Editorial Policy

How to Earn Rewards Travel on a Budget

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

October 15, 2012

QHi Eva,

My husband got a job across the country (in D.C.). I live in Houston. The whole reason he took the job is because we were desperate (he’d been unemployed for a while). I’m in school, so needless to say, flying out to see each other until I graduate in two years and find a job in D.C. isn’t something we’re going to be able to afford that easily. Can you recommend some rewards cards that might get us some free miles? We are thrifty, and we’ve never had credit card debt, which I’m proud of, so I think we can handle another card and use it responsibly — with any tips you can give us, of course! — Amy

ADear Amy,

Oh, dear, I feel for you. Having hubby more than 1,400 miles away is nobody’s idea of fun. Fortunately, D.C. is just a three-hour plane hop away (if you can get a direct flight), so indeed, the more free trips you can get your hands on, the better off you are.Ask Eva

Finding the best travel rewards deals on a budget takes a little bit of digging. Earning free trips the good old-fashioned way — via flight miles and rewards card earnings — can take a while if you’re not a big spender. Fortunately, there are ways to supersize rewards earnings and save a decent sum of money over time.

There are two basic approaches people use to supercharge travel rewards earnings. If you have the time and patience, you get the best results by doing a combination of the two. Let’s take a look at each.

Going on a rewards card application spree
One approach is to go on an application spree and apply for three to five airline credit cards offering high-mileage sign-up bonuses. Most leading airline rewards card programs offer generous sign-up bonuses for new card applicants. The American Express Delta SkyMiles card, for example, and the Citi AAdvantage card both come with 30,000-mile sign-up bonuses. Depending on when you fly, each could very well be enough for one free round-trip ticket between Houston and D.C. Offers vary, even for the same card, so if you do a little digging on the Internet, you can sometimes find even higher bonus offers.

Apply for several different cards, and you should have enough for a handful of free tickets to go see your husband. Some cards have minimum spending requirements to get the bonus miles, so be sure to consider that before applying.

The downside? Applying for several credit cards within a short period of time will shave points off your credit score. If you otherwise have excellent credit (which you’ll need to get approved for the best travel rewards card deals anyway) and don’t plan to apply for a major loan in the near future, this is not such a big concern; the ding in your credit score is temporary.

Another downside is that juggling rewards cards isn’t easy. Keeping track of all the different rewards (as well as the payment due dates for the cards you’re actively using) can get complex and time-consuming. So you’d need to make sure you have the time and patience for this approach.

Finding sweetheart deals
Another approach is to find the airline that offers the best rewards deals on routes you will frequently fly and focus on earning rewards with that airline.

If you check travel websites like Expedia.com or Hotwire.com, you’ll find that the Houston-to-D.C. route is served by two discount airlines: AirTran and US Airways. Judging from the prices, there is stiff competition between the two, because you can find round trips with both airlines starting at under $300 between Houston and D.C.

So this gives you a clue where to start. Obviously, accumulating free trips with an airline that charges $200 per trip will be a lot easier than accumulating them with a more expensive major airline.

Both AirTran and US Airways offer their own travel rewards credit cards and frequent flier programs that enable you to earn rewards faster. For example, if you enroll in the AirTran A+ rewards program, eight coach round-trip tickets are enough to qualify for one free flight. Add the Airtran Airways A+ rewards credit card, and you can get a free round-trip flight after you spend $1,000 in the first three months, (plus two business class upgrades after the first purchase).

If you go with the sweetheart deal approach, you need to do your own due diligence and look through the offers to find the best deals for your location. Keep in mind that rewards earnings are only one of the variables to consider. How easy rewards are to redeem is another. If you find it hard to choose, you can always start out with a couple of programs and then later choose which one to focus on.

Got a question for Eva? Send her an email.