Part of Introduction to Travel Credit Cards Series
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 costs and enjoy extra perks such as lounge access, free checked bags and priority boarding.
Frequent flyer miles are miles you earn toward free flights with an airline or its participating partners. You typically collect them through an airline loyalty program, but there are other easy ways to boost your stash of miles. As your mileage balance grows over time, the goal is to accumulate enough miles for free flights and additional benefits.
But if you’ve never used them before, you may wonder how they work and whether they’ll really benefit you. In this guide, we’ll cover what you need to know about frequent flyer miles, as well as using a travel credit card as you try to earn free flights.
How to earn frequent flyer miles
You can earn airline miles in many ways, including booking flights or spending money with a travel credit card that offers rewards in the form of 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 frequent flyer program will often allow you to earn rewards with a dozen or more brands.
United, for example, belongs to Star Alliance, a network that includes Air Canada, Air China and nearly two dozen other airlines. When you become a member of United’s loyalty program, MileagePlus, you’ll be able to earn rewards that can be used with any Star Alliance airline partner.
Another major airline network is SkyTeam, which includes Delta and Aeromexico; meanwhile, oneworld counts American Airlines and British Airways among its list of partner airlines.
After you fill out the enrollment form for the loyalty program you want to join, you should get an email—which will contain your frequent flyer number—confirming your account. You’ll need to enter this number when you book flights to earn miles, otherwise you could miss out on those rewards.
And, if you join a program and meet certain requirements, you can often earn elite status. For example, you reach MVP status in Alaska Airlines’ loyalty program 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 valuable perks that can make travel more enjoyable, such as waived baggage fees, early boarding, lounge access, priority 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 use the card to make qualifying purchases. The type of spending that qualifies for miles and the number of miles you’ll earn for each swipe will vary by card issuer as well as the card you choose since different cards have different rewards rates.
For example, the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card rewards you with 2X miles on Delta purchases, restaurant and U.S. supermarket purchases. You’ll also earn 1X miles on all other eligible 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 rate for purchases in certain categories with a tiered rewards card.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, for instance, previously rewarded cardholders with 2X points on travel and dining (and occasionally offered limited-time bonus rewards, like 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022). But Chase recently upped the Sapphire Preferred’s dining rewards rate to 3 points per dollar spent, upping its value as a tiered bonus-category card.
Once you rack up miles, you can redeem them for travel purchases, such as that free flight; other redemption options typically include 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 network.
Another perk of travel rewards credit cards is that they often come with a welcome bonus, which you can use to jumpstart your stockpile of miles. In most cases, you’ll have to spend a specific dollar amount on the card within a set amount of time to meet the requirements.
For example, the previously mentioned Sapphire Preferred card is offering a one-time bonus of 60,000 bonus points once you spend $4,000 on purchases within your first three months as a cardholder, equal to $750 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
Getting approved for a top 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 for the best travel cards. If you’re a bit new to travel cards, we suggest taking a look at travel cards for beginners first, making the card choosing process easier.
Earn by buying, transferring or pooling airline miles
Although the primary ways to earn airline miles are by flying with a loyalty program or regularly spending money on a travel rewards card, you also have other options for racking up miles.
Many airlines and credit card issuers give you the option 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 airline’s or credit card’s rewards portal. Keep in mind, though, that buying miles might not always be worth it—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.
If you need a few more points to book a flight, you often have the option to transfer miles. Some credit cards earn miles only through a specific airline. But if you have a general-purpose travel card, you can easily transfer your rewards to any of your credit card provider’s partner airlines.
You can usually move points by going to the card’s rewards portal and selecting “transfer points” from the main menu. You’ll typically be prompted to select the travel partner to which you want to move your points as well as 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 be careful when entering the number of miles you want to move.
Lastly, some loyalty 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 combine points with up to 10 other members, which could be the boost you need to then convert your points into miles and book that free flight.
Earn through shopping portals and dining programs
Here’s how it works: Whenever you’re shopping online, navigate to the merchant’s website via a link in the airline program’s shopping portal, rather than going directly to the retailer’s storefront. Clicking this link lets the portal 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 loyalty 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 faster and with minimal extra effort.
Similar to online shopping portals, airline dining programs let you earn rewards just for eating at select restaurants. (Many major hotel chains, including Hilton and InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, offer dining offshoots in their loyalty programs, too.) You’ll have to enroll separately (like you do with a shopping portal), but once you’re up and running, all you have to do is use one of your linked debit or credit cards to pay for your meal. 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
Generally, you’ll have more redemption options for credit card miles compared with the 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 redemptions only, such as booking airfare. Always check your chosen program for the specific options available to you, but here is a general look at how to redeem most frequent flyer miles through an airline directly or through your credit card:
- Redeem through an airline: Start out by logging into your account on the airline’s website. Begin using the flight tool and search for your desired flight. Once you select a flight, you should see how much the flight costs in dollars and miles. When you begin the process to checkout, choose miles as your form of payment. Keep in mind if you are looking to redeem miles for a flight within a flight alliance (for example, you want to use your MileagePlus miles on an AirCanada flight itinerary), call the airline directly for assistance with booking.
- Redeem through a credit card: Log into your account for your credit card and locate the rewards portal. From there, you should be able to trade in your rewards for flights, hotel stays, gift cards, charitable donations and more. Typically, your points will go the furthest when redeeming for airfare.
Before you use your miles, compare the redemption choices 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.
Top cards that earn miles
You can choose from many great airline credit card options, but we’ve rounded up a few of Bankrate’s favorites below.
Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card: Best for flexible travel miles with no annual fee
- Rewards rate: Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and unlimited 1.25X miles on every purchase, every day.
- Welcome offer: Earn 20,000 bonus miles when you spend $500 on purchases within the first three months from account opening, equal to $200 in travel.
Delta SkyMiles Blue American Express Card: Best for Delta frequent flyers
If you’re a frequent flyer on Delta, the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card offers great value and an impressive welcome offer for a card that does not have an annual fee.
- Rewards rate: Earn 2X miles on Delta purchases and for every dollar spent at restaurants worldwide (plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.), plus 1X miles for every dollar spent on all other eligible purchases.
- Welcome offer: Earn 10,000 bonus miles upon spending $500 or more within the first three months from account opening.
American Express Gold Card: Best for travel rewards on dining
The American Express® Gold Card is a great pick for foodies who enjoy luxury travel.
- Rewards rate: Earn 4X Membership Rewards Points at restaurants, including takeout and delivery in the U.S., plus 4X points for Uber Eats purchases and at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 in spending per calendar year, then 1X). Earn 3X Membership Rewards points on flights booked directly with airlines or on American Express Travel, plus 1X points everywhere else you use the card.
- 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 joining the loyalty program of the airline with which you fly the most. If you maximize your earnings by joining the right travel program for your spending habits and choose the most valuable 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.