How Airline Miles Work

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Welcome back! You probably have a lot of questions about how exactly airline miles work. We'll answer them in today's lesson.

What Exactly Are Airline Miles?

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Airlines have loyalty programs to reward you for flying with them. The more you fly with them, the more miles you earn.

Don't worry, we'll show you how to earn miles without flying.

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 redeeming with miles. So, it's best if you have schedule flexibility when booking with airline miles.

You can use the miles for a flight on that airline and its partners.

How Do Airline Miles Work?

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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. For example, domestically within the U.S. or from North America to Europe. Generally speaking, it doesn't matter where your starting and end points are. If they are within the region, it will require the same number of miles. The best value here is on long 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. The best value is on short flights. Or this can work out better depending on where you live. British 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. So this is often great for off-peak travel and short distances. JetBlue and Southwest have cost-based programs.

How Can You Earn Airline Miles?

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This is the fun part!

There are two main ways to get airline miles:

  1. You can directly join the airline's loyalty program and fly with them. This method is good if you have a favorite airline you always fly with. Joining the loyalty program is free and you do not need any special credit cards.

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

  2. Or you can rack up miles fast with travel rewards credit cards. This is the fastest way to earn miles. There are many travel rewards cards that allow you to earn general travel points. First, they usually offer generous bonuses in the form of tons of miles. And second, you earn miles on your everyday spending.

    After you have accumulated enough miles, you can redeem them for flights. The bulk of this course focuses on maximizing this method.

Smart Ways to Earn Miles

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There are other smart ways to earn miles without flying. Two of our other favorite ways are:

  • Online shopping portals: Many airline or travel cards have an online shopping portal where you can earn miles or bonus points at partner online retailers.

  • Dining programs: Many airlines also have a dining program that gives you extra miles for eating at participating restaurants near you.

We will talk more about these in tomorrow's lesson.

How Many Miles Do You Need for a Free Flight?

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

From the Continental U.S. 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

These numbers are approximate to give you an idea of how many miles it will take for each trip.

Of course, it will differ based on your airline's award chart and where you are going. For example, you can fly domestic one-way for as low as under 4,000 miles with Southwest (which has a cost-based program).

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

Key Takeaways

  • Airline miles can be used on that airline and any of its partners.
  • Award seats have limited availability, so you will have to be flexible.
  • Applying for travel reward cards is the fastest way to earn miles without flying.

Tomorrow, we will go into more detail on ways you can earn miles without leaving the ground.


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