Noob Guide to Miles & Points: Part 2 - Understanding Airline Miles

Disclosure: Well Traveled Mile has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Well Traveled Mile and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

If you’re new to the miles and points world, it can seem big and complex---maybe a bit too complex. This series' goal is to clarify the different between airline miles, hotel points, and other rewards points and how best to use them.

Noob Guide to Miles & Points Series Index

  1. Noob Guide to Miles & Points: Part 1 - Introduction to Rewards Points 
  2. Noob Guide to Miles & Points: Part 2 - Understanding Airline Miles
  3. Noob Guide to Miles & Points: Part 3 - Understanding Hotel Points
  4. Noob Guide to Miles & Points: Part 3 - Understanding Flexible Bank-Points
  5. Noob Guide to Miles & Points: Part 4 - Understanding Cash Back & Travel Bank-Points

What are Airline Miles & How do they Work?

Now that some groundwork on understanding the various rewards points that exist was outlined in part 1 of this series, let’s take a look at airline specific miles and points.

It’s more than likely that you already have a few frequent flyer mile accounts, but learning a bit more and how to leverage rewards credit cards to earn more miles can save you tons when you want to book a trip.

Airline Miles

Airline miles, or more formally known as frequent flyer miles, are what you would traditionally earn when purchasing and taking a flight with a particular airline.

First off, you’d start by signing-up for the airlines’ frequent flyer program and any earned miles from flying would be deposited into your account.

If you fly often on any one airline you may also earn elite status and receive travel benefits. Your frequent flyer mileage account will both be a place to earn miles, keep track of travel itineraries, and earn elite status with the airline.

Major airline mileage programs that are useful for earning airline miles for US based travelers include:

(If you’re not already enrolled in these airline programs, it only takes a second to sign-up and you’ll be ready to start earning airline miles)

How to Earn Airline Miles

Now, you probably already know that taking flights is not the only way to earn airline miles.

There are various ways to earn airline miles---including flying with a given airline, spending on a co-branded airline credit card and various promotions.

Leveraging these ways of earning airline miles can help you rack of a ton of airline miles quickly get you a lot more free flight in the future.

You'll earn airline miles each time you fly

You'll earn airline miles each time you fly

Flights. When you take a flight you will earn airline miles that will be automatically deposited into your account with the airline program. For instance, if you purchase an airline ticket and fly with United, you will earn MileagePlus miles and they will be deposited into your United Mileage Plus account. Typically you will earn the amount of airline miles traveled during the flights, and if you have elite status with the airline you may earn bonus miles on top of the base miles earned. In a sense, this is the most traditional way of earning airline miles.

Earn miles when you spend on an airline credit card

Earn miles when you spend on an airline credit card

Credit Card Spend. Similarly, if you have a co-branded airline credit card, each time you make a purchase with the credit card you will earn miles that will be automatically deposited into your airline mileage account. There are many co-branded airline credit cards available and you’ll find that almost every major airline offers one. For each dollar you spend on your credit card you will earn a set number of airline miles. At the end of each billing cycle the miles will post to your account with the airline program. After the airline miles have posted to your mileage account the bank cannot redact them. However take note, if you close your credit card before the airline miles are transferred to your airline program account you will forfeit those miles.

There is an additional indirect way to earn airline miles, which is through a flexible-transferable points earning rewards credit card. Essentially you earn bank rewards points with the bank that issues your credit card and in turn these points can then be transferred to various airline airline miles. Check out this full chart showing which flexible bank-points are transferable to various airlines here.

Here is an overview of the major co-branded airline credit cards by issuer:

  • Chase: United MileagePlus, British Airways, Southwest Airlines
  • Citi: American Airlines
  • American Express: Delta, JetBlue
  • Bank of America: Alaska Air
  • Barclays: Hawaiian Airlines, Lufthansa/Miles & More, US Airways Card (no longer offered)
  • U.S. Bank: Korean Air, LAN, AeroMexico, Avianca

Welcome Bonuses. Another very popular and lucrative method for earning airline miles is by signing-up for credit cards. First off, many co-branded airline credit cards offer a introduction welcome bonus to make it more attractive to apply for a new credit card and gain you as a customer. Typically a valuable welcome bonuses will be at least 25,000 bonus miles and at times can reach 100,000 bonus miles. Each credit card welcome bonus has it’s own unique terms and conditions and most require you to spend a certain amount on the card within a time period (minimum spending requirement) in order to earn the welcome bonus. After spending the required amount on the credit card within the required time-frame the bonus miles will be deposited into your associated Frequent Flyer account, typically within a few billing cycles.

How to Redeem Airline Miles

Earning airline miles is only half the equation. Once you have enough airline miles in your airline mileage account you can redeem them for free flights. Redeeming miles is generally easy if you can find the right flights you need, but it get’s a bit more complicated when you try to maximize the value of each mile.

The most popular ways to get more value from your airline mile redemptions is to find loopholes and tricks to add stopovers or one-ways to your award ticket at no extra cost. You can find an almost complete list of airline stopover and open-jaw rules here.

Award Charts. Every airline program has a set redemption cost for flights and typically they publish an award chart that shows how much a flight will cost from one region of the world to another region. Unlike tickets purchased with cash, when you book an award ticket using miles the cost is almost always a set price based on the airlines’ award chart. This means that as long as there is award seat availability it will cost the same amount of miles whenever you book and wherever you fly to and from within the set regions. Sometimes if hard to compare each airlines award chart for region to region, that’s why I created a chart comparing how much it costs with each major airline.

American Airlines economy class award chart

American Airlines economy class award chart

For instance, it costs 60,000 United miles to fly from North America to Europe when redeeming at the Economy class Roundtrip Saver award level. In general most airlines have a Saver award price with limited available award seats and a Standard award price with more available seats. You’ll pay close to half the price by planning ahead and booking a Saver award vs. the more costly Standard award price. This is why it’s not only important, but essential to plan in advance and also have various airline miles that will give you options when booking awards.

United's award calendar showing availability

United's award calendar showing availability

Award Seat Availability. Each airline only releases a certain amount of seats per flight that can booked using airline miles. Finding the flights you want with open seats is often the most difficult aspect of redeeming airline miles. Again, planning ahead is important. Generally the farther in advance you book your award flight the better chance you will have finding award seat availability. However, some airlines release award seats periodically and within two weeks of the departure date. Just like when purchasing a paid ticket, better planning also means you will be able to choose shorter itineraries and connections.

The 3 big airline alliances

The 3 big airline alliances

Airline Alliances. Most major international airlines are a member of an airline alliance---the big three are Star Alliance, Oneworld, and SkyTeam. Airline alliances allow airlines to co-share flights in order to get their customers from one destination to the next without having to fly their own planes. Thus airlines within an alliance can both sell paid and award tickets on flights with their partner airlines. An example would be if you are booking an award flight using American Airlines miles to Bangkok from the U.S., you’d have the option to book flights on either American Airlines or Cathay Pacific, among other airlines within the Oneworld alliance.

In theory, you can use your airline miles to book flights on any partner airline within the same alliance. However, there are cases where award availability is not shown completely accurate and may even be blocked for you to see, and therefore book.

Redeeming Southwest Rapid Rewards points

Redeeming Southwest Rapid Rewards points

Fixed-value Airline Points. Unlike most airlines that use airline miles and a set value redemption system based on an award chart there are a few airlines that use a fixed-value airline point system. Both Southwest and Jetblue use this system. You will still earn points when you fly with these airlines and put spend on their co-branded credit cards, however the redemption system is different since they do not have award charts. Instead, each airline point is worth a fixed-value and you can redeem them at that rate to purchase any flight that you would also be able to purchase with cash. For instance, Frequent Miler estimates that a fair value of Southwest Rapid Rewards points is 1.53 cents per point. So, for simplicity, say you want to redeem Rapid Rewards points for a flight that costs $153 to purchase, it would cost 10,000 Rapid Rewards points to purchase the award flight.

Important note: Each airline has it’s own unique frequent flyer mileage program. Generally you cannot transfer or combine airline miles from one program to another. This means you cannot transfer your United airline miles to your AA airline mileage account to have more miles in one account. Simply, your United miles are separate and different than your AA miles.

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