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. 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.
Let’s demystify airline miles and figure out how to use them.
What are 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 much you spend on a ticket (or how much you spend on your credit card). You can then use these miles to buy more tickets.
That’s simple enough on the surface, but airline miles aren’t that cut and dried. First off, the term “miles” doesn’t equate to the actual number of miles you’ve already flown, or can fly in the future. 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
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, while others are for specific airlines only. 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 that airline. 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, these miles don’t expire as long as you’re using your account by occasionally purchasing flights.
Credit card rewards with airline miles work a little differently. You earn points when you make purchases, and then you can then redeem these points for frequent flyer miles. But how much they’re worth depends on the credit card. As with many rewards credit card, you’ll often have to deal with annual fees. Since you probably use your credit card a lot more than you buy airline tickets, it’s usually easier to accrue points through a credit card than it is with just an airline rewards program.
How to pick a travel credit card that’s right for you
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 can be pretty tricky, though.
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. But if you don’t have a favorite airline or destination, cards that allow you to use points for travel through various partners, like Chase Sapphire or Capital One Venture, can help you maximize your rewards redemption potential.
These cards often offer the biggest signup bonuses, which allow you to earn a whole bunch of points when you spend a certain amount of money on your credit card as soon as you open your account. It can be difficult to do this without getting into debt, so you should be confident in your ability to pay your credit card bill in full each month if you’re going to go after one of these signup bonuses.
Finally, if you have a lot of options for different cards, consider ones that give you more points for specific types of purchases. Often, credit cards provide double (or more) miles if you make specific types of purchases. For example, many cards offers double or even triple 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 worth pointing out that you won’t accumulate the greatest amount of points on a travel card credit card if you book through a site like Expedia or Kayak. You have to book through the airline itself to get any extra miles or points 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
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.
First, you’ll head to the airline where you have a frequent flyer account. Log in, search for flights, and choose the option that allows you to see fares converted to points or miles instead of dollars.
If you have enough points to cover your entire round-trip flight, you’ll only need to pay $11.20, the required security fee for a round-trip flight (or $5.60 each way). If you don’t have enough points to redeem for your whole trip, you’ll need to book separate flights.
If you have a credit card that allows you to redeem points with various airlines, you’ll need to plan ahead, either by transferring your rewards to a specific airline or by booking your flight through that card’s redemption portal.
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 earning points in the most efficient manner for you. 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 too hard to track.
This post originally ran in 2014 and was updated on 11/26/2019 to include more current information.