How Do Airline Miles Work?


Discovering the ins and outs of airline miles is really a game when you get down to it. As with any game, it can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be — it just depends on your understanding and comfort level.

beach in Thailand

There are many hacks and how-to manuals out there about ways to earn airline miles and how to use them effectively. But if you’re just getting started, we’ll give you an easy-to-understand introduction to the concepts and basics of airline points and miles.

Once you’ve mastered the basics outlined here, you’ll quickly become savvier with travel rewards.

What are airline miles?

Airline miles have a few different names, and you may be confused about which one you actually want at this point in the game.

Don’t worry! Whether you read about airline miles, frequent flyer miles, credit card miles, or travel points, you’re basically reading about the same thing.

Airline miles are a type of loyalty program. Airlines and credit cards offer them to customers to encourage future business. You accumulate miles by either flying or using your credit card to make purchases. Once you have bought enough or flown enough, the airline miles you’ve accrued can then be put towards an actual ticket.

Airline Miles Aren’t Physical Miles Traveled

When you get airline miles through an airline, those ‘miles’ don’t equate to the actual number of miles you’ve flown. If they did, each ticket bought would get you another ticket back home for free, which wouldn’t be a very good business model for airlines. Even though they’re called “miles,” they should actually be thought of as points.

Quick example: a flight from New York to San Francisco is roughly a 2,570-mile trip. When you fly it, you accrue that many miles towards your account.

But getting a free flight for the same two destinations requires roughly 20,000 airline miles for most types of rewards programs. That means you would have to fly four round trips before you could get your coveted free ticket.

Airline Rewards

With airline rewards, you earn airline points or miles through a specific airline just by flying with them and signing up for their frequent flyer program. The number of airline miles obtained will be recorded on your account. After a certain amount of trips, you can redeem accumulated miles through that airline or one of its affiliates.

Hello Kitty airplane

Most airlines are part of an alliance which means you can use your miles to fly on any of airlines in that alliance.

The three biggest alliances are Oneworld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance. If you follow the links to their websites, you can see which airlines are part of their alliance.

Most airline miles don’t expire as long as you have an open and active account. To keep most accounts active you just have to not close them.

If you sign up for an account after you’ve flown with that airline, it is possible to get the miles from old flights, but the grace period depends on the airline itself.

Some will give you three months, whereas others will give you up to a year. Don’t forget to do this! Once the grace period is gone, no amount of time on the phone will get you those airline miles in your account.

Hotel Rewards

It’s worth noting that hotels have similar loyalty programs to airlines. You can earn points by staying at hotels and also by using hotel credit cards.

So, what does that have to do with airline miles? Well, some of the hotels are partnered with airlines and you can actually transfer your hotel points to airline miles. The versatility of hotel credit cards is something to consider when shopping for a best rewards credit card.

Credit Card Rewards

Credit card rewards are awarded to you when you use credit cards towards certain purchases and then pay off the balance on the card. Most rewards credit cards give you a certain amount of credit card miles per dollar spent. For example, if a credit card offers 3 miles for every dollar you spend, and your meal costs $10, you would earn 30 miles.

The best credit cards offer sign-up bonuses if you are able to spend a certain amount within a specific timeframe, usually the first three months.

There are three types of rewards credit cards:

  • Credit cards that work on any airline.
  • Credit cards that allow you to transfer to a group of their partner airlines.
  • Credit cards that are specific to a single airline (referred to as airline credit cards.)

Airline Credit Cards

An airline credit card typically offers one or more of the following:

  • Priority check-in
  • Upgraded seating
  • Complimentary checked bag
  • Entry into a VIP lounge

Most people will use their airline credit card and rewards credit card a lot more than they fly. It’s much easier for them to earn airline miles that way than by flying. You can redeem credit card miles and miles from flying towards the same ticket.

Many travel credit cards have an annual fee after the first year. So, make sure your benefits outweigh the cost.

3 Types of Credit Card Miles

There are three types of travel credit cards on the market right now that offer credit card miles. The types are:

  • Fixed-Value
  • Transferable
  • Co-branded

Let’s take a look at each one.

Fixed-Value Credit Card Miles

Fixed value travel cards are known amongst travel gurus as the “no-surprise” travel card. You always know what you’re going to get. Amazing rewards are never going to come your way, but you’ll always have the ability to book any flight and earn miles doing so.

With this type of credit card, redemption values are usually 1¢ per mile — 1,000 miles would equal $10, 10,000 miles would equal $100, and 100,000 would equal $1,000.

Easy math, right?

The problem with this type of credit card is that they will never really give you any amount of freedom. If you redeem your credit card miles for their cash value equivalent, and you’ll never really come out ahead. To get your pair of wings, you’ve got to take it to the next level.

Here’s an example. Say a business class ticket from the U.S. to Europe costs around $4,000. The point value equivalent of such a ticket is around 60,000 credit card miles.

If you have that amount of credit card miles but were to cash them in, you would only get $600. If you want to take it to the next level, transfer your points to an airline rewards program where they can be redeemed for much more.

Transferable Credit Card Miles

A transferable travel credit card allows the user to obtain awards from different partners and alliances.

Airline awards with a transferable credit card don’t always correspond to the actual monetary value of the ticket. This means that it’s quite possible to get what would otherwise be an expensive first-class ticket for not many points.

The major difference between a transferable credit card and a fixed rate travel card is that you still earn credit card miles with a fixed-rate card when you redeem fixed miles.

This isn’t the case with transferable travel credit cards, where you’re transferring your credit card miles to the airline’s frequent flyer program. If you’re flexible in how you fly and when you fly, this can be a powerful credit card to have.

Co-branded Points or Miles (Hotel Points and Airline Miles)

A co-branded travel card is a credit card that has partnered with a particular airline or hotel. The disadvantage of this type of card is that you can’t transfer your points to another partner.

That being said, there are plenty of perks. For example, you can check in your bags for free, enjoy lounge access, and can sometimes enjoy a two-for-one ticket if you spend over a certain amount within the calendar year.

How to Pick the Best Travel Credit Card

Even if you aren’t a frequent flyer yet, you should have a frequent flyer account with the airline you hope to use one day. There’s no reason not to — after all; they’re free.

Next, if you do fly a lot, choose a credit card that offers a great sign up bonus. But, before you choose, make sure you pick the one that actually aligns well with your spending habits.

5-star hotel in Hawaii

For the most part, the best airline credit card will be the one with the airline that flies to the places you travel to the most frequently. Again, if you live in New York and frequently travel to San Francisco for work or family, then getting a card that partners with Virgin America would be a smart idea.

However, if you don’t have predictable flight patterns, then a card that works with many different airlines, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, is worth your consideration. American Express, Capital One, and Marriott Bonvoy also have some great credit cards that can be used with many different airlines.

Lastly, if you can’t narrow down your options, then go with the card that offers you the most bonuses. Some cards will give you double points if you buy certain types of things.

Citi Prestige, for example, doubles your points whenever you dine out. So if you’re not the type of person to stay at home and cook, then it would be a very wise choice.

See also: Chase Ultimate Rewards: How to Travel for Free by Using Chase Credit Cards

How do you redeem airline miles?

Redeeming miles is extremely easy. This is the least complicated part about airline miles.

  1. Go online to the airline you would like to book a flight through.
  2. Put in your rewards number and search for the flight you’d like to take.
  3. A screen will pop up and tell you how many miles you’ll need to have already flown to book a flight for free.
  4. Order your plane ticket.

As you might expect, that’s a very rudimentary explanation. There are some things you’ll need to keep in mind when redeeming points.

For starters, airlines only set aside a certain amount of seats per flight for frequent flyer passengers — meaning airlines give passengers who are paying cash top priority.

What this also means is that you will have to be flexible about when your plane departs. Major holidays limit the number of seats available to frequent flyers, making it harder to redeem points during peak times of the year.

And lastly, tickets are never completely free. You’ll always have to pay whatever taxes and fees go along with the ticket. The fees you have to pay depend on the airline and flight you want to take.

For example, some airlines charge a fee to travelers booking the flight at the very last minute. Check ahead of time to make sure your savings are still worth any potential extra costs.

Other Ways to Earn Airline Miles

  • Some banks offer miles to new customers for opening up an account. Depending on the bank and the type of account (such as an investment account), the miles can be a lot. Fidelity is a big one that a lot of flight gurus recommend because they’ve been known to give 50,000 bonus miles for certain types of new accounts.
  • Some airline dining programs give points, such as United MileagePlus Dining, where you can earn up to 5,000 miles.
  • A lot of airlines give miles if you use their programs as portals to major retailers, such as Walmart or Target.

With so many options and strategies for earning miles, your next trip is sure to be an affordable adventure.

Happy travels!

Lauren Ward
Meet the author

Lauren is a Crediful writer whose aim is to give readers the financial tools they need to reach their own goals in life. She has written on personal finance issues for over six years and holds a Bachelor's degree in Japanese from Georgetown University.