A guide to earning and redeeming frequent flyer miles

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.

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.

What are frequent flyer miles?

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 as we’ll explain below, 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.

How to get 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, 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.

If you’re a bargain shopper who tends to fly with a different airline each trip based on the price of the ticket, a more general-purpose rewards card like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card may suit you better. It lets you book travel through the Capital One portal or transfer your miles to more than 15 travel loyalty programs, including 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 for the best travel cards.

Other ways to earn frequent flyer 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.

Earning miles with a card welcome bonus

Another perk of travel rewards credit cards is that they often come with a welcome bonus, which 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 Capital One Venture card is offering a one-time bonus of 60,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within your first three months as a cardholder, 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 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.

Transferring airline miles

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.

Pooling miles

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.

Airline shopping portals

Several major airline loyalty programs, including Southwest Rapid Rewards and Delta SkyMiles, have shopping portals through which you can earn miles on purchases you’re already planning to make.

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.

Airline dining programs

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.

Here’s a quick overview of the bonus rewards offered by some of the most popular airline dining programs:

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining: Earn 0.5 Rapid Rewards points for every dollar spent, including tax and tip. (Tip: Sign up to receive Rapid Rewards Dining emails to boost your dining bonus to 3 points per dollar spent.)
  • United MileagePlus Dining: Earn 1 mile for every $2 spent as a Basic member. (Opt into promotional emails to upgrade to the Select tier and earn 3 miles for every $1 spent; do that and complete 11 transactions per year to graduate to VIP status, with which you earn 5 miles per dollar spent.)
  • American Airlines AAdvantage Dining: Just like with United’s dining program, basic AAdvantage Dining members earn 1 mile for every dollar spent. (Triple your rewards rate to 3 miles for every dollar spent by signing up for the email list; dine out 11 times a year to earn 5 miles for every dollar spent—and receive added perks while you’re at it.)

How to redeem 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.

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.

Which credit cards earn miles?

You can choose from many great airline credit card options, but we’ve rounded up a few of Bankrate’s favorites below.

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 no-annual-fee card offers more flexibility for earning rewards.

  • Rewards rate: Earn 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.

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

If you’re a frequent flyer on American Airlines, this card offers great value and lots of valuable perks, like 25 percent savings on in-flight food and beverages on American Airlines flights.

  • Rewards rate: Earn 2 AAdvantage miles for every dollar spent at gas stations and restaurants, plus 2 AAdvantage miles for every dollar spent on eligible American Airlines purchases.
  • Welcome offer: Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles once you spend $2,500 on purchases within your first three months as a cardholder.

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 at restaurants, including takeout and delivery, plus 4X points 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 amextravel.com, and 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 choosing the most valuable redemption options, your next trip could be closer than you think.

*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.