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How Do Frequent Flyer Miles Work? 

Airlines have recently changed how their frequent flyer miles work – sometimes in big ways. Our overview can help you keep up with frequent flyer program changes.

By Samuel Greengard | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

7 Min Read | October 1, 2021 in Money



Frequent flyer programs have undergone major changes in recent years. 

Understanding how frequent flyer miles and airline status tiers work can help you get the most from your miles. 

There are many ways to redeem your miles. You might benefit by paying for flights in order to boost your status, while using miles to “pay” for other expenses. 

The appeal of frequent flyer miles isn’t difficult to understand. As a reward for airline travel, you accrue miles that can be used as a currency to literally take you places. But these loyalty programs, introduced in the early 1980s, are undergoing major makeovers. Last year, many airlines revamped their programs and introduced new barriers to booking trips.

While frequent flyer miles remain a great way to trim your travel costs and whisk yourself off to exotic locales, they’re no longer a simple dollar-per-mile proposition. Understanding how frequent flyer miles work – from how they accumulate to how you can redeem them – can be key to maximizing your rewards. Here’s what you need to know.


How Do You Get Frequent Flyer Miles?

Once upon a time, one mile traveled equaled one mile gained in your frequent flyer program. Given recent changes, it can be tough for even the savviest frequent flyers to keep up.1 It’s impossible to outline all the changes here, but you should know that miles flown are no longer a key factor in racking up frequent flyer miles – and in some cases, they’re not factored in at all.

In one of my frequent flyer programs, for example, passengers receive between 5 and 11 miles per dollar spent for a ticket, depending on their frequent flyer program status. In addition, the less expensive the airfare, the fewer the miles you get. Premium economy, business-class, and first-class tickets push up your miles much faster. In the end, the airline combines miles, dollars spent on tickets with a co-branded credit card, and flight routes to determine what program status I achieve. My airline miles credit card expenditures allow me to push my status and benefits to a higher level than I would receive by flying alone. Check with your airline to understand how the specifics of its program work, including blackout dates and expiration dates for using rewards.

Tip: Review how recent changes in your frequent flyer program(s) affect how you earn frequent flyer miles.


How Do I Decide Which Frequent Flyer Program Is Best For Me?

Miles still matter, just not as much as before. Since the major airlines have migrated to a model that rewards higher spending with a higher program status, the frequent flyer status you achieve may or may not be all that important, depending on your travel needs and preferences. It’s typically smart to focus on one or two frequent flyer programs with the route systems and partners you need for domestic and international travel. There are three major alliances: Star Alliance, One World, and Sky Team. Moreover, you can earn miles or points in many different ways, including through hotels, online shopping malls, and dining rewards programs.

Tip: Understanding how you travel can help you find the right frequent flyer program – and help you maximize rewards. Elite status may not be as important.


How Do You Elevate Your Frequent Flyer Status?

You can reach a higher frequent flyer status by continually flying a specific airline, but the right branded airline credit card can take you places faster for three reasons. You can:

1. Get a big sign-up bonus. Some cards offer tens of thousands of bonus miles after you spend a specified amount in the first few months of opening the credit card.

2. Regularly earn miles or points. Everyday purchases at restaurants and supermarkets, for example, can add to your total miles with higher mile-earning multiples.

3. Earn status-promoting bonus points. With some credit cards, if you hit a predetermined annual spending level – say, $30,000 in purchases a year – you can get bonus points that promote you to a higher program status. These are different from the miles or points you earn toward flights.

There are many other ways to collect miles and boost your frequent flyer status. One of my favorites is to pay IRS-approved healthcare and medical bills with my branded airline credit card and then reimburse myself from my health savings account (HSA). Not only do I receive a significant tax break, but I receive miles I wouldn’t have otherwise earned. Likewise, you can “double dip” with vacation packages sold by the airline, hotels, rental cars, and more. In other words, you get to earn miles by using the card and you receive additional miles in your frequent flyer account from the merchant selling the vacation package.

Tip: Earn tens of thousands of bonus miles annually – and possibly boost your program status – by spending on a branded airline credit card and hitting key spending thresholds.


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

Frequent flyer miles aren’t all equal. Different airlines offer rewards at different mileage thresholds. What’s more, different routes, or a partner airline, may offer different mileage redemption levels. I regularly use two programs – and I see redemption levels swing wildly, based on supply, demand, and other factors. As I write this article, a basic economy flight between Portland, Oregon, and New York City a few weeks out costs as little as 14,000 miles round trip. However, I’ve seen tickets for that same flight go for upward of 50,000 miles – and hundreds of thousands of miles for international flights. For example, I’ve seen round-trip tickets to Madrid run upward of 200,000 miles for basic economy.

Generally – and particularly for international travel – the closer you are to departure, the higher the cost. To get the most out of your miles, a good starting point is to begin searching for seats between 331 and 355 days before your anticipated flight. This is when most airlines first make seats available. Also consider that airlines occasionally have travel reward sales, which may result in significant discounts on the miles you need to redeem for a given flight.

You can also use frequent flyer miles for upgrades. If you can find a highly discounted seat in economy, you may be able to use your miles/points to upgrade to premium economy or first class. This may result in a lower overall cost than redeeming the miles for a ticket or buying the ticket outright. Finally, consider a cash-and-miles approach, especially if you are a few miles short. Remember, the miles are a currency and you can treat them accordingly.

Tip: Look for opportunities to use rewards strategically. Research redeemable seats in advance, keep an eye out for sales and upgrades, and combine cash and miles if necessary.


How Else Can I Use Frequent Flyer Miles?

In some cases, you may come out ahead in the long run by paying for a ticket and, as a result, earn miles and credits toward your program status. But this doesn’t mean you can’t slash the cost of a trip. You may be able to apply existing frequent flyer miles to hotels, car rentals, lounge memberships, and other travel expenses. Depending on the airline or card issuer, you might even be able to redeem miles for merchandise and gift cards. This can include suitcases or clothing you need for a trip.

Tip: Look for on-the-ground ways to redeem your frequent flyer miles. You might be able to trim the overall cost of travel, even if you’re not flying.


The Takeaway

Frequent flyer programs increasingly use complex formulas for earning and redeeming rewards, based more on your spending than on your flying. Savvy travelers focus on navigating these programs in the most advantageous way possible, such as paying for a flight and using miles to defray other expenses. These approaches can help you maximize the value of your frequent flyer miles. 

Samuel Greengard

Samuel Greengard has traveled to 63 countries and 49 states while writing about business, technology and finance for numerous magazines and websites. He is the author of Virtual Reality (MIT Press, September 2019).


All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

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