How Do Airline Miles Work? Earning, Redemption & More
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Airline miles, also known as frequent flyer miles or just miles, are a type of travel reward that you get for making purchases through an airline or by using a miles credit card. Some credit cards are tied to certain airlines, while others offer general miles that can be used for all kinds of travel. You can use miles to buy airfare or, in some cases, exchange them for things like cash back or gift cards.View the Best Airline Credit Cards Now
Redeeming airline miles is usually pretty simple. With most airlines, you can redeem your miles for a free flight by logging into your account during the booking process. You’ll need to book on the airline’s website, rather than travel websites such as Expedia or Kayak, if you want to pay with miles. For credit cards, you can generally redeem miles through a rewards portal when you log into your account. Some credit cards even let you redeem miles for travel after the fact, rather than right when you book. But only certain issuers allow that.
Below, you can learn more about how to earn and use airline miles, which airlines' miles are most rewarding, and which miles credit cards you should get.
How Airline Miles Work: Earning
You can earn airline miles through two sources: an airline or a travel credit card issuer. To earn miles directly through an airline, you have to sign up for its loyalty program and then buy a flight on that airline. Signing up is free, and you’ll just need to put in your account number when booking to earn miles. Whether you earn miles based on the distance you travel or the cost of the flight depends on the airline.
And there’s a second variety of miles you can earn through airlines. They’re called “status miles,” and can’t be used for flights, but can earn you better perks with that airline. You’ll earn them whenever you fly, along with your normal reward miles. Some credit cards also offer a lump sum of status miles when you sign up and spend a certain amount within the first few months of account opening.
With a credit card, you’ll need to go through the process of finding and applying for a card before you can get any rewards. If you’re approved, you can then earn miles based on your purchases. Let’s take a look at earning through airlines first, and then go through the credit card process.
Here’s how to earn miles through an airline:
- Go to the website of the airline(s) you fly with most often.
- Find the airline’s loyalty program and join it. This involves making an online account with the airline. You’ll need to provide basic personal information (name, birthdate, address, contact information) as well as security questions and a username and password to set up the account. You can see an example at the setup page for American Airlines.
- Book flights with an airline whose loyalty program you’ve joined, or on any airline in the same alliance. There are three major airline alliances, Star Alliance, SkyTeam and Oneworld. Most of the major airlines in the world belong to one of these three. For example, if you’ve joined the American Airlines loyalty program, which is part of Oneworld, you can also earn miles with British Airways, Japan Airlines and 11 other major providers, as long as you provide your account number when you book.
The airline alliance system is very convenient, because it prevents you from having to join tons of different loyalty programs. At most, you’d need to join 3 to avoid ever missing out on earning miles. But the miles process is a little different for credit cards.
Here’s how to earn miles with a credit card:
- Shop around to find the best airline credit card for you. You should consider several factors, including the credit standing required for approval, the fees the card charges and the rewards it offers. You may want to get a card affiliated with an airline you fly on often, in order to get extra perks for flying on that airline (e.g. lounge access, early boarding, free checked bags). Or you might instead want to get a general miles card that offers equal miles no matter which airline you fly with.
- Apply for the card. If you need to, take a few months to improve your credit The majority of miles cards will require good or excellent credit.
- Once you’re accepted, start making purchases. This is how you’ll get miles, as rewards for spending money using your credit card. Typically, airline cards will offer at least one mile per dollar spent on all purchases. But they may reward certain types of purchases, like airline tickets, more. Some cards will also give you bonus miles for things like spending a certain amount of money in the first few months, having an account anniversary, adding an authorized user or referring a friend.
Best Airlines for Airline Miles
Exactly how much your flights are worth in miles depends on which airline you’re flying with. WalletHub’s study of the best frequent flyer programs currently puts Hawaiian Airlines at the top in terms of value, with over $21 in rewards for every $100 you spend. But Delta Airlines received the highest overall rating when considering areas like size, restrictions and perks.
Below, you can see how the most popular frequent flyer programs would reward three types of consumers: Light Flyers (who spend ~$467 per year on air travel), Average Flyers (who spend ~$3,105 per year on air travel) and Frequent Flyers (who spend ~$5,743 per year on travel).
Source: Wallethub's Frequent Flyer Program Study
How Airline Miles Work: Redemption
Redeeming miles through your credit card issuer works a little differently than redeeming directly through the airline, assuming your card isn’t tied to the airline itself. The good news is that the process for both is pretty simple, and mostly involves logging in to websites.
Here’s how to redeem miles through an airline:
- Log into your account on the airline’s website.
- Go to the airline’s booking tool and search for a flight. You should see how many miles the flight costs, in addition to its dollar cost.
- During the checkout process, choose miles as your form of payment.
- If you want to redeem your miles for a flight on a different airline in the same alliance, you will need to call up the airline whose loyalty program you’re enrolled in for assistance.
The main difference between miles through an airline and miles through a credit card is that you can usually spend credit card miles on things other than flights.
Here’s how to redeem miles through a credit card:
- Log into your online account for your credit card.
- Find the reward redemption portal (or whatever your card calls their redemption area). Most issuers will have a “rewards” tab on the initial page.
- Trade in your miles for flights, hotel stays, gift cards, cash back, merchandise, charitable donations or any other choices provided. Keep in mind, however, that you will typically get the best value when redeeming for airfare.
- Depending on your card, you may be able to transfer miles (or even points on certain points cards) to the loyalty programs of certain airlines. You may be able to get a better deal this way.
Most credit cards require you to use your points when you book, if you want to redeem for travel. But an issuer may allow you to take care of travel costs after the fact. Two good examples are Capital One Venture and Barclaycard Arrival Plus, which let you get a statement credit for previous travel purchases. And you get the same rate whether you redeem before or after you travel.
You are now on your way to making the most of your travel by earning and redeeming airline miles. If you don’t have a miles credit card yet, be sure to take advantage of airline loyalty programs to ensure you still earn miles. And if you’re in the market for a good airline miles card, WalletHub has you covered with our editors’ picks (some cards are from partners). You can also take a look at our study on the best frequent flyer program.
Best Airline Credit Cards
Frontier Airlines Credit Card
Lufthansa Credit Card
JetBlue Plus Card
Discover it® Miles
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
|Annual Fee||$79||$89||$99||$0||$0 for 1st yr, $95 after|
|Rewards Bonus||40,000 miles||50,000 miles||40,000 points||N/A||50,000 miles|
|Rewards Rate||1 - 5 miles / $1||1 - 2 miles / $1||1 - 6 points / $1||1.5 miles / $1||2 miles / $1|
|Purchase Intro APR||Not Offered||Not Offered||Not Offered||0% for 14 months||Not Offered|
|Transfer Intro APR||0% for 15 months|
Transfer Fee: 3% (min $5)
|0% for 15 months|
Transfer Fee: 3% (min $5)
|0% for 12 months|
Transfer Fee: 3% (min $5)
|10.99% for 14 months|
Transfer Fee: 3% intro balance transfer fee, up to 5% fee on future balance transfers (see terms)*
|Regular APR||18.24% - 27.24% (V)||18.24% - 27.24% (V)||18.24% - 27.24% (V)||14.24% - 25.24% (V)||17.99% - 25.24% (V)|
|Editors’ Rating||N/A||4.5 / 5||4.5 / 5||4.2 / 5||5.0 / 5|
|Details, Rates & Fees||Learn More||Learn More||Learn More||Learn More|
Rates & Fees
Image: kostasgr /Shutterstock
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