We all know that airfare can easily be the most expensive component of any trip. If you want to go to Disney World and aren’t close enough to drive, for example, you’ll generally need to brace yourself for plane tickets that cost $300 or more per person round-trip.
Want to visit the Caribbean? Plan to fork over at least $400 for a round-trip flight from any American city during peak season, and only a little less if you fly off-peak.
In addition to the plane tickets themselves, flying comes with other costs as well. Each time you fly, you’ll need to pay for some other incidentals that pop up, including:
- Transportation to and from the airport (or)
- Parking at the airport
- Checked bags
- Airport food
I’ve written about the many ways you can save money when you travel before, but it doesn’t mean you can avoid every cost associated with travel all of the time. And believe me, all of the costs associated with travel really do add up. Check out my Complete Cheap Vacations Guide on how to save more while traveling!
Here’s the good news. Even though airfare is expensive, you can drastically reduce the costs of flying if you’re willing to jump through some hoops. Just remember, getting free flights isn’t as easy as getting a free waffle cone from Dairy Queen on your birthday.
To score the almost-free and free flights we all crave, you have to be willing to do things other people aren’t willing to do. That can mean anything from reading through tedious fine print to signing up for specific travel rewards credit cards and joining loyalty programs. Yes, some of the strategies are a pain, but they’ll get you on a plane nonetheless. Got it?
9 Ways to Score Free Airline Tickets and Save Money on Travel
You can rest assured I’m not suggesting anything shady here. Just know that, to get free flights, you have to put in the work. Here are nine strategies that can help you fly for free and save on travel – no matter where you want to go:
Travel for work? Join your favorite frequent flyer program.
If you travel for work at all and your employer foots the bill, it would be crazy not to sign up for a few frequent flyer programs and earn airline miles each time you fly. If you travel often enough, you may even earn enough miles to score special status with your favorite airline. And that special status could make it easier to get free upgrades, priority boarding, and more.
Earn a signup bonus you can redeem for free flights.
If you haven’t considered an airline credit card in the past, you really should. Not only can you earn “bonus” airline miles as a cardholder each time you fly with that airline, but you can score a huge signup bonus as well. The Southwest Visa is definitely a credit card you should consider. The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Card, for example, is currently offering 40,000 Southwest Rapid Reward miles after you spend just $1,000 on your card within three months. That’s enough miles for two round-trip flights to the Caribbean, for heaven’s sake! You can turn them in for $500 or more in gift cards if your travel plans fall through. See what I’m saying? With this card and signup bonus, you really can’t lose.
Sign up for a flexible travel card for utmost flexibility.
Don’t want to commit to a particular airline loyalty program? That’s okay. Believe it or not, certain credit cards called flexible rewards cards were made for commitment-phobes like you.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is usually considered the best flexible travel credit card on the market, and for good reason. After you sign up, you’ll earn an amazing 60,000 points worth $750 in travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. That’s pretty crazy since you can use your points to book any flight on any airline!
If you’re so inclined, you can also transfer your Chase points to a slew of popular loyalty programs including Southwest Rapid Rewards, United MileagePlus Explorer, and British Airways. You can read all about the various Chase transfer partners in our Ultimate Guide on Chase Ultimate Rewards, but you get the point.
Join the rewards program at your local airport parking garage.
If you find yourself paying for airport parking all the time, you can check to see if your airport offers a loyalty program. Mine does, and I can get around a week of free parking every year at the rate I’m going. Best of all, joining is absolutely free!
Volunteer to get bumped off your next flight.
This strategy worked for us a few months ago when we went to Grand Cayman. Because our flight from Chicago to Miami was overbooked, our airline (American) started looking for volunteers who were willing to fly an hour later.
Since we had all day to travel and some flexibility in our travel plans that day, we opted to “get bumped” and take two $300 American travel vouchers in return. The crazy thing is, our original flights were paid for with airline miles! So we got free flights for getting bumped off of free flights!
To make this strategy work for you, ask at the airport counter if they need volunteers whenever you have some flexibility in your travel plans. You never know when you could get a fat travel voucher just for leaving an hour or two later than you planned.
Earn a companion pass.
While several credit cards and loyalty programs offer their own version of a companion pass, Southwest Airlines has them all beat. With the Companion Pass from Southwest, any companion you designate gets to fly free for the remainder of the year you earn the pass in, plus the entire next year. Plus, your companion gets a free flight when you pay for your own flight with miles or points. Pretty sweet, huh?
Earning the pass isn’t easy, however. To get the companion pass for yourself, you can either a)fly a gazillion one-ways on Southwest within a calendar year (kidding, I think it’s 100), or b) earn 110,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points during a calendar year.
Shop through airline shopping portals.
If you do a lot of shopping online, you can earn free flights rather quickly by utilizing shopping portals. My favorite shopping portal by far is the Chase portal. On any given day, you can earn an extra 2-5 points for every dollar you spend at retailers like Best Buy, Home Depot, Lowe’s, or Macy’s.
Using these shopping portals every time you buy something online is crazy smart, and especially if you pair your shopping with solid credit card. Compare more of our favorite rewards cards here.
Fly on an airline that offers free checked bags.
Certain airlines offer free checked bags if you hold their co-branded credit card, and that can help cut down on the costs of your trip. Our favorite airline, Southwest Airlines, takes the gesture a step further by offering two checked bags free to every customer on every flight. For an average family of four, that’s a savings of at least $100. And if you didn’t pay for your flights to begin with, that’s even better!
Pack snacks when you fly.
Airport food is just gross. I should know. During my numerous adventures, I have been forced to eat everything from stale nachos with imitation cheese to prepackaged sandwiches that were mushy on the inside.
You can avoid eating something disgusting (and save money) by bringing your own food along for the ride. You can’t bring liquids onto planes for security reasons, but you sure can bring your own bag of nuts along! When I travel with my kids especially, I bring everything from Teddy Grahams to cookies and trail mix. Just throw it all in your carry-on before you leave and you’re good to go.
The Bottom Line
If you love to travel like we do, it’s crucial to find someone else to foot the bill. I’m not even kidding, guys. Travel is expensive, and I have two kids with a growing list of needs. I have no desire to pay for all of the trips I go on, which is why I jump through the aforementioned hoops and focus so much on airline miles and other types of credit card rewards.
Travel really can be cheap or free, but you do have to put in the work. But trust me, the free flights will be worth it once you finally get in the air.
In a lot of ways, pursuing credit card rewards is a lot like childbirth; it’s painful and you can’t believe you would go through all this hassle, but the end result is amazing.
When you’re relaxing in Bali, Tahiti, or the South of France, you’ll no longer care what it took to get there.
What is your favorite way to get free flights? What is your best redemption to date? Please share below.