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Airline Miles
24 Jun 2019

A Comprehensive Guide to Airline Miles: How to Use Them Wisely

Summertime brings with it daydreams of traveling to far-off sunny places, preferably with a beautiful sandy beach. But for many of us, airline tickets are too expensive to make our vacay dreams come true, and taking out an installment loan just to take a relaxing week off of work just is not an option. But what if we told you you could get free flights by doing things you already do?

Airline miles rewards programs allow you to earn free trips, hotel stays, and more just by taking other flights or spending money on a credit card. These programs can seem complicated to navigate at first, but with a little know-how, you can take the dream trip you’ve always wanted to. Read on to learn how to earn and redeem airline miles rewards points.

What Are Airline Miles

Many of us may be familiar with the concept of airline miles, but may not know exactly what they are. In essence, airline miles reward programs let you earn points to be redeemed for free flights. There are a number of different ways you can earn these points, which we’ll discuss more in depth in a moment.

Airline miles rewards programs give you a certain number of miles for every mile you fly or dollar you spend. The redeeming usually isn’t cut-and-dry – for example, an airline might give you one free round-trip domestic flight for every 20,000 miles you fly. We’ll talk more about how you can redeem those points and make the most of your earnings.

How They Started

Airline rewards miles got their start as a simple system back in the ‘80s. American Airlines decided to offer their customers a punch card-like reward system for their flights. After a certain number of flights, customers would receive a free trip.

That system evolved over time into the system of points and miles that we have today. Eventually, the airlines decided to team up with banks and offer reward miles to customers for money they were already spending. Thus were born airline rewards credit card programs.

How You Earn Them

So how do you actually go about earning these mysterious mileage points? The simplest (though not the most efficient) way is by flying; for every mile you fly, you earn points towards a free flight. As we mentioned, it’s not a one-to-one conversion rate of miles flown to miles earned.

You can also earn points by spending money on a credit card with an airline rewards program. You earn a certain number of points for every dollar spent, and those points eventually translate to miles. If you spend a lot on credit cards each month, this can be a great option for you.

Credit Card Rewards vs. Airline Rewards

Both credit card reward programs and airline reward programs have pros and cons. In general, you earn more points by flying than by spending on your credit card, though it depends on how much you use your credit card. If you travel a lot, especially for business, this may be a good route for you to go.

Credit cards typically give you fewer points per dollar than airlines do, but we spend money more often than we take trips. Some credit cards also offer points redeemable on any airline, which can be a significant advantage. It’s important to note that you only earn these points once you pay your credit card off, so you can’t rack up a bunch of debt and then take a free trip.

Other Earning Methods

There are other ways to earn airline mileage points besides flying or spending on a credit card. Some airlines offer rewards if you use certain dining programs or if you use their program as a portal to sites like Target. Others use their relationship with banks to reward customers who open investment accounts and the like.

One great way to take advantage of these alternate earning methods is if you take business trips often. When you’re traveling on your own dime, you may be trying to shop the best deals and spend the least money. But if you’re on the company dime, you can spend a little more and select dining programs and flights that offer you mileage rewards points.

How You Spend Points

So now that you’ve earned plenty of points, how do you spend them to get those free flights we’ve been going on about? As we said, the point-to-mile equivalency is not one-to-one. How many points you need to earn a free flight depends on the airline, the flight, and the date of the trip.

In addition to flight miles, you can also spend your points on other aspects of a trip. Some rewards programs will allow you to put points towards hotel rooms and other trip expenditures. You may even be able to use your points to upgrade your room or fly in a better class.

Redeeming Old Flight Miles

When you first get started on an airline rewards program, it can be discouraging to see how long you have to go until you can earn a free flight. But luckily, many rewards programs will allow you to get a head start towards reaching that goal. You may be able to redeem miles from flights you took before you signed up for the program for points.

There are a few general rules to redeeming old flights on your new rewards program. In general, the flight will have to be from the last three months or a year, depending on the program. You’ll also have to have the ticket information from the flight, so try to keep that information on hand.

Picking a Good Credit Card

If you prefer to earn your airline rewards on a credit card program, there are a few things you should look for. Take a look at which cards will work best with the spending habits you already have. You probably want to pick a rewards program that works with whatever airline flies out of your local hub.

If you have several credit card options on the table, start looking at the other benefits they provide. Many cards will offer cash back bonuses or double miles on specific purchases. Find the one that will reward you most, and make sure to book your flights through the airline website to earn your points.

Redeeming Your Miles

With the flights taken, the credit card picked, and the points earned, it’s finally time to redeem your points. You’ll have a login portal for your rewards program that will show your point accumulation and what flights are available. Look at what flights you can buy with your points and any extra costs you may have to pay, and then book your flight.

During this process, you should be aware that there are always additional stipulations. Many airlines will open only certain seats to rewards members, and you may not be able to fly on certain high-capacity travel days. Be aware that you will still have to pay taxes and fees on your flight, so it isn’t entirely free.

Ways to Optimize

There are some ways you can make your miles go further for you. In general, try at every opportunity to earn airline miles, including using many of the additional earning options we mentioned. If your program offers rewards for gift cards, purchase those and use them to pay for things you would normally use a bank card for.

You should also be flexible in your travel plans when it comes to redeeming your miles. Try to plan your trips at least eight months to a year in advance to get the cheapest flights. And be flexible about the days you can travel; leaving a day later may help you make better use of your points.

Where Not to Spend Your Points

There are a few ways to spend your points that are not good investments. In general, you want to avoid using your points to get gift cards or merchandise. You’ll get the least return per point that way, and it moves you away from free trips.

You should also avoid higher level award programs, as these can require twice the number of miles. Instead, look for the lowest possible mileage levels, often called saver awards. These may not be the nicest seats, but they’ll get you to the place you want to be just the same as first class.

Managing Multiple Programs

If you’re someone who likes to travel a lot to different areas of the country, you may want to manage several awards programs at once. One thing to keep in mind is that airlines work with different affiliate programs. For example, Delta is partnered with Virgin Atlantic and several other affiliate airlines.

The key to keeping track of multiple rewards programs and what you have earned in each is to keep everything in one secure place. Whether that’s in a Google Sheets document or on a scratch pad on your fridge, make sure you document everything. Keep up with how many points you have in which programs, as well as logins and other essential information for each.

Learn More About Airline Miles Programs

“Free” is everyone’s favorite four-letter “f” word, and airline miles are some of our favorite free things. Being able to take a trip you’ve always wanted to is an amazing feeling, especially when you’ve earned it by spending money like usual. Find an airline rewards program or credit card that works for you, and start earning your way across the globe.

If you’d like to learn more about how to make your money work harder for you, check out the rest of our site at Bonsai Finance. We offer loans, resources, and a learning center to help you make the most of your financial life. Check out our list of the best travel credit cards today.

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