Make the Most of a Travel Credit Card

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Airfare doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. In fact, with smart money management and a good travel rewards card, you could score your next flight for free! The Citi AAdvantage card, affiliated with American Airlines, and the Chase MileagePlus card, affiliated with United Airlines, are popular places to start. Most cards offer a large sign-up bonus, as well as one mile per dollar spent, making it easy to maximize your budget and cash in a free flight within months.

Responsible card use

Paying off the full balance of your card each month is a must for responsible credit management. Otherwise, you’ll rack up so many interest charges and fees, that free flight won’t be free at all. Make sure you meet any minimum spending limit the card has tied to your sign-up bonus, but otherwise keep a tight rein on your spending. Treating your card as if it were a debit card is a good rule of thumb.

Picking the best card

Many cards are tied to one airline, like the Southwest Airlines Visa offered through Chase, meaning your miles can only be redeemed on that airline. Some airlines, like American Airlines, served by the Citi AAdvantage card, are part of an airline alliance. For instance, British Airways is also part of the oneworld alliance, so your AAdvantage miles could also be applied to a British Airways flight. For the greatest flexibility, choose a general rewards card like the Capital One Venture card, which lets you use miles to reimburse yourself for any travel purchase, such as a flight on any airline or even a hotel stay. Always do your own specific card research as perks and sign-up bonus offers can change frequently.

Reading the fine print

As you research your credit card options, look at the perks and drawbacks of each carefully. A high sign-up bonus is great, but it shouldn’t come with a spending minimum too steep for your budget. A 1:1 ratio of miles earned to dollars spent is common, but some cards offer 1.5:1 or even 2:1 ratios, which is of course better. Some cards will give you a percentage of redeemed rewards back, and some also offer perks like priority boarding or a free checked bag. If you travel internationally, get a card with no foreign transaction fees, and remember that while card fees might be waived for the first year, you’ll eventually need to pay an annual card fee.

Using multiple cards

If your credit score is stellar and you’re an expert at managing your finances, you might consider applying for more than one card. The Citi AAdvantage card, Chase United MileagePlus card, and Capital One Venture card form a great triple threat, giving you options with the oneworld alliance, the Star Alliance – which United participates in – and a reimbursement card not tied to any one airline. The sign-up bonuses from those three cards could grant you 100,000 miles right off the bat. Tread carefully, though – juggling multiple credit cards requires an even more vigilant approach to your money management.

Redeeming your miles

When it’s time to cash in your rewards, give the airline a call. Don’t just rely on an online booking engine. Airline agents are specifically trained to work the system and can help you find the best deals.

With these basics of travel rewards under your belt, you could book a free flight in less than six months. Get planning!