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Updated August 29, 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 you should follow to start collecting travel rewards. Before long, you'll be well on your way to redeeming miles for flights and hotel rooms.

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Not sure where to begin?

That's totally normal. Airline miles can be an intimidating concept at first. There's a lot of terminology, things to keep track of, and rules to learn. Sometimes, it can seem like it's not even worth the hassle.

But if you are not using some sort of travel program to earn miles or points, you're missing out on free money. Other people you may know get to go on vacation for free because of their earned miles. A lot of travelers also love using them to fly in premium cabins that they otherwise couldn't afford.

So, want to get started? We've broken it down as simply as possible. Spend just 15 minutes reading this step-by-step beginner's guide and you'll be ready to start earning miles for your own vacation in no time.

INTRODUCTION TO AIRLINE MILES

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What Are Airline Miles Anyway?

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

You get miles based on how much you've spent or how many miles you've flown on the airline. The miles do not represent the amount of miles you are able to redeem for. So for example, you may need to rack up 25,000 "miles" for a round-trip flight that is 4,000 actual miles.

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

You don't even have to fly at all to earn a ton of airline points! You can do all the normal things you usually do and still earn points for a free flight. So even if you're not traveling a lot now, you can still rack up points for a future vacation.

We'll tell you in detail how this is possible.

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 always best if you have schedule flexibility when booking with airline miles.

It's also important to know that each airline works differently when it comes to miles. They usually work in a few ways:

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

    United and American have zone-based award charts. Most airlines operate on this model.

  • Distance based: This is when the miles needed depends on the actual distance traveled between destinations. For example, New York to Europe would require fewer miles than Los Angeles to Europe would. This can be a good 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 two main 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 and you don't need any special credit cards to do it.

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

    This method works best if you often fly with one particular airline because you'll be limited to redeeming your miles for flights only with that airline (and its partners).

  2. Rack up miles with travel rewards credit cards: This is the fastest way to earn miles. And you don't even need to fly to earn them. There are many travel rewards cards that allow you to earn general travel points. You get "miles" in exchange for everyday spending, so your daily purchases are helping you earn free flights. Plus, many travel reward cards offer generous sign-up bonuses in the form of tons of miles.

    After you have accumulated enough miles, you can redeem them for flights. This method also gives you more flexibility because you're not just limited to one airline. We'll explain more in detail in the next section.

    One thing to note right off the bat though is that you'll usually need excellent credit to qualify for one of these cards. And these cards usually come with annual fees.

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

How Do Credit Card Miles Work?

As we mentioned already, travel credit cards are the fastest way to earn miles because you earn miles on all your credit card purchases. Most cards also offer bonus miles for special spending categories. There are a few different types:

  • Transferrable credit card miles to airlines: Some credit cards (such as Chase Sapphire Preferred) allow you to transfer your points to the credit card's airline and hotel partners. This gives you flexibility to redeem with different airlines. This also lets you use your points for the most value.

    If you don't want to transfer the points, you can also use them toward credit to book travel on the credit card company's travel portal.

    For more info on our favorite travel rewards programs, check out our detailed reviews:

    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.

  • General travel reward credit cards: These cards give you travel "points". With these cards (such as Barclaycard Arrival Plus or Capital One Venture), you earn points on purchases and apply them toward statement credit for travel-related expenses. This is great if you're looking for something simple to use. You don't have to worry about seat availability or blackout dates.

    These cards are also good for those who travel, but may not necessarily fly. Because you can redeem for purchases such as hotels, car rentals, and cruises.

    Another good thing about these types of cards is that you can starting redeeming with a much lower number of points. You can basically choose to "erase" $100 worth of travel purchases if you want. With transferrable miles, you usually need to save up all the miles needed for a flight before you can redeem them.

  • Airline co-branded credit cards: A third type of travel card is an airline co-branded card (like JetBlue). You still earn miles on all purchases, but you can only redeem them on that particular airline and its partners. But you often get airline-specific perks, such as free checked bags and priority boarding. These cards are better for those who often fly with a certain airline.

Why not just get cash back? You may be wondering why it's worth bother with airline miles if you can just use a credit card with cash back. The thing with cash back is that it's always a fixed value, but if you transfer points to an airline, you can get a lot more value. For example, 50,000 points with a cash back card will typically equal $500, but with the right travel credit card, 50,000 points can get you two round-trip tickets from Los Angeles to Hawaii, which can be as much as $800 per ticket during peak season.

How Many Airline Miles for a Free Flight?

You're probably wondering exactly how many miles you actually need for a free flight.

This question isn't easy to answer because airlines all organize their award charts differently. But we'll try to give you a general idea.

From the Continental US to (one-way, Economy):

  • Domestic: around 12,500 points
  • Hawaii: 15,000 - 22,500 points
  • Mexico/Central America/Caribbean: 12,500 - 17,500 points
  • Europe: 25,000 - 30,000 points
  • Asia: 35,000 - 40,000 points
  • South America: 20,000 - 30,000 points

Note that the numbers are approximate to give you a rough idea of how many miles it will take for each trip.

Your best strategy will depend on where you're going and which airlines (and their partners) operate near you.

For example, Southwest's point system is directed correlated to how much the fare costs. So, if you live in Florida and want to go to the Bahamas, you can go for a little as 4,320 points (one-way). In that case, it wouldn't make sense for you to transfer to another program. However, if you live in California and want to take a Caribbean vacation, you may want to use 15,000 miles with Air France or American Airlines.

In general, distance-based and fare-based awards are better for short distance travel. Zone-based awards are better for long distance.

For your convenience, here is a list of quick links to popular airlines' award charts:

Tip: A lot of travelers love using miles to take Business or First Class flights that they otherwise couldn't afford. These cabins offer amazing points value (if you can stand to part with that many points). For example, on United you can go from the continental U.S. to Europe for 57,500 points one-way in Business. The fare would cost as much as $4,000.

And for the ultimate example: a favorite route for travelers is the Singapore to Los Angeles (via Tokyo) route on the luxurious Singapore Airlines A380 First Class Suite. This is 18 hours of airtime in the first double bed in the sky. It can cost up to $8,000 but only 91,375 points. This makes each point worth 8.75 cents.

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

BEFORE WE CONTINUE: BEWARE

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

If you tend to 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 or excellent credit who pay off their balances each month. You also need to be organized enough to keep track of details like when introductory offers end, when annual fees are due, and what the minimum spending requirements are.

10 STEPS TO GETTING STARTED WITH TRAVEL REWARDS

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1. DETERMINE YOUR TRAVEL PROFILE

First you need to figure out what kind of traveler you are. Figure out how often do you usually fly in a year and why. Are you an occasional vacationer, or do you travel often for a mix of business and pleasure?

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

  • Think about your goals. Do you have a specific holiday in mind (like going to 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 preferred destination and 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.

2. SIGN UP FOR LOYALTY PROGRAMS

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

Instead, try a simpler route. Look at your closest airports and check out your best airline options. Sign up with the airlines and hotels you think 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.

As an example of how you can get access to many companies at once, signing up for United's MileagePlus means you'll be part of the Star Alliance family and 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 partner), 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 FOR

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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 go for a hybrid card (like Chase Sapphire Preferred) that allows you to transfer to multiple airline and hotel partners. You just need 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 normally and later redeem points toward statement credits against recent travel purchases. You don't have to worry about blackout 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 the miles on all purchases. You can then use the points as statement credit towards travel expenses.

Check out this article for our list of the best airline miles rewards cards

Tip: Truly savvy travelers sign up for more than one travel credit card to get the maximum rewards possible. For example, some have a card to transfer miles to different airlines and also use a general travel rewards card toward hotel night stays.

We recommend starting out with one and get used to seeing how the system works. If you decide to apply for more, be aware that multiple credit inquiries can affect your credit score. You'll want to be especially careful if you are about to apply for a loan around the same time.

Here are some additional things to consider when choosing a card:

  • 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 within a certain timeframe?
  • Limited seating availability: Is there limited seating for those paying with airline miles?
  • Cancellation policy: Do you forfeit points for 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 or complimentary beverages?
  • Annual fee: How much is the annual fee? Will you spend enough and earn enough rewards to justify it?
  • Redemption options: Are you limited to using your points towards airfare, or can airline miles be redeemed for cash back and gift cards?

4. MEET THE MINIMUM SPEND REQUIREMENT

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

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®.

However, this is not an excuse to go on a $4,000 spending spree just to earn those points. The trick is to use the 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 points faster 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 40,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 90 days of opening your new credit card account. 40,000 bonus miles is enough to redeem for a $400 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, 16.99%, 20.99% or 23.99%, 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 interest pile up will make your rewards pretty much useless.

Plus, being organized will literally pay off. Staying on top of your balance will save you in charges as well as 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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Online shopping portals are 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 shopping partners is RiteAid, who offers 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 even more for what you were already going to buy?

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 earn airline miles for dining 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. Then when you eat at one of the restaurants, just pay with your credit card on the account and you'll earn miles.

See which restaurants are participating in your program. It's a great chance to try out new places on future date nights.

Here are some quick links to check out:

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 and compare credit cards with restaurant rewards.

8. OTHER WAYS TO EARN MILES WITHOUT FLYING

There are even more ways to earn miles without ever leaving the ground, including:

  • 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 earn miles through any of these methods, you can ONLY use them for that specific airline (or their partners). So, make sure it is an airline you will actually fly with, or else the points will be... pointless.

9. REDEEMING YOUR MILES FOR FREE TRAVEL

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Once you've accumulated a decent amount of miles (either directly through the airline's loyalty program or through a credit card), you'll obviously want to use them. Cashing in those miles is where beginners tend to get stuck. It just 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 make a stop or fly with a partner airline.

  • Plan ahead: If you're planning a year in advance, you'll likely find award seats fairly easily. If you don't find seats right away, remember that award seats continuously get released based on flight demand and one could always 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. Finding four award seats on the same flight can be very difficult, but you might be able to book two award seats and pay regular price for the other two.

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 for an agent to search dates and book the flight for you, you can call the airline (but note that many airlines charge a small fee for this).

Keep in mind: You may still have to pay taxes and fees on the award flight, so it's not completely free. Some airlines also 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 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.

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 have joined a few loyalty programs.

  • Don't apply to more than one card at the same time unless you can meet the combined minimum spending requirements AND pay them off.
  • If you have transferable credit card miles, don't transfer them until you're ready to use them. While credit card miles usually never expire (as long as your account is active and in good standing), miles can expire once you have transferred them into a loyalty program.
  • Keep track of all your loyalty programs and miles expiration dates. Most airline miles expire if the account has been dormant for a certain amount of time.
  • If it takes you a while to accumulate enough points for a free flight, makes sure you know what it takes to keep the account active. Some programs only require a certain kind of activity, like a shopping portal purchase. But for some programs, you actually need to take a qualifying flight.

For your reference, here are some popular loyalty programs and their expiration info:

  • Delta: Miles never expire
  • United: After 18 months of inactivity
  • American: After 18 months of inactivity
  • JetBlue: Miles never expire
  • Southwest: After 24 months of inactivity
  • Air France: Must take qualifying flight once every 24 months
  • British Airways: After 36 months of inactivity
  • Singapore Airlines: After 36 months of inactivity

Bottom Line

© CreditDonkey

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 big sign-up bonuses and earn miles on everyday spending.
  • Meet the minimum spending requirements in a responsible way
  • Continue to use the credit cards and pay them off each month
  • Use shopping portals and dining programs to earn even more miles
  • 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 with your travel dates
  • Keep your credit cards and miles organized

This guide 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 you've always wanted.

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 Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, Discover it® Miles, and Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card has 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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About CreditDonkey®
CreditDonkey is a credit card comparison website. We publish data-driven analysis to help you save money & make savvy financial decisions.

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