Published in: Credit Cards | Dec. 15, 2019

45% of Airline Loyalty Program Members Don't Know How to Use Their Rewards

By:  Lyle Daly

We are committed to full transparency as part of our mission to make the world smarter, happier, & richer. You should know that offers on The Ascent may be from our partners - it's how we make money. That transparency to you is core to our editorial integrity, which isn’t influenced by compensation.

Many frequent flyers don't know how their travel rewards work. Do you?

Frequent flyer programs seem to keep getting more popular, and it's easy to see why. Who wouldn't want to score free flights?

While many people are members of frequent flyer programs, it turns out that not nearly as many understand how to use the miles they earn. A recent J.D. Power study on consumer satisfaction with airline loyalty programs found that 45% of program members didn't know how to redeem their miles. In addition, 43% didn't entirely understand how to earn miles.

A frowning woman sitting next to her suitcase in an airport with her arms crossed.

Image source: Getty Images

This is a serious issue, both for the airlines and the consumers. Customer satisfaction rates plummet among those who don't understand how miles work, and if you're in this category, you won't be able to get the most value from your travel rewards. To help with that, let's clear up the confusion regarding earning and redeeming miles.

How to earn frequent flyer miles

The best-known way to earn miles is by booking travel and flying with an airline. To earn miles this way, you must be a member of the airline's frequent flyer program and enter your account number when you purchase your ticket.

You might think that the number of miles you earn will be based on the distance you travel. Although that makes sense, it's not the case. Airlines typically base the miles you earn on the following factors:

  • The price of your ticket
  • The seating class (economy, business class, or first class)
  • Your status within the frequent flyer program (consumers with elite statuses earn more miles per ticket)

Of course, there are other ways to earn frequent flyer miles. Here are two of the most common:

Airline credit cards. When you get an airline credit card, you earn miles every time you make a purchase with that card. This is a good idea if you only want to earn miles with one airline, but if you want more versatility, you should look at credit cards with transferable points that you can spend with multiple airlines.

Shopping portals. Frequent flyer programs typically have online shopping portals full of merchants. If you log in to your account, go to the portal, and go to one of the merchants through that portal, then you'll earn extra miles on any purchase you make. This could earn you anywhere from one point per $1 to over 10 points per $1 depending on the frequent flyer program and the merchant.

How to redeem your miles

With most frequent flyer programs, it only takes a few steps to redeem miles:

  1. Go to the airline's website.
  2. Log in to your frequent flyer account.
  3. Enter your trip information and check the box to shop for airfare using miles.
  4. Choose your desired flight and proceed through the checkout process.

It's as simple as that. You just need to log in to your account and check one box before your flight search.

There are a few airlines that require you to use a separate website specifically for their frequent flyer programs to spend your miles. In that case, you just need to visit the frequent flyer program's site, log in to your account, and search for the flight you want.

Here's a bit of advice about booking airfare using miles: start shopping for award tickets as early as possible. Availability for these types of tickets is limited, especially in business class and first class. If you wait too long, you may find that you can't book the flights you want with your miles. 

Don't miss out

Airline loyalty programs are a great way to save money on your travels, but a large portion of frequent flyers aren't taking full advantage. If you're already a member of a loyalty program or you're planning to join one, understanding the different ways you can earn miles and how to redeem your rewards is a must. 

Don't pay credit card interest until 2021

The Ascent just released a free credit card guide that could help you pay off credit card debt once and for all. Inside, you'll uncover a simple debt-cutting strategy that could save you $1,863 in interest charges paying off $10,000 of debt. Best yet, you can get started in just three minutes!

Find the right card for you

Travel