Travel hacking 101: How to get free flights

Want to fly first class for free? Here’s the secret: sign up for credit cards.

Now before you get all freaked out thinking you’ll have to spend tons of money and potentially screw up your credit rating, here’s the deal. I just booked two first-class plane tickets that have a value of about $4,000—and it only cost me $160 (darn those taxes!).

It’s all thanks to something called travel hacking, which is when consumers apply for credit cards with huge points sign-up bonuses where the fee is waived for the first year. After a minimum spend (usually about $500 over three months), something like 20,000 Aeroplan or AMEX points will be deposited into your account, at which point you are free to cancel the card! Easy peasy!

RELATED: What’s in my wallet? The best credit cards for travel hacking

The most important things to remember

  • Only sign up for cards with big bonuses—about 15,000 and up is good, when we’re talking airlines. The Starwood or Marriott cards can also be good for those who stay in hotels a lot.
  • This only works if you PAY OFF THE BALANCE EVERY MONTH. Don’t ever carry a balance, as you will be hit with 20 per cent interest fees therefore offsetting any travel savings. Besides, you shouldn’t own a credit card, period, if you can’t afford to pay off your bills.
  • Look for cards where the first year’s annual fee is waived—then make sure you cancel the card before the year is up. Otherwise, you could get hit with a $150-$500 bill.
  • Try to stick to a single type of rewards program, aka put all your eggs in one basket. This way, you’ll hit reward levels much faster. I collect Aeroplan points since you can book flights with any Star Alliance member, which basically means you can travel anywhere in the world. American Express is also a good one, since their points transfer into a number of different programs at good ratios.
  • Signing up for multiple credit cards WILL NOT negatively affect your credit rating, as long as you pay your bills on time! In fact, having access to lots of credit and NOT being in debt looks good to creditors.

Where to start

I recently got the American Express AeroplanPlus Gold Card because it offered 30,000 (!!!) points with a $500 spend. That’s enough for a roundtrip flight anywhere in North America, and they also waive the first year’s annual fee! Other cards offer perks like lounge access or hotel room upgrades, so if you travel enough you may want to keep it for the extra benefits.

There are also a couple of great websites you can follow that round up all the offers so you don’t have to seek them out yourself.

CANADA: Rewards Canada

UNITED STATES: The Points Guy

How to get the most for your money

Now, you might be hesitant to go all-in with a rewards program, because of those nightmare stories about how those taxes add up. I can vouch for this: I once searched for an Air Canada flight to Australia, and the taxes were $1,200 on top of my 80,000 points—whereas buying the ticket outright was only a few hundred dollars more, plus I would have gotten a shorter flight and kept my points! Fortunately, there are some ways to get around this.

RELATED: Secret tricks and tips for booking Aeroplan rewards

The key is to book flights on airlines that don’t have fuel surcharges, like United, Singapore Airlines and Air China—which are all Star Alliance members. Remember those $4,000 tickets I booked? It was with Aeroplan points, but I found them on United’s website first, then called the Aeroplan call centre and booked them for only $49 tax per seat. I also had to pay $30 per ticket as a call centre fee, but this far outweighs the hundreds of dollars I would have had to pay by booking on an airline with a fuel surcharge.

READ MORE: Your trip for less: How to save on flights and accommodation

Second, the best way to utilize all those points you’ve earned is to book first class seats. While they cost you more points up front, dollar-for-dollar it’s a much better spend—plus you get to kick it in the airport lounge!

My story

If you still need convincing, I’ll fill you in on how travel hacking has been working out for me. I started nine months ago, and in that time have signed up for four credit cards: one CIBC Aeroplan and three American Express. Without spending a single dollar over what I would normally spend in a month (an average of $2,300) I have:

  • 52,265 Aeroplan points (you need 60K to get from North America to Europe)
  • 33,235 American Express points (which can be transferred at a 1:1 ratio to Aeroplan)
  • Redeemed 70,000 points, for $4,000 worth of first class tickets in South America.

Not too shabby, right?!

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11 Responses

  1. The Guy says:

    Great tips Tamara, with good advice on using your point collection wisely. It seems as though there is a wide selection of these cards in North America. However if you head to Europe or Asia the options available are a lot more limited. There are other ways to earn points though but the sign up bonuses are less prevalent.

    • I have heard about this huge discrepancy about points programs, in regards to N. America vs. everywhere else. It seems we are a lucky bunch to be on this side of the pond, in that regard! I wonder why there are so few offers in Europe and Asia?

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  4. Anne Betts says:

    Not too shabby is right! I like your strategy of finding the flights at United and then calling the Aeroplan Contact Centre to speak to an agent. I’ve had some recent success finding redemptions, although sometimes it can be a challenge:
    http://packinglighttravel.com/travel-tips/minimizing-aeroplan-taxes-fees-surcharges/

  5. Anne says:

    I can testify this definitely works. I just booked 2 business class flights to Montreal from the UK for 80,000 points and taxes (which from the UK are damn expensive at circa £1200). However the flights should have been over £6000 saving me over £5000 on the cost of business but also £332 off the price of economy. Not a deal but I would love to business every day for less than I would pay in economy!!

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