Key takeaways

  • Join your preferred airline’s loyalty program for free to start earning and redeeming points and miles toward your next flight.
  • You can also earn points and miles through eligible credit card spending with a general travel rewards credit card or a co-branded airline credit card.
  • For more ways to earn points and miles, consider buying, transferring or pooling rewards, or else using airline shopping and dining portals.

If you travel often or would like to travel more, earning frequent flyer miles or points with an airline and its participating partners can help you get free flights and enjoy such perks as airport lounge access, free checked bags and priority boarding. You can typically collect frequent flyer miles through an airline loyalty program, but you have other easy ways to boost your stash of miles, such as through eligible credit card spending.

But if you’ve never used a frequent flyer program before, you may wonder how they work and whether they can really benefit you. In this guide, we cover what you need to know about earning and redeeming frequent flyer miles, as well as how travel credit cards can help you earn free flights.

How to earn frequent flyer miles

You can earn airline miles or points in many ways, such as by booking flights or spending money with a credit card that earns airline rewards or allows you to transfer rewards to an airline rewards program.

Earn miles through flights

To earn miles when you buy plane tickets, you’ll need to sign up for an airline’s loyalty program. Because most major airlines are part of a larger alliance, joining one frequent flyer program often allows you to transfer rewards to a dozen or more brands.

For example, United Airlines belongs to the Star Alliance, an airline network that includes 26 individual airlines, including Air Canada, Air China and Lufthansa. When you become a member of United’s loyalty program, United MileagePlus, you’ll be able to earn rewards that can be used on Star Alliance airline partner flights that are booked through United.

Another major airline network is SkyTeam, which includes Delta Air Lines, Air France and Aeromexico, among others. There’s also the Oneworld Alliance, which counts American Airlines and British Airways among its list of partner airlines.

After you complete an enrollment form for the loyalty program you want to join, you should get an email confirming your account and including your frequent flyer number. You’ll need to enter this number when you book flights in order to earn miles on those flights. Otherwise, you could miss out on earning rewards (though some programs allow you to add your number after booking).

If you join a program and meet certain requirements, you can often earn elite status. For example, with the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, you can reach MVP status after flying 20,000 miles in one year, MVP Gold status after flying 40,000 miles, MVP Gold 75K status after flying 75,000 miles and MVP Gold 100K after flying 100,000 miles.

Once you have elite status, you unlock access to valuable perks that can make travel more enjoyable. Depending on your status level, you could earn waived baggage fees, early boarding, select lounge access, priority upgrades and free seat selection. The higher the tier, the better the rewards.

Earn miles with an eligible credit card

Travel credit cards — which include general credit cards that earn travel rewards, airline credit cards and hotel credit cards — allow you to earn miles or points through eligible credit card spending. Many general travel credit cards allow you to earn flexible travel rewards, meaning you can typically redeem travel rewards with numerous airline and hotel partners. Airline and hotel credit cards, however, may only allow you to earn and redeem rewards with a specific airline or hotel brand.

Additionally, the type of spending that qualifies for earning miles or points and the number of miles or points you’ll earn vary by card issuer as well as by the card you choose, since different cards have different rewards programs and rates. Most cards will give you at least 1X miles or points for every dollar you spend, allowing you to rack up rewards every time you make a purchase with your card. You may also earn a higher rate for purchases in specific categories with a tiered rewards card.

For example, the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card — which is a co-branded airline credit card that allows you to earn frequent flyer miles with Delta Air Lines — offers 2X miles on purchases made with Delta, at restaurants worldwide (and takeout and delivery in the U.S.) and at U.S. supermarkets. You’ll also earn 1X miles on all other eligible purchases. Often, you can redeem miles with partner airlines in the same alliance, but co-branded credit cards are generally best for travelers who are loyal to one network.

Then there’s the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which is a general travel rewards card that allows you to earn transferable rewards. It offers 5X points on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards; 5X points on Lyft rides (through March 31, 2025); 3X points on dining, select streaming services and online grocery purchases (excluding Walmart, Target and wholesale clubs); 2X points on other travel purchases; and 1X points on all other purchases. Points can then be redeemed for 1:1 transfers to Chase airline and hotel loyalty program partners.

Another perk of travel rewards credit cards is that they often come with a welcome bonus for new cardholders, which you can use to jumpstart your stockpile of miles or points. In most cases, you’ll have to spend a specific dollar amount on a card within a set amount of time in order to earn a bonus. You may also qualify for elite status simply by holding the airline or hotel’s co-branded card.

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Keep in mind: For example, Chase Sapphire Preferred offers a welcome bonus of 75,000 points after you spend $4,000 within the first three months of account opening, which is worth more than $930 when redeemed for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. The Delta SkyMiles Gold card, however, offers 65,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in the first six months of Card Membership.

Note that getting approved for a top travel rewards credit card can be more difficult than signing up for an airline loyalty program. You’ll generally need a good to excellent credit score and a low debt-to-income ratio to qualify for the best travel cards. If you’re new to travel cards, take a look at the best travel cards for beginners first to make the card-choosing process easier.

Earn by buying, transferring or pooling miles

Although the primary ways to earn airline miles or points are by joining a loyalty program or regularly spending money on a travel rewards card, you have other options for racking up rewards.

Many loyalty programs allow you to buy miles or points if you don’t have enough in your account to book your desired vacation. The process is usually easy and can be done through the rewards program portal. Keep in mind, though, that buying miles is often not worth it, as they tend to cost more than their redemption value. But if you’re just shy of having enough miles to book your flight, it may be cheaper to buy more than it would be to purchase the ticket with cash. You may also want to buy points if they go on sale and you can get a good deal.

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Keep in mind: If you need a few more points or miles to book a flight, you'll often have the option to transfer rewards. If you have an eligible general travel card, you can easily transfer your rewards to any of your credit card issuer's partner airlines. Do this by going to the card's rewards portal and selecting 'transfer points' from the main menu. You'll then be prompted to select the travel partner you want to move your points to, as well as the number of points you want to transfer. Some transfers are instant, while others can take a couple of days to process. Most transfers aren't reversible, so be careful when entering the number of points or miles you want to move.

Lastly, some loyalty programs allow you to pool your points or miles with family and friends who are members of the same program. For example, the Frontier Miles program offers a family pooling feature that allows you to share miles with up to eight friends and family members.

Earn through shopping portals and dining programs

Many major airline loyalty programs — including Southwest Rapid Rewards and Delta SkyMiles — have shopping portals you can use to earn miles on purchases you’re already planning to make. To do this, you’ll typically first head to the rewards program’s shopping portal. Then, check out available retailers or promotions or search for items you want to buy. Clicking through the portal will track your activity, so that when you complete your purchase, you’ll receive credit in the form of extra miles or points added to your rewards account.

The best part? You don’t need to hold a co-branded airline card to take advantage of these offers. For example, fans of American Airlines can join the AAdvantage program for free and use their frequent flyer number to create an account with its online eShopping portal. That said, paying for eShopping purchases with a card that earns American AAdvantage miles lets you double-dip on rewards, getting you to that free flight more quickly.

Similar to online shopping portals, airline dining programs also earn you rewards for eating at select restaurants. You’ll have to enroll in this type of program separately (as you do with a shopping portal). Once you have an account, all you’ll have to do is use one of your linked debit or credit cards to pay for your meal at an eligible restaurant. That’s how the Rewards Network, which administers these dining programs, knows to credit your rewards account with the appropriate number of miles or points.

How to redeem frequent flyer miles

Building a portfolio of frequent flyer miles can feel exciting, but don’t forget the real purpose of doing so — redeeming your miles for travel. Having a plan for redeeming your rewards isn’t just an important part of maximizing your effort. Airline and hotel loyalty programs regularly devalue their points and miles, so holding them long-term puts you at risk of losing value over time.

The rewards programs associated with general travel credit cards typically provide more flexible redemption options than airline frequent flyer programs. With a general travel credit card, you can often redeem rewards for all types of travel purchases, along with cash back, gift cards, merchandise, event tickets and more. You may also be able to transfer your points or miles to a travel partner, increasing the potential value of your redemptions.

Frequent flyer programs, however, may be limited to travel redemptions only, such as booking airfare. Similarly, points and miles earned with co-branded travel credit cards may be limited to redemption with the card’s specific airline or hotel partner’s booking portal. Always check your desired program for the specific options available to you to make sure the redemption options align with what you’re looking for.

Redeem through an airline program

  1. Log in to your airline loyalty program account.
  2. Search for your desired flight. You can choose to see how much flights cost in either dollars or miles (or points).
  3. Choose miles or points as your form of payment when checking out.

Note that if you’re looking to redeem miles for a flight within an airline alliance, you might need to call the airline directly for assistance with the booking.

Redeem through a credit card program

  1. Log in to your credit card account.
  2. Locate the rewards portal. From there, you should be able to redeem your rewards for travel bookings, gift cards, charitable donations and more. To redeem for travel, you can usually redeem your rewards through your issuer’s travel portal or transfer your rewards to one of your issuer’s travel partners. Typically, your rewards will go further when you transfer your points or miles to a high-value rewards program.
  3. Select the redemption option you’re interested in and follow the prompts.

Before you use your points or miles, make sure you’re getting the best deal, especially if you’re booking travel. Since airlines calculate the rewards value of their flights differently, sometimes you can save thousands of points or miles just by booking your ticket through a partner airline. Start by checking Bankrate’s points and miles valuations to see how your flight options compare. You might also want to try one of the many tools available for redeeming rewards for flights.

The bottom line

You can earn airline miles or points on the purchases you’re already making by signing up for a travel rewards card or joining your preferred airline loyalty program. If you join the right rewards program for your spending habits and choose the most valuable redemption options to maximize your rewards earnings, your next trip could be closer than you think.