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Updated March 7, 2017

Beginner's Guide to Airline Miles and Points

A guide for navigating the miles and points systems
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Learn how airline miles work and the 10 steps to get started with collecting travel rewards. Before long, you’ll be redeeming miles for flights and hotel rooms.

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Lost on where to begin?

Airline miles can be very intimidating if you're new to it. There's a bunch of terminology and rules to learn and things to keep track of. Sometimes, it seems not worth the hassle.

But if you are not using some sort of travel program, you're missing out on free money. Earning and using airline miles is how other people get to go on vacation for free. A lot of travelers also love using them to fly in premium cabins that they otherwise couldn't afford.

Want to get started? We've broken it down as simply as possible. Spend just 15 minutes to read this guide, and you'll be ready to start earning miles for your own vacation.

Hold on for a quick ride through our step-by-step beginners guide.

INTRODUCTION TO AIRLINE MILES

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What Are Airline Miles

Airline miles are also known as frequent flyer miles. Airlines have these programs to reward you for being a frequent flyer with them. The more you fly with them, the more miles you earn. You can then redeem them later for a free flight or upgrade.

A lot of people assume that they can't take part in this if they don't travel enough. But here's a secret:

You don't even need to fly to earn a ton of airline points! You can just go around doing all the normal things you usually do and earn points for a free flight later.

We're going to tell you in detail later how you can do this. So even if you're not traveling a lot now, you can still rack up points for a future vacation.

How Do Airline Miles Work

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When you have racked up enough miles with an airline, you can trade them in for a free flight. This is called an award seat.

Award seats have limited availability. On every flight, there are only a certain number of seats allocated for those buying with points. So it's best if you have date and time flexibility when booking with airline miles.

As far as using miles, each airline works differently. They usually work in a few ways:

  • Zone based: This is when there's a set number of miles to go from one region to another. For example, from North America to Europe; or domestically within a country. So it doesn't matter where your starting and end points are. If they're within the region, it'll be the same number of miles required. The best value is on long haul flights.

    United, American, Delta all have zone based award charts. Most airlines operate on this model.

  • Distance based: This is when the miles needed depends on the actual distance flown between destinations. For example, New York to Europe would cost less miles than Los Angeles to Europe. This can be better value depending on where you live (someone from New York going to London will be better off with a distance-based program than zone-based). This also works well for short haul flights.

    British Avios, Iberia Avios, and Cathay Pacific Asia Miles use distance based charts.

  • Cost based: This is when the number of miles needed is directly related to the cost of the flight. JetBlue and Southwest have cost based programs.

Keep reading to learn all the ways to earn airline miles that you might not know about.

How to Earn Airline Miles

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There are a few ways to get airline miles:

  1. Directly joining the airline's loyalty program and flying with them: If you have a favorite airline you always fly with, you can just directly join the airline's loyalty program. This is completely free to do. And you don't need any special credit cards.

    Every time you book a flight with the airline (and participating partners), you get miles. Some airlines give you one mile per one actual mile flown. And some airlines give you 5-6x miles per dollar spent. If you fly enough with them, you'll eventually get enough points for a free flight.

  2. Earning transferrable airline points through credit cards: This is the fastest way. There are many travel rewards cards that allow you to earn general travel points. You can then transfer the points to the credit card's airline and hotel partners.

    The good thing about this is that you are earning airline miles on all your normal everyday spending. So the points will rack up faster. Plus, travel reward cards offer generous sign-up bonuses in the form of ton of miles. But you'll need excellent credit to quality for these cards.

    Here are detailed reviews of the biggest travel reward programs:

    For quick reference, Chase's travel partners include United and Southwest. AMEX's travel partners include Delta, JetBlue, and Hawaiian. SPG's travel partners include American Airlines, Delta, Alaska, and Hawaiian.

  3. General travel reward credit cards: These give you universal travel points. With these cards, you earn points on purchases and then apply them as statement credit for any travel-related expenses. This is great if you want something simple to use. You wouldn't have to worry about seat availability and blackout dates.

There are other ways to earn a ton of airline points without even flying, including shopping in online portals, dining reward programs, and more. We will go over all these later.

Now that you understand a little about what are airline miles and how they work, let's go over in detail how to go about earning and using rewards.

BEFORE WE CONTINUE: BEWARE

Credit cards are the fastest way to save on travel, but they do have a caveat.

If you usually have trouble paying your bills on time, you're better off focusing on paying off debt. You don't want to get yourself deeper into it by going overboard with rewards programs.

Ideally, these programs are for people with good to excellent credit who pay off their entire balances each month. You should also be organized enough to keep track of details like when introductory offers end, when annual fees are due, and minimum spend requirements.

10 STEPS TO GETTING STARTED WITH TRAVEL REWARDS

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1. DETERMINE YOUR TRAVEL PROFILE

How often you usually fly in a year, and for what purpose? Are you an occasional vacationer? Or do you travel often for a mix of business and pleasure?

Think about what you're comfortable with. Do you want a card that's easy to use, or do you mind doing some research to get the max value? Are you okay with flexible travel plans and letting award seat availability determine your dates? Or you want to be able to book flights on your terms?

Also think about your goals. Do you have a specific holiday in mind (like Germany for Oktoberfest) or you just want to go on a tropical vacation at some point in the next year? Consider which airlines take you to your destination or whether there are blackout dates around your trip.

Keep in mind that the earlier you book, the easier it is to find award seats. So it's best to have plans about a year in advance.

Think about these questions while we continue to the next steps.

2. SIGN UP FOR LOYALTY PROGRAMS

Loyalty programs are free to join. You could take the shotgun approach and join everything. But you'll just end up with a scattered mix of points, miles, and lots of junk e-mail.

Instead, try a more simple route. Take a look at your closest airport and see what airline options you have. Sign up with the airlines and hotels you'll actually use. Ideally, the ones you choose will be part of a travel alliance that can give you access to a bunch of companies at once.

For example, if you sign up for United's MileagePlus, you're also joining the Star Alliance family of airlines. So you'll also be able to get partner flights on any other Star Alliance airline.

For quick reference, here are the alliances and major airlines within them:

  • Star Alliance: United, Air Canada, Singapore Airlines, ANA, Lufthansa, Air China, and 22 more
  • Oneworld: American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and 11 more
  • Sky Team: Delta, Air France, Alitalia, Korean Air, and 16 more

If you've already been on some flights this year, there's a chance you can still get credit for them on your new account. Some airlines have a grace period, but it differs from carrier to carrier.

Tip: If you have not already signed up for your favorite airline's frequent flyer program, here are the links for your convenience:

  • (AMEX MR): Premier Rewards Gold Card American Express Membership Rewards (Amex MR) points can be transferred to over a dozen frequent travel programs, including popular carriers like Delta and JetBlue, or hotel chains like Hilton, Best Western, and Starwood.

  • (Chase UR): Chase Sapphire Preferred With Chase Sapphire Preferred, you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards (Chase UR) points to participating frequent flyer programs at full 1:1 value (1,000 Chase UR points = 1,000 partner miles/points). Travel programs include United MileagePlus®, Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards®, British Airways Executive Club, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, Korean Air SKYPASS, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, Hyatt Gold Passport®, Marriott Rewards®, IHG Rewards Club®, and Ritz-Carlton Rewards®.

  • (SPG): Starwood Preferred Guest With the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express (a CreditDonkey advertiser), you can transfer Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points to more than 30 airline frequent flyer programs, mostly on a 1:1 basis. Plus, if you transfer 20,000 starpoints to a frequent flyer program, you get 5,000 bonus points.

Did you know: Most major hotel chains let you earn airline miles from your eligible hotel stays with their participating partner airlines. You may want to sign up for hotel and car rental loyalty programs too. Here are some links for your convenience:

3. DECIDE WHICH CREDIT CARDS TO APPLY TO

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Signing up for a travel rewards card is the fastest way to get a ton of airline miles. But with the dozens of options out there, how do you decide which is best for you?

  • If you frequently fly with one airline (such as Delta or American Airlines), you will benefit from an airline co-branded credit card. You'll receive special perks such as free checked luggage and priority boarding.

  • If you like choices and getting the maximum value, then a hybrid card (like Chase Sapphire Preferred) that allows you to transfer to multiple airline and hotel partners is the best for you. You'll just have to be willing to do some homework to find out the best transfer strategies.

  • If you value flexibility and simplicity, you'll like the ease of general travel rewards cards (like Barclaycard Arrival Plus), where you use the card as normal and get statement credit applied towards any travel expenses. You don't have to worry about black-out dates or seat availability.

  • If you don't currently fly much, there are some travel reward cards with no annual fee. BankAmericard Travel Rewards and Discover It Miles both have no annual fee and give you 1.5x miles on all purchases. You can then use the points as statement credit towards travel expenses.

Here is our list of the best airline miles rewards cards.

Tip: Truly savvy travelers will sign up for more than one travel credit card to get the maximum rewards possible. We recommend starting out with one and get used to seeing how the system works. When you apply for more, be aware of how multiple credit inquiries can affect your credit score - you may want to be especially careful if you are about to apply for a loan around the same time.

Here are some additional questions to consider:

  • Restrictions: Are there blackout dates or peak periods when points cannot be applied towards air travel?
  • Point values: Are the point values consistent throughout the system, or do they vary by destination and travel dates?
  • Expiration: Will you lose the points if you don't use them after a period of time?
  • Limited seating availability: Is seating limited to those using airline miles?
  • Cancellation policy: Do you forfeit points on canceled flights, or are they automatically credited back to your account?
  • Perks: Will you have access to additional benefits as a cardholder, such as lounge entry, pre-boarding, waived baggage fees and complimentary beverages?
  • Annual fee: How much is the annual fee? Will you earn enough rewards to justify it?
  • Redemption options: Are you limited to airfare, or can airline miles be redeemed for cash back and gift cards?

Airline Miles Delta Tip: Do you like to fly Delta? Below is a credit card to help you earn Delta miles.

Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express
Apply for Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express
At American Express' Secure Site
  • Earn 30,000 bonus miles after you make $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within your first 3 months and a $50 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months.
  • Earn 2 Miles per dollar spent on purchases made directly with Delta. Earn 1 mile for every dollar spent on all other eligible purchases.
  • Check your first bag free on every Delta flight - that's a savings of up to $200 per round trip for a family of four.
  • Settle in sooner with Priority Boarding.
  • Enjoy a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
  • Terms and Conditions apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Introductory Bonus Airline RewardsAirline RewardsCar Rental InsuranceExtended WarrantyPurchase Protection$0 Fraud LiabilityEmergency Assistance
Intro APR for PurchasesIntro APR for Balance TransferRegular APRAnnual Fee
N/AN/A
16.49% - 25.49% Variable
$0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95

Related: Airline Credit Card Promotions

4. MEET THE MINIMUM SPEND REQUIREMENT

Most travel rewards cards give huge sign-up bonuses. Right off the bat, that's a ton of airline miles.

For example, Chase Sapphire Preferred lets you earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

But you'll need to spend $4,000 in 3 months to earn those 50,000 points.

Now, this is not an excuse to go on a $4,000 spending spree just to earn what amounts to $625 toward free travel (when redeemed through Ultimate Rewards for travel). I did the math and trust me, it doesn't work out.

The trick is to use that card to cover existing expenses - NOT to create new ones. We're talking about costs like mortgage, utilities, groceries and gas. You can even get ahead on your holiday shopping or do a home repair you've been meaning to tackle. There are lots of smart ways to spend money.

Related: 23 Ways to Meet Your Credit Card Minimum Spending Requirements

5. USE YOUR CREDIT CARD RESPONSIBLY

Travel reward cards give you points on all purchases. So you'll be able to rack up the points fast by using it as your primary card.

Check out these current promotions:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Chase Sapphire Preferred lets you earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. You can earn 5,000 bonus points if you add your first authorized user and make a purchase within the first three months from account opening. This card lets you earn 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases worldwide. The points can be transferred 1:1 to leading frequent travel programs including airline transfer partners. The card has a $0 foreign transaction fee. The card also comes with premium travel and purchase protection benefits (including trip cancellation/trip interruption insurance and auto rental collision damage waiver). There is an Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95.

  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus Barclaycard Arrival Plus offers 50,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 90 days of opening your new credit card account. 50,000 bonus miles is enough to redeem for a $500 travel statement credit. This card earns 2x miles on all purchases. And when you redeem, you get 5% miles back to use toward your next redemption, every time you redeem. There is no foreign transaction fee. There is a $89 annual fee (waived for the first year).

    Plus, enjoy a 0% introductory APR for 12 months on balance transfers made within 45 days of account opening. After that, a variable APR will apply, 16.49%, 20.49% or 23.49%, based on your creditworthiness.

Remember to pay the card off as soon as possible. Travel reward cards tend to have high interest rates, so you don't want to keep a balance. Letting the interest pile up will make your rewards pretty much useless.

Being organized will literally pay off. Staying on top of your balance will save you in charges and maximize your rewards.

Tip: You generally need excellent credit to quality for travel reward cards. If your application is denied, then you'll probably need to build up your credit before trying for another rewards card.

Related: How to Pay Off Credit Cards

6. KEEP TABS ON ONLINE SHOPPING PORTALS

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This is a great way to earn points without flying. A lot of airline or travel cards have an online shopping portal where you can earn bonus points at partner merchants.

These partner retailers provide special deals to members. All you have to do is shop through an online shopping portal (versus going straight to their homepage or shopping in a physical store). The deals on these portals change frequently, so keep an eye on them.

Before buying anything, always check your card's (or airline's) shopping portal to see if your store (or a similar one) is on it. For example, one of Chase's partners is RiteAid, who's offering extra points per dollar for Ultimate Reward members. So if you need stuff from the drugstore, why not shop at RiteAid online through Chase and earn more points?

Here are popular online shopping portals from airlines to check the next time you make a purchase:

Credit card issuers also offer online shopping portals:

Tip: If you've joined more than one airline or credit card program, the portals may offer different bonuses for the same retailer.

Related: Best Credit Cards for Online Shopping

7. GO ONLINE BEFORE YOU EAT

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You can also get airline miles for eating out. Here's how it works:

A lot of airlines have a dining program that gives you points for eating at participating restaurants. You simply join their dining program with your frequent flyer number and register a credit card. And then when you eat at one of the restaurants, pay with your credit card on the account. You'll earn miles for eating there.

So on future date nights, why don't you see which restaurants are participating in your program. It's a great chance to try out new places too.

Here are some quick links to sign up:

Tip: Some credit cards also offer bonus points for dining purchases, so it's best to sign up with a card that will give you the most rewards. Compare credit cards with restaurant rewards.

8. OTHER WAYS TO EARN MILES WITHOUT FLYING

There are also other ways to earn miles without ever leaving the ground. Some ways include:

  • Opening a brokerage account
  • Opening a new bank account
  • Switching to satellite TV
  • Enjoying a day at the spa
  • Taking online surveys

Read 23 ways to earn airline miles without flying.

Keep in mind: When you get miles with any of these ways, you can ONLY use them for that specific airline (or their partners) offering the deal. So make sure it is an airline you will actually fly with, or else the points will be, well... pointless.

9. REDEEMING YOUR MILES FOR FREE TRAVEL

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So you've accumulated a decent amount of miles (either directly through the airline's loyalty program or through a credit card). Now you're ready to use them. Cashing in those miles is where beginners get stuck. It's tricky and requires some homework.

Here are some tips:

  • Be flexible: Award seats have limited availability and sell out fast. Your ideal date may not work, but there could be something available a few days before or after. Also, you may have to be willing to have a stop or fly with a partner airline.

  • Plan ahead: If you're planning a year in advance, there's a good chance you'll find award seats quickly. And if you don't find seats, remember that award seats continuously get released based on flight demand. So if there's not one available the day you check, one could pop up later. If you're planning early, you can afford to wait and continuously check for availability.

  • Travel with less people: You'll also have better luck if you're traveling solo or with just one other person. If you're flying as a family of 4, finding 4 award seats on the same flight could be very hard. So again, be flexible or have a strategy (perhaps book 2 award seats and 2 regular revenue seats).

So, how to redeem your miles?

Head to your airline's site and enter in your membership number. Search for your flight. You will see a list of options, how many miles they'll cost, and whether they're available or not. If you prefer to have an agent search dates and book the flight for you, you can call the airline. But note that many airlines charge a small fee.

Keep in mind: You may still have to pay taxes and fees on the award flight, so it's not completely free. Also, some airlines tack on heavy fuel surcharges, especially when flying internationally. Sometimes the surcharge can be so much that it negates the purpose of a "free" award flight. We like United Airlines because it never imposes a fuel surcharge on award flights (though the award chart may be a bit more expensive than others).

Tip: Cost-based awards like Southwest and JetBlue have no restrictions. You just use your miles instead of cash to book the flight.

10. KEEP EARNING MILES AND STAY ORGANIZED

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The easiest way to keep earning miles? Just keep on using your credit card. Don't shop in a store if you can use an online portal that will give you more back in rewards. If a large purchase comes up, use your card for it but be sure you can pay off the balance as soon as you get the bill.

Also don't forget to dine with your airline's restaurant partners. It's fun to discover new restaurants while earning miles.

The most important thing is to stay organized, especially if you have more than one reward card and joined a few loyalty programs. You don't want to apply to more than one card at the same time unless you can meet the combined minimum spending requirements AND pay them off.

Bottom Line

To recap, here are the main highlights for earning and using airline miles:

  • Sign up for your favorite airlines' loyalty programs. They're free.
  • Sign up for travel reward cards. You get large sign-up bonuses and miles on everyday spending.
  • Meet the minimum spend requirement in a responsible way
  • Continue to use the credit cards and pay them off each month
  • If you have cards with transferable miles, transfer them to your airline when you're ready to book an award flight
  • Plan ahead (like a year in advance) for best chances of getting award seats
  • Be flexible about your travel dates
  • Keep your credit cards and miles organized

This list is meant to help you get started with airline miles. How deep you choose to go depends on how much time and energy you're willing to spend. But for most people, a basic points strategy will be plenty to get that free trip. Just don't forget the champagne. I know I won't.

Ross Frasier is a research analyst at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and financial education website. Write to Ross Frasier at ross@creditdonkey.com. Our data-driven analysis has been recognized by major news outlets across the country and has helped travelers make savvy financial and lifestyle decisions. (read more)

Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. This site may be compensated through the Advertiser's affiliate programs.

Disclaimer: The information for the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®, Discover it® Miles, and BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card have been collected independently by CreditDonkey. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

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CreditDonkey is a credit card comparison website. We publish data-driven analysis to help you save money & make savvy financial decisions.

Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed on this page are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.

†Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which CreditDonkey receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). CreditDonkey does not include all companies or all offers that may be available in the marketplace.

*See the card issuer's online application for details about terms and conditions. Reasonable efforts are made to maintain accurate information. However, all information is presented without warranty. When you click on the "Apply Now" button you can review the terms and conditions on the card issuer's website.

CreditDonkey does not know your individual circumstances and provides information for general educational purposes only. CreditDonkey is not a substitute for, and should not be used as, professional legal, credit or financial advice. You should consult your own professional advisors for such advice.