What is that “Free” Airline Reward Ticket Really Costing You?


Isn’t the sales pitch for an airline credit card just the best?  “Sign up and earn a free trip!”  It always seems as though this deal is going to come with no strings attached.  And while we’d like to think we’re savvy consumers, almost all of us have eyebrows that perk up when we think of getting free trips courtesy of the airlines.

However, inevitably when you read the fine print there’s always a catch and the trip isn’t really “free.”   Chances are very likely that before your free trip is earned there’s gonna be some money you have to spend before the trip can be cashed in.

Something to remember is that just as airline rewards programs have grown, so has the propensity of airlines to charge for services that used to be included, such as handling checked bags. Award tickets don’t include airport security fees. Some airlines tack on hefty fuel surcharges. And if you want to change or cancel your award ticket, be prepared to dig deep into your wallet because those fees can run up to $200.

Jay Sorensen, president of loyalty consulting firm IdeaWorks, notes that over the past couple decades, airlines have moved away from referring to the rewards as “free tickets” and instead refer to them as “award tickets,” since the cost is rarely zero.

“Almost everybody understands that when they talk about ‘free tickets,’ they are speaking in relative terms,” says Tim Winship, editor of FrequentFlier.com.  Not all frequent flier programs are equal.

Thanks to Creditcards.com, here’s how the major U.S. airlines stack up, using the co-branded credit card with the lowest annual fee for comparison:

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Graphics via Creditcards.com


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