Points travel, Award Travel, Reward Travel - these are all euphemisms for the same thing - free flights. Who doesn't want a free flight?! The way people go about getting free flights is sometimes called "travelhacking," which is just a clever name someone came up with for the act of actively pursuing and intentionally earning free flights.
I'll cut to the chase right off the bat here: unless you fly 20+ times a year, you will never earn enough miles for a free flight just from frequent flier miles. The best way to earn free flights is through credit card sign-on bonuses. Most people are scared of credit cards, and for good reason. We have all been told to watch our credit card use. And it's true, if you do not pay off your balance each month or charge more than you can pay off, you can get into some serious debt. But if you play it right, you can avoid all of that and also get a few free flights in the process.
There are tons of sites filled with information on how to get free first class flights, how to stay in luxury hotels for free, how to sign up for 10+ credit cards a year, combine all of those points, transfer them, and get several amazing flights out of it. While this all sounds great, Arkansas and Memphis have limited airlines. Great first class airlines like ANA and Virgin Atlantic just don't fly out of here. That's why I'm going to tell you the best points and rewards strategies for our airports only (XNA, LIT, MEM) because it requires a different strategy that others you will find online. I'm also not going to tell you to sign up for 10 cards this year. Why? Because the average person doesn't have time to take 5 or more free flights in a year and definitely doesn't have time to keep up with all of this. I'm going to be talking about how to get 1-3 free flights a year in the simplest and easiest way possible from our airports. First let's look at who actually flights out of each airport:
All 3 airports have:
MEM also has:
LIT also has:
Just looking at this chart, you can see which airlines would be the most advantageous to have points/miles with. Let's talk about how many points you actually need, then we will talk about how to get them.
How many points do I need?
If you want a free international flight to Europe: You will need at least 45-50k miles on either United, Delta, or American to get a free round-trip ticket to Europe. If you are buying 2 tickets, you will need 90-100k points/miles. The other airlines that fly from our airports mainly fly domestic, so if you have your hopes set on Europe, concentrate on earning points for United, Delta, and American.
If you want a free international flight to Japan: You will need 65k American Airlines miles or 70k miles on United or Delta for a round trip economy ticket from one of our airports.
Free flight to the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico: You need 34-35K Delta or United miles, 25K American miles. You can also fly Southwest but their award charts and numbers keep changing and are hard to find.
If you want a free domestic flight: You will need 15-18k miles/points per person for a round trip domestic ticket on Delta or Southwest. You need 20-25k points/miles on American or United for most domestic flights.
A great resource to check how many points you need to get to a destination is AwardHacker. This website just tells you the minimum number of points you will need from your airport to whatever destination you type in, AND what type of points you are able to use for each type of flight. Keep in mind, this is not a booking website. The minimums are based on award redemption charts that the airlines publish, so dates and availability may vary. But it's a great way of getting an idea of what you need and to set your goals.
How do I accrue points?
The best way to earn points and miles is through credit card sign up bonuses. There are two categories of cards you should know:
1. Airline branded cards: These are cards that earn you points on one specific airline. The great thing about these are, you know exactly which airlines fly out of your home airport. You already know which points you can use and which are not going to work for you, based on your home airport. For example, you know not to get an Alaska Airlines card because they do not fly out of our 3 airports.
2. Rewards points cards: These cards earn you points/miles that can be transferred to a few different airlines. They also have booking portals where you can book your flight, but those portals tend to not have the lowest points/miles redemption rate, so I would suggest transferring them to one airline when you have decided where you want to go. The advantage of these cards is that you can mix and match. If you have some leftover points on 2 different airlines, you can transfer points from these cards to fill in what you need. These are also great if you haven't quite decided on your destination yet, as you can use them for just about anything.
Here is your strategy
1. Pick your destination. Where do you want to go?? If you have a goal in mind, it will make this whole points thing way easier. For this example, I'm going to say you want to fly from LIT/XNA/MEM to Lisbon, Portugal next spring. You need 60k points for a roundtrip ticket per person through United. Example of my search results in the United website are here:
2. Sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card. The sign on bonus for this card is 60k points that can be transferred at the same value to United and Southwest, among other airlines (none of which fly out of our airports). That means that after you meet the minimum spend of $4,000 in 3 months, you will have earned 60k points toward United or Southwest redemption. By the way, your partner or friend can do this exact same scenario and you can combine Chase Ultimate Rewards into one account, then purchase your flights together to ensure you are on the same flights together. What's better, refer your partner to the program through Chase's "Refer a Friend" links and get 15K extra points when your friend signs up. The Chase Ultimate rewards points do not expire unless you close your account or credit card, meaning you can get an Authorized User on your card so you and your partner can work together to meet the minimum spend. Three months later, your partner can get this card, add you as an authorized user, and you can both work together to again earn the sign on bonus by meeting the minimum spend. Six months later, you have enough points to get two round trip tickets to most major cities in Europe, including Lisbon, Paris, and Vienna. PS: Read about the 5/24 rule that Chase has down below. It won't affect the majority of people but it is good to keep in mind.
3. Sign up for the American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles card: The sign on bonus for this card fluctuates. You will see different amounts depending on what website you are on. The link below offers 60k Delta miles after you meet the minimum spend of $2,000 in the first 3 months, which is the highest bonus offer you will see for this card (every once in a while it will go up to 70K but it's hard to count on). Let's say you want to get 2 round trip tickets from LIT to San Francisco. You will need 54K miles total, which is just under your award signup bonus amount of 60K! Below is an example of my search on Delta's website:
4. Sign up for the Citi Bank American Airlines Card: This is another card that has a low minimum spend and can get you a free flight just from the sign up bonus. The sign up offer is 50,000 American Airlines miles after spending $2,500 in the first 3 months. Let's say you want to round trip tickets for 2 people from LIT to Nassau, Bahamas. What do you know! You need 12.5K per person, each way, making 2 tickets exactly 50K. What does that mean? Get that sign up bonus, book your award travel, then cancel your card after the first free year (they offer no annual fee for the first year). Below is an example of my award travel search on the American Airlines website:
5. Look into using Southwest miles and cards: I have not personally opened a Southwest credit card, but I do intend to next year if they offer the same bonus as last year, and here is why. Southwest did something crazy this year and offered a feature called the Companion Pass to their credit card offers. If you are looking to travel domestically or to the Caribbean, this is pretty sweet. The Companion Pass let's you bring a designated family member or friend on any flight you purchase for free (just have to pay the fees/surcharges). At this time, no Southwest credit cards come with this, you have to earn the Companion Pass through earning miles, which is much more complicated. The Companion Pass had a date limit, it only lasted until the end of 2019. But if they ever off this again, you better believe I will be sending out an email! You can however transfer your Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest if you see a flight you really want.
How to meet minimum spend:
This is something talked about in forums often. Some say to wait to open a new card until you have a large purchase to make like buying an appliance. Others suggest you ask your friends to let you pay for group dinners at restaurants and have them pay you back in cash. Another suggestion is to ask family members to let you pay for their large purchase and have them reimburse you in cash. Some points gurus use services like Plastiq to pay their car payments and rent/mortgage with cards. These are all great ideas but they are also unreliable. You can't always expect others to want to do this. I would suggest only signing up for cards that you know you and your partner or family member (your Authorized User) can meet the minimum spend on. If you make someone else an authorized user, they can put their daily expenses on the card as well. Everything from gas, groceries, phone bills, Netflix and other subscriptions, Apple/Itunes, even some utilities will accept credit card payments. Then turn right back around and pay your credit card off as if the charges came directly out of your bank account. Look at your current spending to know what type of a minimum you can meet.
Other notes on these credit cards and award travel in general:
1. As long as you pay off your balance before the 3 month intro period ends, you will not be charged interest.
2. As long as you keep your credit card account open and do not close the account, your miles will not expire.
3. Check the annual fees on cards. Most cards waive the annual fee (which is normally $99) for the first year. Many people meet the minimum spend, get their bonus points, book their free flights, then close their cards after a year to avoid paying an annual fee for the second year.
4. As long as you are responsible with credit cards, they will not hurt your credit. In fact, they can actually help build you credit. to learn more about credit cards and credit, I would recommend you read this article.
5. Not all destinations will always pop up with super low points on each day you search. You will want to be using the calendar view and flexible dates options when searching online. The best redemption times are going to be off-season (October, November, January, February, March).
6. You will still have to pay for fuel surcharges and taxes and fees, even if the flight is free. This can be anywhere from $5 to $125 per person. Just be aware that different airlines AND different destinations have different fees. Domestic flights are always going to have the lowest fees.
7. Chase 5/24 rule: Chase has a rule that they will not approve you for a new card if you have opened 5 new credit cards in the last 24 months. This rule will not affect you if you are doing the slow points game, meaning you are only opening 2-3 cards per year to get a few free flights. If you go wild like many do online, or you are an authorized user on several cards, this rule could affect you. Read all the details about how to avoid this and about which cards count toward this rule here.
Is all of this a little confusing and overwhelming? Yes. Do you see room for error? Absolutely. But it doesn't have to be hard. Make a spreadsheet of all your frequent flight numbers, credit cards, their bonuses, what you intend to use the miles for, and the date the minimum spend must be met in order to get those sign on bonus miles. Websites like Award Wallet will keep up with all of this for you and even alert you when your miles are about to expire. You can keep all of this simple by getting just one credit card at a time and only concentrating on the sign up bonuses. If you get really into travelhacking, you will see all kinds of articles about buying gift cards, exchanging them for money orders etc etc. If you are like me, a simple annual free flight will do. Especially when it doesn't take much effort!