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Consumer Reports tells how to nab a free flight.

Thursday, March 21, 2013 - 7:05 am

Airline credit cards and bank cards often offer points toward free air travel, but some will earn card users more free travel than others over time. ShopSmart, the shopping magazine from the publisher of Consumer Reports, recently came up with tips for deciding which card to use when looking for discounted travel and highlighted some of the best airline and bank card reward formulas currently available.

"It's simple to sign up for a travel credit card," said Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of ShopSmart. "But finding the one that will earn the most free travel is key, and varies based on traveler preferences."

BANK CARDS VS. AIRLINE CARDS

ShopSmart recommends airline cards for the following types of users: those who are loyal to an airline and travel a lot, those who want a free trip fast and those who like to wheel and deal. Frequent flyer miles earned by traveling with an airline and its partners can often be combined with points earned by purchases -- and there are perks such as free checked bags. Airline cards usually aren't as generous with points, but may be worth it for those who can score a decent up-front bonus.

Airline card users should check offers listed on an airline's website and use them as a starting bid when calling the airline directly to negotiate a deal or to ask for double points. A notable caveat: Blackout dates and other restrictions can be a common issue with airline cards.

Bank cards are better suited for these types of travelers: those who fly based on price, those who don't want to deal with blackout dates and other restrictions and those who are enrolled in many frequent flyer programs. Users can earn points on purchases and spend them on any airline they choose -- points are usually tied to the price of the ticket, so the lower the price, the fewer the points needed.

Bank cards are a better option for those concerned about when they can fly and how much time they have to use their points. Some cards allow users to transfer earned points to a variety of airline programs.

Here are a few of ShopSmart's bank and airline card picks that go a long way toward a free flight:

•American Express Premier Rewards Gold. This bank card rewards shoppers with three points per $1 spent for airfare, two points per $1 spent on gas and groceries and one point per $1 spent elsewhere. Users who spend $2,000 in the first three months can earn 25,000 bonus points. There's no interest charge; users pay balances in full every month. No annual fee is charged for the first year, then $175 every year after that.

•Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa or MasterCard. These bank cards reward shoppers with two points per $1 spent for travel and dining, one point per $1 elsewhere and a 7 percent yearly bonus on points. Users who spend $3,000 in the first three months earn 40,000 bonus points (worth $500 on travel booked through Chase). APR for purchases is 15.24 percent; an annual fee of $95 is waived the first year.

•Delta SkyMiles American Express Gold. This airline card rewards shoppers with two miles per $1 spent on Delta and one mile per $1 spent elsewhere. Users get a free checked bag for up to nine people in a reservation, plus a 20 percent savings on eligible in-flight food and beverage purchases. APR for purchases is 15.24 percent, 17.24 percent, or 19.24 percent; an annual fee of $95 is waived the first year.