A cheap flight is great, but a free flight is better. And while it might seem like a free plane ticket — or at the very least, a nearly free plane ticket — is just a dream, travel junkies and airline insiders know a few secrets to help make it a reality.
The average domestic round trip at the end of last year averaged $363, according to recently released data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. So, getting free flights means big savings.
You can score a great travel deal, but you have to know the tricks of the trade. Over the past decade, a vast community of insiders, experts and airfare watchers has sprung up to tip you off to the next great deal. A big part of scoring a free ticket is being plugged into this world, a sort of Airfare Matrix.
That means reading the insiders’ blogs, and checking in on message boards, forums and wikis. It also means following airlines’ social media feeds, signing up for airline rewards and frequent flier programs, and checking fares at any number of websites and aggregators.
Luckily, the experts are here to offer shortcuts to their shortcuts. Following is their list of top 10 tips to scoring a free ticket.
1. Know the Right Sites
Few “insiders” are really looking for flight deals on Expedia, Orbitz or Kayak anymore. The rule seems to be that the more people know about a site, the less chance it has of offering rock-bottom prices. The airlines’ own sites offer cheaper flights than these search giants.
If you want to look for flights outside the airlines’ own websites, experts say you are better off heading to lesser-known options. These include Skyscanner, Momondo, Airfarewatchdog and ITA Matrix. This last site — an insider favorite — allows you to shift dates and routes easily to find the cheapest options.
Other good sites include View from The Wing, The Flight Deal, ExpertFlyer or FlyerTalk’s forums.
2. Work Those Credit Card Sign-Up Bonuses
Credit card sign-up bonuses are “the easiest way to rack up miles quickly,” said Sam Huang, founder of Top Miles. You should be able to find plenty of travel credit card deals. Huang said sign-up offers are currently at an all-time high.
Plenty of major credit cards offer 50,000 miles or more when you sign up. How valuable are such miles? You can fly Singapore Airlines’ hotel-room-in-the-sky suites from New York to Frankfurt one way for under 60,000 miles, Huang said.
Websites like GOBankingRates, MileCards and The Points Guy track cards that are currently offering bonuses so big that you can score multiple free flights by simply signing on the dotted line.
Be warned, though: You typically need good-to-excellent credit to qualify for these kinds of offers. In addition, the cards might come with fees. And if you are not responsible with your credit — meaning you do not pay off your monthly bills in full at the end of each billing cycle — your interest payments might wind up erasing your savings over time.
3. Get Bumped
Prepare properly before your trip, and you will increase the odds of saving money. Prepare to get “bumped,” and you might get a flight that is truly free.
“Getting a free ticket via getting bumped is arguably more common today than it was five to 10 years ago, since airplanes are flying regularly at full capacity now, making the need to bump greater,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights.
Keyes has done this dozens of times and has a clear five-step method to getting bumped and scoring a free ticket.
- Figure out your odds of getting a bumped. Look at a seat map when checking in at the airport. If there are just a few or no extra seats, your chances are good.
- Be in the gate area early. Keyes recommends arriving 30 to 45 minutes before boarding.
- Sit as close to the agent desk as possible. Keep your eyes and ears open. “On multiple occasions, I’ve beat out other potential volunteers by sitting closer and jumping earlier,” Keyes said.
- Know when to pull the trigger. Keyes said airlines usually start offers at $250 and then ratchet up by $50 every five minutes until they get enough volunteers. “I typically pull the trigger early — usually the first offer,” Keyes said. However, he also requests to have his offer upgraded to match any final offers the airline grants to other volunteers later in the boarding process. “Most of the time they’ll agree,” Keyes said.
- Leverage your offer. Recent FAA rule changes force airlines that bump passengers involuntarily to give the passengers up to $1,300 in compensation. Airlines want to avoid this fine, so you can make some demands, such as a more direct route or a first-class seat. For a full look at your rights when getting bumped, read the federal government’s rules.
4. Sniff Out Wacky Promotions
You can also score a free ticket by exploiting wacky promotions. Gilbert Ott, founder of God Save the Points, said he once took a free private jet from Boston to Washington, D.C., by finding a coupon code that offered free flight credit.
“It was intended for people who became members of a really expensive membership program, but the code was accepted in the app and we booked successfully without paying a dime,” he said.
Search online for free flight credit coupons or promo codes and follow major airlines’ social platforms for promotional giveaways. If you are plugged into any of the message boards or blogs mentioned in this article, you might get the inside track on new promotions. However, the experts admit that scoring tickets this way is pretty rare.
5. Make a Mileage Run
Let’s get this out of the way immediately: This method does mean buying a ticket to get a free ticket. But if you are free-spirited, flexible and love to travel, it can be worthwhile.
Basically, if you are already plugged into that Airfare Matrix, you can watch out for routes that earn double or triple miles and book a cheap flight just to earn the miles. These offers typically arise when airlines open a new route and want to promote it. Thus, they create opportunities to earn heavy miles.
Find the right balance of fare cost and miles earned, and you can wind up with what amounts to a great “buy one, get one free” deal.
6. Time Your Big Purchases
Exploiting your credit card-offered miles takes some expert timing. Jason Moore of Zero To Travel wrote that he once got a free ticket by simply opening up a new credit card and then using it to pay his taxes. This combination of the sign-up bonus miles and the number of miles earned on this large “purchase” meant he earned a free ticket in less than 15 minutes.
Think of computers, televisions, major appliances or even home repairs with a contractor that accepts credit cards. These big ticket items — paid back immediately from your checking account, of course — can mean instant free flights with some offers.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean buying things you do not need. But when a pipe leaks and your plumber takes credit cards, the miles earned might ease the pain of the bill.
7. Shop Through the Airlines
One of Gilbert’s favorite ways to find great travel deals is to make online purchases through airline shopping portals. Essentially, you log in to your frequent flier account on an airline website, go to the airline shopping portal, and earn miles just for making purchases from your favorite retailer.
“It’s kind of like a referral program,” Gilbert said. Sometimes certain retailers will offer 25 or more miles per dollar. “If you buy a laptop from your favorite online store, it may be enough for a free flight,” he said. “It’s so easy and can mean thousands of miles and endless free flights if you shop online.”
Like the previous tip, you will have to spend money to earn a ticket. But when it is stuff you need anyway, you might as well earn the miles.
8. Take Advantage of ‘Mistake Fares’
In the flight-hacking world, mistake fares — or error fares, as they also are known — are fares so low they seem like a mistake. And in some cases, they are. Either way, they happen more often than you think, said Janice Waugh of Solo Traveler.
Both Waugh and Huang recommend searching the website Secret Flying, which specializes in digging up these kinds of fares. Like a mileage run, this method is also something of a “buy one, get one free” situation, and means taking long-haul flights in coach.
“For example, I am scheduled to fly from Taipei to San Jose, which will net me at least 11,000 miles round trip, for $165,” Huang said. He noted that 12,500 miles is enough for a one-way ticket within the United States.
And, he added, those fares never last long.
9. Rig a ‘Fuel Dump’ Ticket
This trick is not going to score you a free ticket, but it could nab you one very cheap.
A fuel-dump ticket is kind of complicated. Basically, an airline charges for fuel separately — you will see this charge itemized when you purchase tickets. Sometimes, that charge is the most expensive part of the ticket.
So a fuel-dump ticket is one where the airlines have dumped the fuel charge thanks to some magical combination of flights, such as adding a third leg to the end of a round-trip ticket, even though you have no intention of taking this final round-trip flight. Gilbert explains this “Wild West” method of flying at God Save the Points.
This is where sites like FlyerTalk are your friend because these types of tickets are not advertised, and the airlines allegedly actively monitor the internet looking for people who spot these kinds of fares so they can eliminate them.
10. Get a Checking Account That Earns Miles
Some banks will give you miles for opening a checking account. For example, Huang said depositing $50,000 at BankDirect will earn you 60,000 miles annually. You only pay $144, the $12 monthly service fee on the account.
He said it is “an amazing deal, since 60,000 miles can get you at least two round-trip trip tickets in coach anywhere in the U.S.”
From GoBankingRates.com: 10 insider secrets to get a free flight