A guide to earning and redeeming 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 what you need to know about using frequent flyer miles or a travel credit card as you try to earn free flights.

What are frequent flyer miles?

Frequent flyer miles are miles you earn toward free flights with an airline or its participating partners. You typically earn them through an airline loyalty program, but we’ll explain below some other easy ways to earn airline miles. As you accumulate airline miles, the goal is to get free flights and other benefits from those miles.

How to get frequent flyer miles

You can earn airline miles many different ways, including through booking flights or spending on a travel credit card that rewards you with miles.

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 that can be used with any of the other brands in the alliance.

SkyTeam, which includes Delta and AeroMexico, and oneworld, which includes American Airlines and British Airways, are two other major airline networks.

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 in order 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 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 earn per purchase will vary with the card issuer and card you choose.

If you have 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 and at U.S. supermarkets. Additionally, you can earn 1X miles on all other purchases.

Most cards will give you at least 1 mile 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 reward rate for purchases in certain categories, depending on the card.

Once you rack up miles, you can redeem them for travel purchases, such as that free flight, or you can typically also redeem them for gift cards, merchandise, event tickets and more.

Some cards, like the United℠ Explorer Card, are co-branded airline credit cards, which means they allow you to earn frequent flyer miles with 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.

Other ways to earn frequent flyer miles

Although the primary ways to earn airline miles is through flying with a loyalty program or regular spending on a travel rewards card, you can rack up miles other ways, too.

Earning miles with a card welcome bonus

Another perk of travel rewards credit cards is that 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 card mentioned earlier is offering a one-time bonus of 60,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $600 in travel.

Buying airline 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’s or credit card’s rewards portal.

Keep in mind, though, that 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 whole ticket with cash. You may also want to purchase points if they go on sale and you can get a good deal.

Transferring airline miles

If you need a few more points to book a flight, you can also often transfer miles. 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 typically 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.

Pooling miles

Some programs allow you to pool your points or miles with other family and friends who have points or miles with the same program. For example, Hilton Honors lets you pool points with up to 10 other members, which could be the boost you need to then transfer your points to miles and book that next free flight.

How to redeem miles

Generally, you’ll have more redemption options for credit card miles than miles you’ve earned through a specific airline’s frequent flyer program. Credit card miles can usually be redeemed for gift cards and cash back, in addition to miles, while frequent flyer miles may be limited to travel options, such as using them to purchase flights. Always check your chosen program for specific options.

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.

Which credit cards earn miles?

You can choose from many great airline credit card options, but below we rounded up a few standouts.

Best for flexible travel miles with no annual fee: Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card

If your airline choices are motivated by airfare prices, this card offers more flexibility for earning rewards.

  • Rewards rate: Earn unlimited 1.25X miles on every purchase, every day.
  • Welcome offer: Earn a bonus of 20,000 miles once you spend $500 on purchases within three months from account opening, equal to $200 in travel.

Best for American Airlines frequent flyers: Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®

If you’re a frequent flier on American Airlines flights, this card offers great value and lots of winning perks.

  • Rewards rate: Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent at gas stations and restaurants, as well as 2 AAdvantage miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases.
  • Welcome offer: Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles after $2,500 in purchases within the first three months of account opening.

Best for travel rewards on dining: American Express® Gold Card

The American Express Gold Card is a great pick for foodies who enjoy luxury travel.

  • Rewards rate: Earn 4X Membership Rewards Points on restaurants, including takeout and delivery, plus earn 4X points for Uber Eats purchases. Earn 4X Membership Rewards points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X). Earn 3X Membership Rewards points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • Welcome offer: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new card within the first six months.

The bottom line

You can earn airline miles on the purchases you’re already making by signing up for a travel rewards card or by frequently flying with 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.

Learn moreShould you choose a travel credit card that earns points, miles, or both?

 The information about the United Explorer Card and the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.