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Airline Miles: A Guide for Beginners

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Airline miles — more commonly known as frequent flyer miles — are one of the easiest ways to improve your travel experience and even earn free flights, but many people don’t know how to use them properly, if at all. So they end up leaving free money on the table and missing out on wonderful travel opportunities.

It’s time to stop leaving money on the table when you fly and start traveling to all the places you’ve dreamed of, and this guide will show you how to do exactly that.

What Makes Airline Miles Different From Credit Card Miles?

Airline miles are offered by the airline directly, and are not affiliated with any credit card company. All three major airline alliances offer an airline miles program:

These programs are 100% free, and you can start earning miles right away by redeeming flights taken in the past 3-12 months with the airlines. You will earn the regular number of points for all of those flights, so if you’ve traveled a lot recently this can even be as generous as the sign-up bonuses associated with travel credit cards.

Most new flights you purchase will also give you miles now that you’ve signed up for the loyalty program. Any exceptions will be outlined in your membership agreement.

Miles earned from airline loyalty programs typically don’t expire, so you can eventually build up to a free flight even if you only travel once or twice a year.

Credit card air miles programs, on the other hand, are owned by major credit card companies, sometimes in partnership with a specific airline. Travel rewards cards let you earn miles on more than just your flights, which can help you earn free flights faster.

Miles earned from credit cards typically don’t go as far and travel rewards cards often have sign up fees, so these are typically only worthwhile if you travel a lot.

The other major difference is that many credit cards’ points come with expiration dates, forcing you to use them within a set period of time. Airline miles build forever, and can be used at any time.

How Are Airline Loyalty Program Rewards Calculated?

Once you’ve signed up for an airline loyalty program you’ll automatically earn points for every flight you take with that airline, and eventually, you’ll have enough points to upgrade a flight or earn an entirely free one.

The free seats earned by airline miles are called “award seats”. Most airlines offer a limited number of award seats on any given flight, and may not offer them at all on certain flights, so it’s best to use these award seats when your travel schedule has some flexibility.

There are three primary ways airlines determine where you can go based on the points you have:

  1. Distance-Based

These programs determine the number of miles you need to buy a ticket based on the actual distance of the flight you want. The exact number of airline miles you need per miles traveled varies depending on the airline.

Distance-based programs are best if you frequently take short flights.

  1. Zone-Based

With these programs, the number of points you’ll need varies based on what “zones” you’re traveling to and from. These zones tend to be quite large, and you can travel anywhere within them for the same number of points.

Most airlines use zone-based awards programs, and these are best used for long international flights.

  1. Cost-Based

Some airlines base the number of points you need to get somewhere on the actual cost of the flight you want to take. The more expensive it is, the more points you’ll need.

The cost-based model is only used by a small number of airlines. It can be effective for any flight, regardless of distance traveled.

How Can You Redeem Airline Miles?

Once you’ve earned enough you can redeem your airline miles online in a few simple steps:

  • Head to the account center of your airline miles program
  • Log in
  • Search for a flight; you may be asked to type in a rewards number at this point
  • Look through the list of available flights; the total number of points needed for each one will be listed beside their names
  • Book the best available ticket for your current number of points.

When you purchase a regular flight you may also want to check your account center and see if there are upgrades available for that flight. After all, who doesn’t like traveling first class?

What’s The Best Strategy To Maximize Your Airline Miles?

You only travel a limited number of times per year, which means you have limited opportunities to earn airline miles, so you need to make every one count. Try to fly with the airlines that offer the best loyalty programs whenever possible. Look for ways to increase the number of points you earn on every flight. Research other ways to maximize the miles earned from your specific loyalty program.

It’s also generally recommended to get a travel rewards credit card as well. Most of these cards let you earn more miles every time you shop, with higher reward tiers for purchases at places like restaurants and hotels. This allows you to earn paid flights faster, especially if the card you choose also features a significant sign-up bonus. The only caveat is that you absolutely must pay the balance every month, or your flights aren’t free — they’re paid for by your interest.

There are dozens of travel rewards cards available, so take the time to research your options before committing to anything. Look for cards with a decent sign-up bonus, multiple rewards tiers, and additional travel perks like concierge services. And make sure the card you choose actually lets you redeem points at your favorite airlines.

Once you’re a loyalty program member and you start using a travel rewards card to purchase flights, you may be able to double up points earned on every paid flight you take. Look for a travel rewards card that is compatible with the airline you prefer, combine your rewards, and travel for free twice as often!

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