A guide to earning frequent flyer miles

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If you travel often or would like to travel more, earning frequent flyer miles can help you cut your costs and enjoy extra perks. But if you’ve never used them before, you may wonder how they work and if they will be beneficial for you. In this guide, we’ll cover all you need to know so you can get the most out of a frequent flyer program or travel credit card.

How do airline and credit card miles work?

The way frequent miles work depends on the miles program you choose. Here’s a quick guide to understanding airline miles.

How do airline miles work?

If you opt for an airline’s loyalty program, you’ll earn miles when you fly on the airline or with any of its participating partners. When you save enough miles, you can get a free flight as a thank you for being an airline’s loyal customer or choose a different redemption option.

How do miles cards work?

If you opt for a travel rewards credit card, you can earn miles when you use the card to make qualifying purchases. Different cards have different reward rates. For example, the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card rewards you with 2X miles for spending with Delta, at restaurants around the world and at U.S. supermarkets. Additionally, you can earn 1X miles on all other purchases. Once you have enough miles, you can choose a way to redeem them, including airfare purchases.

If you want to earn miles on all of your purchases, getting a travel credit card is the way to go. Most cards will give you at least 1 mile for every dollar you spend, allowing you to rack up rewards every time you swipe. You may also earn a higher reward rate for certain purchases like restaurant meals and travel.

Earning miles through flights

To get 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 program will often allow you to earn rewards with a dozen or more brands.

United, for example, is part of Star Alliance, which includes Air Canada, Air China and nearly two dozen other airlines. Just by joining United’s loyalty program, MileagePlus, you’ll be able to earn rewards from all the other brands in the alliance.

In addition to Star Alliance, there are two other major airline networks: SkyTeam, which includes Delta and AeroMexico, and oneworld, which includes American Airlines and British Airways.

After you fill out the enrollment form for the loyalty program you want to join, you should get an email confirming your account, which contains your frequent flyer number. You’ll need to enter this number when you book flights to earn miles.

If you join a program and meet certain requirements, you can often earn elite status. For example, on Alaska Airlines, you earn MVP status after flying 20,000 miles in one year, MVP Gold after flying 40,000 miles and MVP Gold 75K after flying 75,000 miles. Once you have elite status, you gain access to perks that make travel much more enjoyable such as waived baggage fees, early boarding, lounge access, upgrades and free seat selection. The higher the tier, the better the rewards.

Earning miles with a credit card

Travel credit cards with miles rewards programs enable you to earn miles or points when you make purchases. The type of purchases that will qualify for miles and the number of miles you get per purchase will vary by the card issuer and card you choose.

Once you rack up miles, you can often redeem them for travel as well as gift cards, merchandise, event tickets and more. Some cards, like the UnitedSM Explorer Card, are co-branded airline credit cards, which means they allow you to earn frequent flyer miles from a particular airline. Often, you can redeem these miles with partner airlines in the same alliance, so co-branded cards are generally best for travelers who are loyal to one airline network.

If you’re a bargain shopper and tend to fly with a different airline each trip, a more general-purpose rewards card like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card may suit you better. It allows you to book travel through the Capital One portal or transfer your miles to more than 10 travel loyalty programs, including JetBlue and Emirates Skywards.

Getting approved for a travel rewards credit card is a little more difficult than signing up for an airline loyalty program. You’ll generally need a good credit score and a low debt-to-income ratio to qualify.

Earning miles with a card welcome bonus

Another perk of travel rewards credit cards is they often come with a welcome bonus, so you can jumpstart your stockpile of miles.

In most cases, you’ll have to spend a certain dollar amount on the card within a set amount of time to earn the reward. For example, the Capital One Venture is offering a 100,000-mile welcome bonus when you spend $20,000 in the first 12 months, or you can earn a 50,000-mile welcome bonus if you spend a minimum of $3,000 within the first three months.

Earning miles through card spending

After you’ve earned the welcome bonus, you can continue to rack up points by using your card for purchases that earn you rewards. Most travel rewards cards will give you 1X points on everything you buy and a slightly higher rewards rate on certain purchases like gas or groceries.

You can maximize the number of miles you earn by choosing the right card for your spending habits. If you spend the most on travel and dining out, for example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card may be a good fit. It offers 2X points on both travel and restaurant meals, allowing you to earn free flights faster.

If your spending is more varied, you may want to keep a few different cards in your rotation so you can earn the most miles possible on each purchase.

Buying miles

Many airlines and credit card issuers give you the option to buy miles or points if you don’t have enough miles in your account to book your desired vacation. The process is usually easy and can be done through the airline or credit card’s rewards portal.

However, buying miles might not always be worth it, because 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 to purchase the ticket with cash. You may also want to purchase points if they go on sale and you can get a good deal.

Transferring miles

If you need a few more points to book a flight, you can also often transfer miles from your credit card or a partner airline to your frequent flyer account.

Transferring from partner airlines

How do air miles work if you want to use them on another airline? Most don’t allow you to transfer your frequent flyer miles to another loyalty program. However, there are a few exceptions. British Airways and Iberia have a partnership that allows you to transfer your points to either airline.

Although you usually can’t transfer your miles between partners, you can still use your loyalty points to book flights on a different airline. United, for example, allows you to use your MileagePlus points to get flights on more than 35 airlines. You’ll have to check the network included in your loyalty program and book your tickets by calling customer service for assistance.

Transferring from a credit card rewards program

Some credit cards only earn miles through a specific airline. But if you have a general-purpose travel card. you can easily transfer your points or miles to any of your credit card provider’s partner airlines.

You can usually transfer points by going to the rewards portal and selecting “transfer points” from the main menu. Then, an option will often pop up and prompt you to select the travel partner you want to move your points to and the amount you want to transfer.

Some transfers are instant, while others can take a couple of days to process. Most transfers aren’t reversible, so make sure you’re careful when entering the number of miles you want to move.

Other ways to earn miles

Many airlines have other options for earning miles aside from purchasing flights, so you’ll still be able to rack up miles for a special trip even if you don’t travel frequently.

For example, Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus have their own shopping portals where you can earn miles on your everyday purchases. They have hundreds of retail partners, including major brands like Macy’s, Apple and Staples.

Some stores offer a certain number of miles for each dollar you spend, while others will give you a fixed amount when you make a purchase. You can even pay with your travel rewards card to earn additional miles.

Many airlines including Delta, United and Southwest also offer dining programs that allow you to earn points when you eat at participating restaurants. All you have to do is register for the program and pay with a linked credit card.

You can also earn miles on other travel-related purchases besides flights. For instance, American Airlines will give you 500 miles or more when you rent a car from one of its partners. You can earn United miles when you buy an eligible ticket from Amtrak.

How to redeem miles

Generally, you’ll have more redemption options for credit card miles than miles you’ve earned through an airline frequent flyer program. Credit card miles can usually be redeemed for gift cards and cash back, while frequent flyer miles may be more limited to travel. However, check the fine print of your chosen program for specific options.

Once you’ve earned the airline miles you need to fly, reserving your seat is easy. To use Delta miles, for example, all you need to do is go to the app or website, select “book” from the main menu and check the box that says “shop with miles.” Once you’ve found a flight you like, you can head to the checkout and complete your purchase. The process is the same for most airlines, including American and Southwest.

Redeeming credit card miles is also simple. Just sign in to your credit card account and find the rewards tab on the main menu. From there you can exchange your miles for gift cards, cash back, flights, donations, event tickets and more.

You can also transfer your rewards to a partner airline or hotel instead of booking your travel through your credit card provider. Some credit card companies may even allow you to receive a statement credit for past travel purchases using your miles.

Before you use your miles, compare the redemption options to make sure you’re getting the best deal, especially if you’re booking travel. Since airlines calculate the points value of their flights differently, sometimes you can save thousands of miles just by booking your ticket through a partner airline.

Be sure to check the award charts on your airline’s website, as they can often tell you how many points you’ll need to fly to certain parts of the country or world, which can be useful when evaluating your redemption options.

The bottom line

You can earn frequent flyer miles on the purchases you’re already making by signing up for a travel rewards card or an airline loyalty program. If you maximize your earnings by getting the right travel program for your spending habits and choose the best redemption options, your next trip could be closer than you think.

The information about the United Explorer Card has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.