Why pay hundreds of dollars for a plane ticket if you don't have to? There are many credit cards that offer tons of frequent flyer miles just for signing up (and sometimes meeting a spending threshold). Even after the annual fees that are prevalent these days, travelers can still come out far ahead by using these credit cards.
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Airline-Specific Cards

  1. American Express Gold Delta Skymiles
    This card awards 20,000 bonus miles after your first purchase. You can add up to two additional cardholders for an extra bonus of 2,500 miles per approved cardholder. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year. If you keep your card, you'll get a $99 companion ticket each year upon renewal. The card also awards one Skymile per dollar spent.
    • Annual fee: $0 the first year, $95 thereafter
    • Mileage bonus: 20,000 to 25,000
    • Additional perks: No seat restrictions or blackout dates on Delta or Northwest when using the "Pay with Miles" feature; one mile per dollar spent

  2. U.S. Airways Premier World MasterCard
    This card offers 12,500 miles after your first purchase and 12,500 more miles after spending $750 in your first 90 days as a cardholder, for a total of 25,000 miles. That's enough for an award ticket. The card's additional perks include one free day pass to the U.S. Airways club (the exclusive, fancy waiting area), early boarding and two discounted companion tickets per year. The annual fee is $89 and U.S. Airways' award travel booking fee is $25, meaning that you can get a plane ticket that you might have spent $400 on for just $114.
    • Annual fee: $89
    • Mileage bonus: 25,000
    • Miles needed for a free domestic ticket: 20,000
    • Fees associated with free tickets: $25 booking fee
    • Additional perks: One free day pass to U.S. Airways club, early boarding and two discounted companion tickets per year, and one mile per dollar spent

  3. United Mileage Plus Visa
    This card rewards you with 30,000 miles after you spend $250, which is more than enough for a round-trip economy ticket in North America. The card has a $60 annual fee. Additional perks include the usual one mile per dollar spent, a seat upgrade certificate and a $25 certificate toward a United ticket.
    • Annual fee: $60
    • Mileage bonus: 30,000
    • Miles needed for a free domestic ticket: 25,000
    • Fees associated with free tickets: $25 handling fee
    • Additional perks: One mile per dollar spent; discount and upgrade certificates

These aren't the only cards worth checking out. Alaska/Horizon's Visa Signature card can get you a free flight in exchange for a $75 annual fee. American Express's Jet Blue card will get you 10,000 TrueBlue points with a $40 annual fee. The credit cards associated with Continental and American each have an $85 annual fee, and award enough miles for a free ticket. And Spirit Airlines flies just a few routes in the United States, but its Free Spirit Onyx World MasterCard advertises an astounding three free flights if you take flights of fewer than 1,250 miles during off-peak times.

Any-Airline Cards

  1. Chase Sapphire Premier
    Popular personal finance blog My Money Blog recommends the Chase Sapphire Premier credit card as an easy way to earn frequent flyer miles. If you normally put about $1,000 a month on a credit card, you shouldn't have any trouble meeting this card's requirement to spend $3,000 in three months to earn 25,000 bonus points, which can be redeemed for a ticket worth as much as $312.50. If you want a more expensive ticket, you only have to pay the difference. The card also offers the points equivalent of 1% back on all purchases as well as several other high-end perks.
    • Annual fee: $0 the first year, $85 thereafter
    • Mileage bonus: varies
    • Miles needed for a free domestic ticket: varies
    • Fees associated with free tickets: no booking fee if done online, $20 by phone
    • Additional perks: points worth 1% back on everyday spending
    • Total cost for one ticket: as little as $0

  2. American Express Starwood Preferred Guest
    This credit card offers 10,000 Starpoints after your first purchase, which can be redeemed for a ticket worth up to $150. The card has no annual fee for the first year, and a $45 per year fee thereafter. If you'd prefer, you can redeem your points for a hotel stay.
    • Annual fee: $0 the first year, $45 thereafter
    • Mileage bonus: varies
    • Miles needed for a free domestic ticket: varies
    • Fees associated with free tickets: no booking fee
    • Total cost for one ticket: as little as $0

The Bottom Line
Regardless of which card you choose, make sure to allow eight-12 weeks for the mileage to post to your frequent flyer account. Sometimes the wait will be shorter, but you'll need to do some advance planning if you want to use the miles for a specific trip. Read the fine print carefully to make sure you understand the card's fees and the conditions for earning miles, and check your target airline's reward ticket policies. Also, don't be surprised if you still have to pay some small taxes or fees, such as the $2.50 per flight segment September 11 security fee. And of course, always remember to pay your card balance in full and on time. (For more, check out Credit Card Perks You Never Knew You Had.)

Still feeling out of the loop? Read last week's Water Cooler Finance: Buffett Buzz, Toxic CDOs and Facebook Privacy to get caught up!

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