Get smart about mileage redemption rates
Perhaps the quickest way to get miles for one flight is to spend less of them on a different flight. Redemption rates can vary widely, so it pays to be flexible.
Here's an example: Let's say you want to fly from New York to Miami on American Airlines using miles. A ticket that costs 12,500 AAdvantage miles if you fly March 1 might cost half that if you fly March 2. Furthermore, a March 1 flight booked on Jan. 15 could cost half what you’d pay if you booked it Dec. 15. That’s because airlines can open up “saver” level award seats at any time without notice.
So don’t lock in your purchase until you have a feel for what constitutes a good redemption rate. With some flexibility, you might be able to get two "saver" flights for the price in miles of one "anytime" flight.
Check out hotel-airline rewards partnerships
If you think you can’t earn airline miles on hotel bookings, think again. A number of hotel rewards programs partner with airlines to let you earn miles.
» Learn more: Snag these hotel loyalty perks, even if you’re disloyal
Generally speaking, transferring earned hotel points to airline frequent flyer programs isn't the best value. One notable exception is the Marriott Bonvoy program, which allows direct transfers to a number of airline partners at relatively attractive rates.
Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice: Find the best travel credit card for you Capital One Venture review: Stress-free 2% travel rewards Earn more points and miles with these 6 strategies