10 Ways to Get Free (or Almost Free) Airline Tickets
I love to travel. It sounds cliche, but it's true. At one point, I had been out of the country every summer for six years, including a six-month stay in Europe that included the ubiquitous backpack. (See also: How to Save $1000 on Your Next Backpacking Trip)
Now that I have a family, traveling is a lot more expensive, and airfare is a huge chunk of that. I haven't given up on future trips, though, because there are so many ways to get free tickets these days. Below are some of the ideas that have worked for me or for people I know.
1. Volunteer to Get Bumped
If you've flown at all, you probably know this drill. A flight gets overbooked, and so the gate agent asks for people to give up their seats in exchange for some sort of incentive. Often, that incentive is a voucher for a free or discounted ticket in the future. When you volunteer, they will usually book you through on another flight, so you still have a guaranteed way to get wherever you're going.
2. Complain (Politely!)
Did something go wrong on your last flight? If you write a polite letter to the airline, you will often receive some sort of compensation in return. This is sometimes even a voucher for a free flight! Even if you don't get that big payoff, you will often receive a discount on future tickets or some sort of free upgrade for your trouble. Most airlines respond positively to polite complaints. If something went wrong and you can document time, place, flight number, and personnel involved, you are likely to get something in exchange for your trouble. (See also: How to Complain Effectively)
3. Look for Incentives
These days, free airline tickets are offered as incentives for everything from opening a brokerage account with a certain minimum amount of money to taking out a mortgage. While you don't want to do these things just for the tickets, if you're going to do them anyway, you may as well get the free travel. If you're looking to make some sort of large investment, see if there's a way to do it that involves free tickets.
4. Rack Up the Miles
Join an airline frequent flyer program, and begin collecting miles towards a free ticket. It really is as easy as that. And most airlines are fairly good about helping you redeem your miles, as long as you follow their rules and plan your travel well in advance. You can maximize miles earned by choosing the longest route when you do fly, and you can often earn additional miles by making purchases through the rewards program website, etc. (See also: Everything You Need to Know About Frequent Flyer Miles)
5. Redeem Those Credit Card Rewards
Credit cards have gotten a bad rap when it comes to actually letting you use your points to get free airline tickets. However, some of them actually do have quality programs. If you're looking for free tickets and will be using a credit card anyway, you might as well earn points towards your next trip. If you tend to fly one airline most of the time, you can also get a credit card that is strictly for that airline. Southwest has a particularly well-reviewed program. (See also: The Best Travel Reward Credit Cards)
6. Get a Job at the Airline
Airline employees often get discounted flights or get to fly standby for free. If you do a lot of flying, or would like to, and are open to a new or a second job, there's no reason not to try and get hired by an airline. As a bonus, many airlines also offer free standby tickets for immediate family members, so you can all fly for free together.
7. Ask for Tickets as a Gift
Ok, so this one may sound like cheating because someone is still paying for the tickets, but the key is that YOU are not paying for them. If there's a trip you'd particularly like to take and you're the plan-ahead type, go ahead and see if you can't get the tickets for Christmas. Maybe all of your friends or relatives could go in together. Even if they can't come up with the full price of the tickets you want, asking for contributions can lower your personal investment significantly.
8. Ask for Miles Rather Than Money
If you know someone who racks up the frequent flyer miles, see if they'd be willing to transfer some to you so that you can get a free ticket. This is particularly useful if the person giving the miles has more than they will ever use, knows that their miles will expire before they use them, or wants to give you a significant gift but really doesn't have the money. Try focusing your efforts on friends or relatives who travel quite frequently for work.
9. Win a Sweepstakes
There are many contests and sweepstakes out there that offer free airline tickets to winners. Sure, your chances of winning any single contest are low, but if you enter them systematically and frequently, your chances of winning eventually go up. While you can't plan your life around winning a sweepstakes, the tickets would be a nice surprise whenever your name comes up.
10.Watch for Airline Mistakes
A couple months ago, United Airlines made a mistake and offered a bunch of tickets for very cheap or free. While the mistake was only live for a couple of minutes, many people took advantage of it. If you frequent travel forums, though, you can catch these deals because people will post about them almost as soon as they happen. Sometimes, airlines will try to rescind the tickets sold during these mistakes, but most often they are honored. If you want free tickets, this is a great way to find them.
Bonus Standby Tip
Standby is no longer free, unless you or an immediate family member works for the airline. Flying standby used to be a great way to get free and/or deeply discounted airline tickets. However, most airlines now require you to have already purchased a ticket to even be eligible for standby flights, and many will charge you an additional fee, too. Each airline has a different policy, so check this out before you try to fly on a standby basis.
Good luck, and good flying!
How have you scored free or cheap airline tickets?