Saving Money

A Beginner's Guide to Airline Miles

Thorin Klosowski , Gawker Media

A Beginner's Guide to Airline Miles

Frequent flyer miles are awesome. Use them correctly and you'll save a ton of money on traveling. But they're not always easy to use, and getting started may seem more confusing than its worth. Let's demystify airline miles and figure out how to use them.

I've always been intimidated by airline miles and I never flew often enough for it to seem worth it. Nowadays, I'm flying more, and it seemed like it was a good time to buckle in and learn as much as possible. It turns out, they're not quite as complicated as they seem, and while there's plenty of hacking to be done to get optimal points, most of us can happily accumulate and spend miles without too much thought.

What Are Airline Miles?

A Beginner's Guide to Airline Miles

Airline miles, also known as frequent flyer miles or travel points, are part of a loyalty program offered by airlines and/or credit cards. Typically, you accumulate a set amount of miles based on how far you fly or how much you spend on your credit card. You can then use these miles to buy tickets.

That's simple enough on the surface, but airline miles aren't that cut and dry. First off, the term "miles" doesn't equate to the actual number of miles you can fly-it equates to the number of miles you've flown. Just because you get 2,734 miles for traveling from Seattle to Miami, for example, doesn't mean you get another free flight. The miles you accumulate are more like points in a rewards program. For example, with Frontier's reward program, you get a free roundtrip domestic ticket for every 20,000 miles you acquire. That means it'll take about four roundtrip flights between Miami and Seattle to get enough miles for one free flight.

Basically, airline miles are like any other rewards program. You get points for buying stuff, and eventually those points accumulate and you get something for free.

The Difference Between Credit Card Rewards and Airline Rewards

A Beginner's Guide to Airline Miles

In the airline miles world, you can get points two ways: by signing up for a service through the airline itself or by signing up for a credit card that offers reward miles. Some credit cards work on any airline, others are for specific airlines. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Either way, the good news is that you can use both at the same time.

Every airline has their own frequent flyer program usually billed as a loyalty program. These are free, and you can accumulate miles by flying with specific airlines. You can sign up for a frequent flyer account with three different airline alliances and you'll earn frequent flyer miles for most flights. Here are links to sign up with the big three:

When you sign up for an account, you'll get an account number that you can use for future flight purchases. These services are very straightforward: you earn miles for each flight you take, and when you accumulate enough, you can redeem those miles for a free flight on that airline. Typically speaking, these miles don't expire as long as you're using your account.

When you first sign up you can also redeem miles for old flights. Typically, the grace period for this is anywhere between three months and a year. It's a pain to go through all your old tickets, but it's worth it for the points you'll get and it's a good way to get started. If you need help keeping track of all those points, AwardWallet is a pretty easy way to do so.

Credit card rewards with airline miles work a little differently. Most credit cards rewards give you a certain amount of points per dollar spent. You can then redeem these points for frequent flyer miles, but how much they're worth depends on the credit card. As with any credit card, you'll often have to deal with annual fees, and you only accrue airline points when you pay your card off. Since you probably use your credit card a lot more than you buy airlines tickets, it's usually easier to accrue points through a credit card then it is with just an airline rewards program.

Other Ways to Accrue Miles

A Beginner's Guide to Airline Miles

Flying and using credit cards aren't the only ways to get airline miles. In fact, you can gain miles by shopping, eating out, and more.

We've walked you through accruing airline miles without getting on a plane before, so we won't go too in depth here, but here are a few examples that might surprise you:

  • You can get points through airline specific fining programs
  • Most airlines have shopping bonus options if you use their program as a portal to sites like Target or Best Buy. You can get a list of those bonuses here.
  • Banks often offer miles for opening up new accounts. For example, Fidelity gives you a hefty amount of points if you open an investment account.
  • You can often get paid miles for filling out surveys on a site like Emiles.

So, take the example of opening up an investment account with Fidelity to get miles. When you open up that account, you're given miles through United (the Star Alliance). You'll enter in your United account information and they'll get transferred into your United MileagePlus account. You can only use MileagePlus miles for flights through United. It's pretty simple, but it's always good to pay attention to which airlines those awards go through, because sometimes they'll be useless to you.

Accruing miles outside of flying works the same way with just about any other program. Just enter in your account number, and when you fulfill an agreement those miles will go right into your account.

How to Pick a Travel Credit Card That's Right for You

A Beginner's Guide to Airline Miles

Everyone should have a frequent flyer account with the airline that you fly with most often-after all, they're free. If you fly a lot, it's worth also getting a credit card that rewards you with bonus miles. Picking the right one is pretty tricky, though.

First things first: see what cards are best for you and your spending habits. Head over to MileCards and fill out their form, which includes your average monthly spending, where you want to travel, and more. MileCards wil then break down the credit cards that are best for you.

MileCards should help you pick out a few cards that suit your needs, but before you apply for anything, do a little research into where you're accumulating points. For example, if your local airport doesn't have a lot of flights through Virgin America, their rewards card is going to be pretty useless.

Typically, the best rewards card is with whichever airline has a "hub" in your local airport or whoever has frequent flights to cities you often visit. For example, since my family is in Colorado and I'm in Seattle, it makes the most sense for me to get a rewards card with Frontier or Alaska Airlines because those are the flights I'm most often on. That said, some cards, like the Chase Sapphire card, work with different airlines, so if you take a lot of flights to different places, cards like that are worth considering as well.

Finally, if you have a lot of options for different cards, consider ones that give you bonuses. Often, credit cards provide double (or more) miles if you make specific types of purchases. For example, the Citi Prestige card offers double points if you use your credit card for dining out. If you eat at a lot of restaurants, this helps you get more miles than other cards.

It's also worth pointing out that you won't accumulate bonus points on these credit cards if you book through a site like Expedia or Kayak because it's based on where the charge comes from. You have to book through the airline itself to get any bonus miles the card might offer. This isn't the case with airline frequent flyer programs though, just credit card miles.

How Redeeming Airlines Miles Actually Works

A Beginner's Guide to Airline Miles

So, now you have your travel credit card and your frequent flyer accounts all set up. You've taken a few flights, spent some money with those credit cards, and you're ready to redeem those points to get an actual ticket. Here's how to do that:

  1. Head to the web site for the alliance you'd like to book a flight with.
  2. Enter your rewards number, and search for a flight.
  3. You'll see a screen like the one above that lists how many miles you'll need to book a flight, along with any extra cost per ticket.
  4. Book your ticket!

That's it from a technical standpoint, but it's not the whole story. Airlines only release a certain number of seats to frequent flyer travelers, so often your flight choices are more limited than they would be paying cash. Blackout dates, like the period around a major holiday, also restrict your ticket options. Because of that, sometimes it's best to use your miles to upgrade seats instead of buying a ticket.

Finally, when you book with your frequent flyer miles, you still have to pay taxes and fees, so that flight isn't completely free. The fees depend on the airline and the flight. Some airlines also add a fee if you try and book a flight last minute, so it's not always worth it to use your miles unless you're prepared ahead of time.

Maximize Your Miles and Rewards

Of course, this is just the beginning (it is, after all, a "beginner's" guide). If you're willing to spend the time and brainpower, you can make sure you're spending and gaining points in the most efficient manner. This isn't necessary for most of us, but here are a few advanced tricks for making sure you're getting the most out of those miles:

As with most things involving money, you can dig pretty deep into airlines miles and score all kinds of bonuses. For most of us, the basics of using miles is enough to save a bit of money each year, and it's not hard to keep track of.

Photos by Andrii Gorulko, Robert S. Donovan, Robert S. Donovan

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