How Frequent Flyer Miles Work

Travel is expensive, so it’s no wonder the promise of earning free or discounted airline tickets is enticing. There are several ways you can earn miles and redeem them with an airline for mostly free, discounted, or upgraded tickets, but understanding the rewards system can feel overwhelming.

Frequent flier miles, or travel points, are the rewards of loyalty programs offered by airlines, credit cards, or both through co-branded credit cards. You earn miles based on how far you fly and/or how much and what types of purchases you make on a credit card. These miles are then used to “buy” airline tickets.

Airline rewards

One way to earn miles is to sign up for an airline’s loyalty program and enter your account number every time you purchase tickets with them. Every airline has their own frequent flier program, and they’re free to use. Or you could sign up for an account with one (or all) of the three different airline alliances, which each include roughly 20 airlines. That way you’ll earn frequent flier miles for almost any flight, and at most you’ll have three accounts to keep track of:

  • Oneworld (American Airlines and others)
  • SkyTeam (Delta Airlines and others)
  • Star Alliance (United Airlines and others)

When you sign up, you may be able to redeem miles for past flights between three months and a year prior to signing up. Typically, your miles acquired through travel on the airline don’t expire as long as you’re using your account.

While you may earn one mile for every mile you fly, the miles act more like a points system than a direct and equal exchange when redeeming for a free ticket. For example, an airline may require you spend 20,000 earned miles for a round trip domestic trip even if the distance is only 8,000 miles.

Credit card rewards

Credit cards can also offer reward miles. Some credit cards are generic travel cards, others are co-branded between an airline and a bank, like Chase. Generic travel credit cards earn points that can be used on travel purchases like hotels, flights, transportation, and tours. Depending on the card, you can use earned points to buy things like cash back or gift cards.

The major appeal of using a credit card to earn miles is that you’ll be earning rewards for purchases you already planned on making. Most people don’t fly often enough to make earning miles that way a realistic method of earning free tickets. But lots of people use credit cards for everyday purchases.

A credit card might give you one mile, or travel point, for every dollar you charge to the card, or they may assign more points to certain types of purchases—eating out, gas, hotel stays, car rentals, etc.—but how much those points are worth in terms of buying an airline ticket depends on the credit card issuer and airline partner.

Picking the best credit card reward program for you

You want to pick a credit card travel reward program that fits your purchasing habits and your travel needs. Find out which airlines have a “hub” at your local airport or whichever airline has frequent flights to the cities you want to visit. If you take lots of flights to varied locations, consider a travel reward card that works with multiple airlines. Co-branded cards usually come with additional perks associated with the airline, like free checked bags, priority seating, or access to a special lounge.

Ideally, you want a card that offers 1 mile per $1 spent on common, everyday purchases and bonuses—like double or more miles—on specific types of purchases. Look for sign-up bonuses, like earning 50,000 miles just for getting the card, as well as additional miles if you spend a certain amount in the first few months. Beware though, you should never overspend on a credit card just to achieve extra miles. The high interest rate of credit cards is not worth the low dollar value assigned per mile earned.

Also look for added benefits like travel protection and rental car insurance when you use the card. Consider whether the perks of the card are worth paying an annual fee, or if you’d rather have a no-fee travel card (there are several out there).

Redeeming points/miles

Airlines set the number of miles required for a flight. Getting a “free” ticket depends on the number of miles you've accumulated and the value of each mile. Even if you don't have enough miles for a flight, you may be able to purchase additional miles to make up the difference and still receive a discount on the ticket price. The number of miles required for a flight usually depends on the price of the flight without miles, not necessarily the miles of the flight itself (called flat rate redemption).

A cross-country, domestic round-trip flight in economy may start at 20,000 or 30,000 miles, regardless of the actual trip distance. International round-trip flights to Europe may start at 60,000, and flights to Asia at 70,000 or more. Obviously, flights in business class and first class will cost more points.

When booking a flight using points, you must book on the airline’s website. You will select points, or miles, as the payment method. The site will then show you options for your itinerary listed in miles per ticket instead of dollars. Even if you have enough miles for the flight, you will still have to pay taxes and fees in cash.

Airlines designate a limited number of seats for purchase with points, so often choices are limited. Blackout dates also restrict your options. There’s also the chance they will sell out of frequent flier seats on the flight you want. In these cases, you can still use your miles to upgrade your seat.

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