How Do Credit Cards Airline Miles Work?

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You save up all year to take your family on a vacation. But it just seems to take so long and the tickets keep getting more expensive. Isn’t there a better way? We’re going to show you how to earn airline miles quickly so you can save money by booking your next vacation with those miles.

How Do Airline Miles Work?

Airline miles and loyalty programs were created as a way to get people to fly more with the same airline. Each carrier wants you to fly with them, so they offer customers miles that can be used toward free flights and elite status.

Frequent travelers love the ability to earn perks like free upgrades, access to lounges and special treatment when they fly. Airlines love these travelers because they provide a consistent source of revenue.

Each airline has specific rules about how to earn airline miles and how to redeem them for flights. But, overall, the process is the same. You earn miles from flying or doing other activities, like making purchases with a co-branded airline credit card. When you’ve earned enough miles, you can then redeem them for flights.

How Do You Earn Airline Miles?

The most basic way to earn airline miles is to buy a plane ticket and fly somewhere. However, this process is both time consuming and expensive! Some people are lucky enough to have work pay for their flights to earn miles, then they redeem them for personal trips. But that’s not the majority of us.

There are easier, cheaper, and faster ways to earn miles instead of flying.

It all starts with signing up for the loyalty program of your favorite airline. I’d recommend opting-in to their newsletters so that you can receive the latest offers and promotions from the airlines and their partners.

Earn with Airline and Travel Credit Cards

Getting a credit card of your favorite airline is the quickest way to earn a lot of miles. Most airlines offer sign-up bonuses of 40,000 to 50,000 miles at a time. That’s enough miles to get one or two free round-trip tickets. Visit this page for our latest list of the best travel credit cards.

Shopping Portals

Everyone shops online these days. But did you know that you can earn additional travel rewards or cash back on your purchases just by going through a shopping portal?

We’ve assembled the best miles, points and cashback offers on our shopping portal page. Simply type which store you want to shop at and our RewardExpert Shopping Tool will show you the most lucrative rewards and cashback offers available.

Hotels, Rental Cars and Other Partners

Airlines also partner with hotels, rental car companies and other businesses so you can earn miles. When you visit the website of your favorite airline, they’ll provide a list of the airlines and hotels that they partner with.

In most cases, you can earn airline miles from the major rental car companies like Hertz and Avis. The longer you rent and the better the car, the more miles you will generally earn.

Hotels establish partnerships with airlines as well. For example, Delta Air Lines travelers can earn 500 miles for every stay at Hyatt or Radisson hotel and 2 miles for every dollar spent with Marriot and SPG. Hotel stays are not very lucrative, so I don’t let airline partnerships dictate where I’ll be staying.

I’ve seen opportunities to earn airline miles for completing surveys, signing up for cell phone service and even having the right utility company. Take a few moments to review the website of your favorite airline:

Going Out to Eat

When you go out to eat, this is a great opportunity to stack opportunities to earn miles and cash back. Of course, you’re going to earn miles from your credit card when paying for your meal. But are you using a credit card that offers a bonus for restaurants and dining?

No matter which credit card you have, make sure you register for your favorite airline’s dining rewards program. When you dine at participating restaurants, you’ll earn additional miles based on the amount you spend on your bill.

And for the triple threat, sign up for additional cash back through Dosh Cash Back. I’ve been using them for over a year and love earning 5% to 10% cash back on my meals whenever I eat at participating restaurants.

At the right restaurants, I’ll be earning 3x travel rewards on my meal from my credit card, additional miles from dining rewards and cash back from Dosh. This triple play accelerates the ability to book more free flights for my family!

How Can You Use Airline Miles to Book a Flight?

Now that you’ve earned some airline miles, it’s time to book a free flight. The process is very similar to booking a cash flight. You enter the dates you want to travel, where you want to fly from and to, and how many people are flying with you.

You’ll be provided an array of choices based on the class of service (Economy, Business or First), number of stops and departure time. The price in miles will vary based on your answers to these questions.

How Many Miles Does It Take to Get a Free Flight?

Every airline is a little different. There are airlines like American, Delta and United that charge a flat price for the ticket, regardless of how much it would cost when paying cash. And then there are airlines like JetBlue and Southwest that are revenue-based, meaning that the number of miles or points required to book is directly related to the cash price.

American Airlines standard award for an Economy domestic one-way flight ranges from 20,000 to 30,000 miles. If you can find “SAAver” award space, the ticket is only 12,500 miles each way. American Airlines cardholders can save up to 7,500 miles on round-trip flights to or from select destinations each quarter.

Delta Air Lines prices all of their rewards based on a round-trip flight. They stopped providing a standard award chart a couple of years ago. Instead, they dynamically price their tickets based on demand, time of year and miles flown. You can often find round-trip domestic flights ranging from 25,000 to 40,000 miles.

JetBlue Airlines points are worth 1.4 cents per point. If a flight costs $280, then the “free” flight would cost 20,000 points.

Southwest Airlines offers tickets in three classes, even though they only offer Economy seating. For their most popular (and affordable) ticket class, known as Wanna Get Away, the flights require approximately 70 points per $1. The price will vary based on demand and time of year. For example, a one-way flight that has a cash price of $100 would require 7,000 points.

United Airlines award travel is priced based on one-way flights. Standard Economy domestic flights are 25,000 to 32,500 miles each way, but you can book “saver” award flights for 12,500 each way. For flights less than 700 miles, you can book flights for only 10,000 miles each way.

The Problem With Airline Miles

As you can tell, booking a ticket with airline miles can be pretty confusing sometimes. There are many different rules to follow and to try to memorize. Even the experts can get confused.

Many airlines limit the number of seats available when redeeming miles for free flights. If you’re traveling as a family, you might be able to find flights for part of your party, but not everyone. My suggestion is to book one-way flights using awards to ensure you’re all on the same flight. Then use a combination of cash and your remaining miles to book the rest of your trip.

If you earn miles with one airline, you cannot redeem them on another airline. Often, another airline is cheaper or has space available when your airline doesn’t. It’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out.

Is There a Better Way?

With all of these rules and restrictions, no wonder people get frustrated and want to give up on airline miles. Don’t give up! People fly using airline miles all of the time. We travel 10 to 20 times per year, and my family primarily uses airline miles when we fly.

But, given how difficult airline miles can be, a lot of people are turning to credit cards that are more flexible. Two of my favorites are the Discover it Miles and the Capital One Venture cards.

These cards earn rewards that can be used to book any flight on any airline. You’re not limited to one specific airline. You don’t need to worry if the airline will let you redeem your points. All you need to do is buy the plane tickets you want using the Discover it Miles or Capital One Venture credit card, then redeem your points for the charges. Simple as that.

No wonder these cards are so popular, right?

How Do I Start Earning Free Flights?

If you’re ready to start earning airline miles, the first step is figuring out which airline you want to go with. Our RewardExpert Trip Tool will help you pick an airline based on where you’re flying from and where you want to travel. For travelers who already have a favorite airline, review our favorite travel credit cards to see what the latest offers are.

Once you apply and get approved, register your credit card for dining rewards and cash back to earn additional miles and cash back. Then be sure to use your new credit card whenever you shop online.

By following these simple steps, you’ll have enough miles for your free flight in no time. Let us know in the comment section below where you are planning to fly for free with your miles. We’d love to help you get there!