Without a credit score of 700 or above, it is unlikely that you will get approved for any of the best cards. Therefore, it is important to know your credit score before getting started, and if need be, to improve it.
Create an account at www.creditsesame.com or www.creditkarma.com or both (they’re free so you have nothing to lose!) Credit Sesame will give you an approximation of your Experian score and Credit Karma will give you an approximation of your Transunion score. Both of these are completely free memberships forever, so there is no worry about having to cancel them at any time.
If your score is above 700 at these sites and you have no negative items on your credit report, you are highly likely to be approved for the credit cards. At this point, if you are satisfied with your score, you can proceed to step 2.
If your score is below 700 or you have negative items on your credit report, it is unlikely you will get approved. Check out my Improving Your Credit page for help.
If you’d like some more in-depth analysis or want to check your FICO score (which is your actual score, not an approximation), then read the following two bullets.
Create an account at www.myfico.com. This is the only place to access your FICO credit score, which is what most of the credit card companies will use determine your credit worthiness.
MyFico allows you to access your Equifax and Transunion scores. You have a 14 day free trial period. AFTER THIS TIME YOU WILL BE CHARGED $14.99 A MONTH, SO REMEMBER TO CANCEL.
Decide which credit card(s) are right for you.
There is no shortage of cards out there to choose from, and with different offers popping up all the time, it helps to be aware of all the best offers. You can see all the most up to date offers that I recommend on the Best Current Deals page. I will NEVER recommend a card that I do not already have or am not planning on getting. This Flyertalk thread also keeps a very comprehensive, up-to-date list.
Apply for the card online.
To help support this website, you can always click on the ads on this site to apply for your card. I’ll get a small referral fee and you’ll get exactly the same deal you would if you went to the website yourself.
If you get instant approval, great. You will probably be receiving your card in the mail in 5-7 days. If you want to get the miles in your account as quickly as possible, you can always call customer service for that card and ask them to expedite the card to your address. They will overnight it, meaning you can start spending sooner and your miles will post in your account quicker.
If you don’t get instant approval, you can either wait a few days to a week to see if you receive an email or letter from the company saying that you were approved or you can attempt to speed up the process by calling customer service and asking if you were approved. Sometimes they will approve you right then and there, and sometimes they will tell you to wait for the companies response through the mail, but if you are antsy, it doesn’t hurt to try.
Call to activate the card.
This can be done by calling the number that is on the sticky attached to your card. Usually, it is automated and can be done 24/7.
Start spending on your card.
After you meet the minimum spending requirement, the miles should post to your account 6-8 weeks after the statement closes. For example, if I get a card with a $1,500 minimum spend and go out and buy a $1,500 laptop that day, and immediately return home and pay off the $1,500 online, the miles will not instantaneously appear. Usually, you have to wait until your statement closes (which is when your HAVE to pay by, not when you pay). This is usually a month after you have activated the card. Then, it may take another 6-8 weeks for miles to post to your account.
Obviously each situation is different, and miles oftentimes post much quicker than this, but please be aware that if you are planning a trip and want to use those miles, you MAY have to 10-12 weeks from when you spent the money to when you get the miles in your account.
If you get a card that has no minimum spend, and rewards the miles “after your first purchase”, this means ANY purchase. I once bought a $2 cheeseburger at Burger King on my USAir Mastercard and never touched it again, but had 40,000 extra miles to show for it.
Start using those miles!
Figure out where you want to go, then how many miles it will cost. Milez.biz is a great website that will show you the mileage required between two places for a ton of airline programs. From there, you have to check availability. To learn more, check out the Free Flight Primer Part 3, 4, and 5. Don’t assume that simply going to the airline’s website and checking for availability will give you all the options, as most airline’s sites don’t show availability for all the partner airlines you can also fly on.
If you really want to delve deep, check out Award Nexus (free in the beginning) or ExpertFlyer, which are paid subscription services that allow you to search multiple airlines at once. Then sit back and enjoy the fact that you are only paying $44 to fly from New York to Tokyo, or that you were able to use miles to upgrade to business class for your trans-Pacific flight to Bangkok!
Keep track of all miles, points, usernames, and passwords.
Organization of your miles and points is key. You’ve worked hard (kind of) for your miles, so don’t let them get lost or expire due to lack of organization.
If you plan on opening more than one card, then it can become pretty confusing as to what minimum spend is required for each, if you’ve met it, what your password is for each account, etc. Keep meticulous track of that. I use a simple Excel spreadsheet.
Also, I would highly recommend Award Wallet to anyone who has frequent flyer accounts with multiple airlines or credit cards. This awesome tool will automatically link your frequent flyer numbers for each account in to one easy to use portfolio. This way, you can sign in to one place and see all the miles you have accrued for each airline or credit card, without having to sign in to multiple places. It is completely free, although they request a $5 donation after your first 6 months. I believe it is well worth it.
My name is Travis and I’m obsessed with collecting frequent flyer miles so that I can travel for free. I want to help you do the same.