Since they first took off more than 30 years ago, frequent flyer programs have undergone as many changes as the airline industry itself. While it’s still possible to reap some major rewards—or to waste time collecting points you’ll never use—today’s programs look very different from those of even a few years ago.
A huge shift, notes Brian Kelly, who calls himself “The Points Guy” and runs the website ThePointsGuy.com, has been in the way many airlines now calculate their rewards. Often called a “revenue-based model,” it rewards travelers for the amount of money they spend rather than the miles they fly. In other words, frequent flyer programs are becoming serious spender programs.
That can be a good thing or a bad one depending on the type of traveler you are. If you typically fly in economy class, you’re likely to benefit less than before. On the other hand, Kelly says, “just a couple of trips a year in a premium class of service” could mean many thousands of miles added to your account.
With two-thirds of Americans saying they plan to resume travel in 2021, you may be interested in the best ways to save money on flights. Though there may be more changes on the horizon, here are some of today’s best ways to earn airline miles.
- Earning frequent flyer miles can land you free flights, upgrades, and other travel perks.
- The most basic way to earn points is to fly often and with the same carrier.
- You can earn points without flying by signing up for a rewards credit card and using it and shopping with program partners.
1. Focus on Where You Fly
You’re most likely to earn enough points to actually get something in return if you concentrate on just a couple of airlines that ply the routes you expect to fly. For instance, it’s better to have 100,000 points with one carrier than 10,000 each with 10, unless you're able to transfer points or miles between programs on a 1:1 basis.
Note, too, that points may expire if your account is inactive for a certain period (typically 18 months). You’ll need to monitor any account you open or risk losing your miles—another reason to keep the number manageable.
2. Consider Airline Partners
Many airlines belong to networks of domestic and foreign carriers, such as Oneworld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance. These organizations, which you become part of by signing up for a member airline’s frequent flyer program, allow you to earn, combine, and redeem miles on any partner airline.
Again, which of these you might want to become part of will depend on the airlines you primarily fly. Their partners are listed on their sites, which can help you see determine at a glance which airline frequent flyer programs to enroll in.
3. Get a Points or Miles Bonus
To entice you to sign up for credit cards co-branded with airlines, credit card issuers frequently offer bonus miles, sometimes enough for a reward all by themselves. Of course, that’s in the big print on their promotions. In the smaller print, you’ll find the terms. For example, some require you to spend a certain amount of money within a certain time to get travel rewards.
Most frequent flyer programs are free to join, so there’s no harm in signing up for a flock of them. If you sign up for a miles credit card, you may earn initial bonus miles, but your card may carry an annual fee in addition to typical credit card interest and charges.
Alina Comoreanu, a research analyst with the finance website WalletHub.com, says that these cards are attractive if you are planning a big trip in the near future and already expect to spend a certain amount of money. Bear in mind that they often have hefty interest rates—16.5% or higher is common. So, unless you pay your bill off each month, you need to weigh the value of your bonus against the interest charges.
4. Choose the Right Credit Card
Using a rewards credit card for all of your purchases (and paying it off each month) can be another way to rack up enough miles for a reward. There are two basic types of cards to consider: the co-branded cards affiliated with an airline and more general rewards cards that offer an assortment of awards, including airline miles.
“The main difference between the cards would be that the airline-affiliated cards are more rewarding when used with said airline, while the generic one offers a larger spectrum of redeeming options,” Comoreanu says.
For example, the more general rewards cards typically allow you to use your miles on a variety of airlines, rather than just one. If you know you’re unlikely to use your miles for travel, you can redeem them for other things, including cash. “Straight up cashback is always more reliable,” Comoreanu says. “Points can devalue easily and customers may find themselves receiving less than when they first applied for the card.”
When choosing a rewards card for travel or everyday spending, pay attention to both how you can earn rewards and how you can redeem them. Consider the redemption value you may get when using rewards for travel versus other redemption options.
5. Dine Out
Another good way to pile up points and keep them from expiring is to link your credit card to a frequent flyer plan’s dining program, Kelly notes. When you charge a meal on that card at a participating restaurant, you’ll earn points based on the size of the tab.
You could also earn points or miles toward flights on other dining purchases when you use a general travel rewards card. When using a rewards card to pay for meals, be sure to pay attention to credit card merchant category codes to ensure that you're getting the most number of miles or points possible for those purchases.
6. Use Shopping Portals
Many airlines also have shopping portals on their frequent-flyer websites. By going to that page first and clicking through to a participating merchant, you can earn points on your purchases.
Keep in mind, however, that spending through a shopping portal just to earn miles or points could backfire. If you're carrying a balance on your card month to month, the value of any additional travel rewards you're earning could be negated by the interest you pay.
The number of miles civil engineer David Phillips earned after purchasing $3,150 worth of pudding (12,150 cups, which he donated to the Salvation Army and local food banks), taking advantage of an unusual and ill-conceived mileage-earning promotion.
Yes, you can still earn miles by flying, a fact easily overlooked among all the other ways to earn them. Because of the move to revenue-based programs, a costly ticket may get you more miles than a cheap one, even if the latter’s route covers a greater distance. That, of course, is rarely a good reason to spring for a crazy high fare, especially if you’re the one paying the bill.
The value of miles varies from airline to airline, but figure they’re worth about a penny apiece on average. That makes it pretty easy to compare fares and do the math.
Airline frequent flyer programs can also allow you to buy miles but before you do, calculate what you'll pay to make sure it's worth it.
The Bottom Line
Frequent flyer programs are changing to reward high rollers, but there are still ways to earn miles without overpaying for them. Understanding how to earn miles versus cash back, and choosing the right rewards credit card, can help you rack up free flights that much faster.