Home Comparing Benefits The Insider’s Guide to Free Flights: Unrestricted Award Travel

The Insider’s Guide to Free Flights: Unrestricted Award Travel

Say good-bye to blackout dates and seat restrictions, and maximize your credit card points for free travel—on your own terms.

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In the last decade, legacy airline carriers have made it significantly harder to redeem miles with their frequent flyer programs, leaving many travelers fed up. Though some good mileage redemptions are still out there, they’re typically few and far between. Award searches turn up limited seat availability, seats only on off-peak days of the week (and often with no return flight in sight), blackout dates, and inflated rates for redeeming miles. Yes—it’s the same story we’ve heard from Jennifer Garner, who is marketing proof that credit card companies have caught wind of this frustration. But it’s not just Capital One® that has changed the way in which points can be used for airfare redemption—high-end credit cards have, too.

Long gone are the days of transferring credit card points to frequent flyer programs and going through the laborious task of obtaining a coveted award seat. Nowadays, it’s as easy as finding your desired flight, on your desired airline and date, and paying for the airline ticket using credit card points. But cashing out these points for airfare varies by credit card. Here, we tell you how to go about booking the exact flights you want—for free—and examine the redemption rates across the luxury credit card industry for unrestricted award travel.

First, how can you book a free flight of your choice using credit card points?

The process couldn’t be easier. All of the luxury credit card companies have their own flight-booking engines, accessible through their websites. When you log in to your online account, choose to redeem points for travel, and a booking screen appears to enter your dates and destination (which looks similar to that of Kayak, Orbitz, and Expedia websites). After you hit the Search button, flight prices appear in both dollars and points. If redeeming points, just choose the points option during checkout. Alternatively, each high-end credit card company has a travel concierge or special travel hotline, where an agent can complete the booking for you. 

Are there advantages to redeeming points for flights this way (versus transferring to frequent flyer programs)?

Absolutely. You have the freedom to pick the exact flights and airlines you want. Plus, this type of ticket is processed as a paid ticket so you will earn miles for your flight. In addition, you are provided all of the core insurance coverage provided with a paid ticket such as Baggage Delay Insurance, Travel Accident Insurance, and Trip Cancellation and Interruption Insurance. Such coverage is forfeited when booking award tickets through a traditional frequent flyer program. Finally, you can pay part of your ticket with points and part with miles, which means you don’t need to reach a miles threshold (e.g., 50,000 miles) in order to cash out your points for airfare.

Which cards offer the best redemption for unrestricted award travel?

#1 Best: Across the board, all three Luxury Cards—MasterCard® Gold Card™, MasterCard® Black Card™, and MasterCard® Titanium Card™—are best in class when it comes to redeeming points for unrestricted award travel. Flights can be booked directly through the cards’ online Rewards Center at a redemption value of 2%. As an example, a $500 flight can be booked instantly by redeeming 25,000 points. Bottom line: 50,000 points would be worth $1,000 in airfare.

#2: Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ Card and U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite® Card offer the second-highest redemption rate in the high-end credit card industry at 1.50%. In this case, a $500 flight booked through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards® portal or U.S. Bank’s online booking engine would use 33,333 points. Bottom line: 50,000 points would be worth $750 in airfare.

#3: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card returns a value of 1.25% when using Ultimate Rewards points for travel through its Ultimate Rewards portal. In this case, a $500 flight booked through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards® portal would use 40,000 points. Bottom line: 50,000 points would be worth $625 in airfare.

#4 Worst (Tie): All of the top American Express cards—Gold Card from American Express, Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express, and The Platinum Card® from American Express—allow cardholders to redeem Membership Rewards® points at a value of 1%. Bottom line: 50,000 points would only be worth $500 in airfare. Side note: You may have heard that American Express is currently offering a new perk: a 50% rebate when you Pay with Points on one chosen airline in economy class and any airline in business or first class, effectively making the redemption rate 2%. This is a fantastic benefit; however, this amenity is limited to The Enhanced Business Platinum Card® from American Express OPEN and is not available on personal cards. In addition, since June 1, 2017, that 50% rebate has dropped to 35%, diminishing the value of Membership Rewards points from 2% to 1.54%.

#4 Worst (Tie): Until April 2017, points earned on the Citi Prestige® Card could be redeemed through the ThankYou® Travel Center at a redemption value of 1.60% on American Airlines and 1.33% on all other airlines. However, the card has since restructured its perks, and now points are redeemed at a 1% value. Bottom line: 50,000 points would be worth $500 in airfare.

 

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Award-winning travel writer and economist Paul Rubio is a credit card enthusiast, whose sophisticated use of points and rewards has helped him travel to 125 countries for free. Paul is a Harvard graduate with a master’s degree in public administration and a master’s degree in economics. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from Boston University with a double major in economics and environmental policy and a minor in conservation biology. He attended both undergraduate and graduate schools on full scholarships. Paul worked in the field of wildlife conservation before embracing his writing talents full-time in 2008. Since then, he has won more than two dozen national awards for his exemplary work in travel journalism. The prolific writer contributes to a number of top-tier international, national, and regional publications including Condé Nast Traveler, Fodors.com, Palm Beach Illustrated, Private Clubs, and Robb Report.