Earning free seats isn't as easy as the airlines would like you to believe when they promote their rewards programs. Frequent flyer programs are not on your side and this is largely because they are unregulated. Airlines change the rules frequently and sometimes make it difficult on purpose. Fortunately there are a few ways to beat them at their own game.
Shop Closer to Your Travel Dates
Sometimes the airlines will release frequent-flyer seats closer to the departure date, especially if they have unsold seats on the flight. It can be a little risky though, fares usually increase during this time so if you don’t find a free seat, you could end up paying more. A good strategy is to start price-watching a few months in advance to see if fares are going up and down. On our Airlines Page, we recommend sites like Google Flights. If you see a steady increase in tickets, that’s a good indication that the flight is selling well and chances for reward seats could potentially be limited.
Miles from Credit Cards
If you don't fly enough to earn a free flight you can still earn miles with a credit card linked to a reward program. Use for things like gas and groceries and the points could really add up fast. Use your card as often as you can major purchase like a tuition payment, a kitchen appliance, or even a downpayment on a new car. The Capital One Venture Card and Discover's new DisoverIt Miles Card are both highly rated for this.
Most of the major airlines also have frequent flyer programs linked to Visa, Master Card and American Express cards such as the JetBlue Card from American Express, the Delta Skymiles Card, and the American Airlines AAdvantage MasterCard. They usually offer a sign on bonus that can really boost your account towards a free flight. Unless you plan on racking up points rapidly, avoid programs where the points/miles expire after a set period of time; the better programs offer points that never expire as long as you actively use the card. Do your research for each card on a website like CreditCards.com - be sure you understand how you will earn miles and how you will be able to use them.
If you have an American Express Card and belong to the Membership Rewards Program, you can transfer rewards points right into many airline frequent flyer programs. The transfer of points can be a little complicated but you can get assistance by calling AMEX or the airline.
One of our favorites is the JetBlue Card from American Express where you earn points on JetBlue's True Blue program slightly faster than with Membership Rewards. For every dollar you spend on the card, you get a 1 frequent flyer mile so it's very easy to keep track of and points never expire. There are no blackout dates with JetBlue, when searching for flights you'll have the option of searching by cost or by points.
Southwest offers a variety of Visa Cards that can help you earn miles on it's Rapid Rewards program. Rapid Rewards points never expire and there are no blackout dates as long as you use the card frequently.
Both JetBlue and Southwest have made Orlando International Airport a mini-hub so they have plenty of flights in and out everyday. They also compete fiercely so fare wars are quite common. Explore our Airlines Page for more tips on how to find cheap flights into Orlando International plus other ways to save on SaveAtWDW.com.
Cash Back Credit Cards Offer More Flexibility
If you prefer not to commit to a airline credit card look for a credit card that offers cash back. Some cards offer anywhere from 1 percent to 5 percent cash back on purchases. With these cards you don’t have to consider frequent flyer miles at all - just use the cash back you've earned to pay for the flight. This is actually a great way to go but you might have to remember to sign up online to earn the 5 percent bonuses, otherwise you'll just be earning the standard 1 percent.
Annual Fees Add Up
Watch for Annual Fees. Most credit cards offering frequent flyer points charge an annual fee just for carrying the card in your wallet. The JetBlue American Express card is $40 per year while Southwest's cards start at $70. The Venture Card from Capital One is also a very good program but it will cost you $60 per year. If the points you earn expire after a set period of time, look for a different card.
Be sure that the annual fees don’t outweigh the cost of the flight. If your membership fees are racking up year after year without earning a reward, you could reach a point where it would be cheaper to have just buy a ticket.
Call if You Can’t Find it
Most people will search online for reward flights and for converting credit card miles and points. However, if you don’t understand how to make the conversion, try calling the airline for assistance. The airline representatives have the ability of looking up specific flights, using their own booking system, to see what’s available. They may also have the authority to release a reward seat that might otherwise show as unavailable.
Darren Wittko is the creator of Save at Walt Disney World and a Disney Destinations Specialist at Magical Vacations Travel. Voted "best of the best Disney travel agent" by readers of the 2015 Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. He is also the creator of The Best of Walt Disney World blog.