Published in: Credit Cards | March 8, 2020

The Complete Guide to Earning and Using Frequent Flyer Miles

By:  Lyle Daly

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Frequent flyer miles are your ticket to cheaper travel. To reap their benefits, you'll need to understand how they work.

If you like to travel at all, then it's almost a given that frequent flyer miles have piqued your interest at some point. What's not to love about free airfare? You can reduce your travel costs and maybe even score a better seat on the plane while you're at it.

The thing that stops many consumers from going further is how complicated miles can be. For beginners, there's a lot to learn, and it can feel overwhelming as you try to figure out how to get started.

In this guide, you'll get all the info you need to become one of those travelers who books their flights using miles instead of cash.

A female traveler walking through a sunny airport with her suitcase.

Image source: Getty Images

How do frequent flyer miles work?

Frequent flyer miles are rewards you earn through an airline's loyalty program, also known as a frequent flyer program, that you use to purchase airfare. There are often other ways to redeem miles, but it's best to use them for airfare, because that gets you the most value.

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The airfare that you buy with miles is called an award ticket. This type of ticket is priced in miles instead of cash. The number of miles you need for an award ticket depends on both the type of ticket you're booking and the airline. For short, domestic flights, there are often award tickets for 5,000 miles or less. International, first-class seats, on the other hand, can sometimes cost 200,000 miles or more.

Miles can expire if there's no activity on your account. Fortunately, any sort of account activity, including earning or redeeming miles, will prevent your miles from expiring with most frequent flyer programs. Exact expiration policies and timeframes depend on the frequent flyer program, so you should review these carefully with any programs you use.

How do you earn frequent flyer miles?

The traditional way to earn frequent flyer miles is to fly with the airline associated with the loyalty program that you've chosen, but that's just one of many options. You can also earn miles with airline credit cards, through airline shopping portals, by dining out in certain restaurants, and by taking advantage of bonus opportunities.

Here's a more thorough look at each of these options.

Flying with the airline

When you book a cash ticket with an airline, you'll earn miles for that flight. You need to be logged in to your frequent flyer account or provide the account number during the booking process so that the airline can credit the miles to your account.

You might think that the number of miles you receive depends on the distance you travel. That's usually not true. Although every airline has its own system, most base the number of miles on the cost of the ticket and your status in its loyalty program.

Under those rules, a $1,000 ticket would earn you more miles than a $500 ticket, even if the latter was for a longer journey. And a passenger with an elite status in the airline's loyalty program would earn more miles than a passenger who purchases the same ticket but doesn't have status with the airline.

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Airline credit cards

Booking flights may be the most well-known way to earn miles, but airline credit cards tend to be the way travelers can earn the most miles.

An airline credit card earns miles in that airline's loyalty program whenever you make purchases with the card. Since you can earn miles on every dollar you spend this way, airline credit cards are an excellent way to earn a lot more.

In addition, many airline cards include sign-up bonuses for new cardholders. A card could offer 50,000 miles after you spend $4,000 in three months or 100,000 after you spend $25,000 in the first year.

Shopping portals

Frequent flyer programs have what are known as shopping portals. Each shopping portal has a collection of different online retailers. If you click on the link to a retailer from within the shopping portal, you'll earn miles on any purchase you make.

Let's say you go to a frequent flyer program's shopping portal and see a link to Nike and a rate of 3 miles per $1. You click the link and make a $200 order. That would earn you 600 miles. This is an easy way to get more miles whenever you shop online.

Dining

The major U.S. airlines are part of Rewards Network, a program that lets you earn extra rewards when you dine at participating restaurants. All you need to do is sign up, choose the frequent flyer program where you want to earn your miles, and register the credit card you'll use when dining.

Other ways to obtain frequent flyer miles

Besides earning miles, there are also two other popular ways to get them: transfers from travel credit cards and purchasing them outright.

Transfers from travel credit cards

As we've gone over, airline credit cards will earn you miles with one specific airline. But there are also certain travel credit cards that earn rewards you can transfer to multiple different airlines.

Here's an example to demonstrate how this works -- a credit card has Delta Air Lines, British Airways, and Air Canada as transfer partners in its rewards program. That means if you earn 10,000 miles with that credit card, you could transfer those miles to your frequent flyer account with any of those three airlines.

Credit cards that offer these kinds of transfers are extremely valuable because they give you far more redemption options. Keep in mind that how credit card miles work depends on the specific card, so you should always review this before applying for a new card.

Buying miles

Airlines will sell you as many miles as you want, but this usually isn't a good deal for you. When buying airline miles, the average cost is over $0.03 per mile with the biggest U.S. carriers. Miles are generally worth $0.01 to $0.015 per mile depending on how you use them, so the math doesn't work out in your favor.

There are, of course, limited exceptions. It could be worthwhile to purchase miles if you need to keep your account active to prevent your other miles from expiring, or if you just need some additional miles to afford an award ticket. But for the most part, earning miles is a much better option than buying them.

How do you use frequent flyer miles?

Here's how to use frequent flyer miles with most airlines:

  1. Go to the airline's website.
  2. Check the option to book using miles on the flight search tool. It may say "Use miles," "Redeem miles," or something slightly different, as the wording depends on the airline.
  3. Enter your desired route and travel dates to search for flights. Flight prices will be listed in miles instead of cash.
  4. Choose the flight you want and proceed through the booking process.

Some airlines have separate websites for their frequent flyer programs and require you to visit these sites to book tickets with miles. With these airlines, you would go to the frequent flyer program site, log in, and search for flights.

You can also typically call the airline to book a flight with miles over the phone. However, there are airlines that charge an additional fee for this. If that's the case, it's better to book online and save the money.

Using miles to upgrade your ticket

Another way to use your miles is to upgrade an existing cash ticket (if you booked a ticket using miles, you can generally only upgrade on the day of the flight at the airport). When this option is available, you should be able to upgrade your seat with miles online. The process varies by airline, but there's typically a "Manage Reservation" link you can use. You can also call the airline.

There may be an additional fee to upgrade your seat. Upgrade availability can also be scarce, so it's not something you can rely on.

Maximizing the value of your miles

The value you get from your frequent flyer miles can vary dramatically depending on how you use them.

By following a few golden rules, you can get much more value when you redeem your miles:

  • Use miles for more expensive airfare -- You generally get more value per mile on tickets with higher cash prices. For example, a $300 economy ticket may cost 20,000 miles, whereas a $1,000 business-class ticket could cost 35,000 miles. If you're planning a long trip where you'll want to have a comfy seat, you should save your miles for that.
  • Start your search early -- Award ticket space is often limited, especially around peak travel dates, on popular routes, and for business and first-class tickets. By looking for a ticket early, you'll have a much better chance of landing one.credit
  • Be flexible -- If you keep your travel dates open, you could find much better deals. I've seen award ticket prices drop by 10,000 miles or more just because I adjusted my travel date by a day or two.

Getting started with frequent flyer miles

If you're starting from scratch, here's a quick summary of what you can do to pay for your flights with miles:

  • Register for a frequent flyer account with any airline you use.
  • Make sure you provide your frequent flyer number whenever you purchase airfare.
  • Consider opening a credit card that can earn you miles with the airline you use the most. Alternatively, pick a card with transferable miles so you have more airlines where you can use your miles.
  • When you have frequent flyer miles and you want to book travel, use the airline's award ticket search.

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