Navigating Through All Those Mileage Programs

Navigating Through All Those Mileage Programs

posted in: Blog, Travel Tips | 0

I’m sure you’ve seen the airline and credit card ads for bonus miles this and bonus miles that… what are these miles? How do you get them? Are they worth getting? I’m hoping to help untangle the confusion wrapped around different mileage programs, what they have to offer, and how you can benefit from them.

A changing economy has led to many changes in the airline industry. With the increased amount of competition, airlines want to reward loyal customers to ensure they’ll continue to fly with them and receive their business. A mileage program is a free rewards program offered by an airline where you can accrue miles and redeem them for flights, hotels, or other travel amenities.

How do I get these miles?

There are actually a bunch of different ways to accrue miles. The most basic way is to fly with your mileage program airline. Make sure you enter your mileage program number when you purchase your flight and your mileage account will be credited. No worries if you forget to enter your mileage number; most airlines will allow you to credit past flights up to a year prior. If your airline is a part of an airline alliance, you can also accrue miles by flying on one of their partner airlines. By joining an alliance, an airline partners with other airlines to expand their destinations offered, hence the term “partner airlines”. There are 3 major airline alliances: Star Alliance, Sky Team, and One World. The great thing about partner airlines is that you can fly on a partner airline and credit those miles to your main mileage account. Don’t think that you have to be limited to just your specific airline. Shop around and see if a partner airline can offer something better. So let’s say you’re planning to fly to Lima, Peru, and you have an American Airlines mileage program membership. The flights on American are more expensive and not at ideal times, but LAN Airlines has the perfect flight for your itinerary. Luckily American and LAN are partner airlines and you can accrue miles flying on LAN and have them credited to your American mileage account.

Airline partnerships aren’t limited to other airlines… they also partner with hotels, car rental companies, and cruise lines. If you are planning on needing a hotel or car for your next trip, be sure to check which ones you can get miles with. Sometimes there are special promos offered, and you can get that free breakfast buffet with your hotel stay or a free GPS with your rental car, it doesn’t hurt to check. And you’re getting miles on top of it! You don’t have to go on a vacation to earn miles either. You can also earn miles every day by joining your mileage program’s shopping or dining programs. Eat at a participating restaurant or shop online at your favorite stores and watch the miles rack up. Have a wedding coming up and need to still purchase that gift off the Macy’s registry? Luckily Macy’s is a participating store in the United Mileage Plus shopping program, which makes it easy to be credited miles for making everyday purchases.

The easiest and quickest way to earn miles is to sign up for an airline or travel rewards credit card. For each purchase made with the credit card, you get miles or points for every dollar spent. Some cards offer more miles for certain types of purchases, such as for travel or at restaurants. Most also offer introductory bonus miles if you spend a certain amount within the first few months of opening the account. If you’re thinking you can’t meet the spending minimum to get your bonus miles, think differently: you don’t need to buy new things, you just need to charge items to the card. Charge your everyday items that you already budget and pay for, like gas and groceries, even rent, to the card and pay it off immediately. You’ll meet that spending minimum and get those bonus miles in no time!

BONUS: many airline and travel rewards credit cards don’t charge foreign transaction fees. What’s a foreign transaction fee? It’s a fee that your bank charges to convert dollars into the local currency and usually costs 2-3% of the transaction. Credit cards with no foreign transactions fees are great if you plan on traveling out of the country and using your card for purchases overseas as it will save you that 2-3% on every transaction. It’s already expensive to travel, so saving money where you can is always a benefit.


Now this is where it starts to get messy… How many miles will I get?

Unfortunately there’s no uniform answer as each mileage program is different. There are 2 main ways to accrue miles when flying on an airline: distance-based and price-based. Distance-based means you will be credited miles based on the total distance flown. If you flew 5000 miles, you will have 5000 miles credited to your account. Price-based means you will be credited miles based on the price paid for a ticket. Price-based programs can also take into account your membership status and credit you bonus miles for being at a higher level. For example, according to the United Mileage Plus program, a basic member (the majority of us) gets 5x the price of a ticket credited as miles, and a Premier 1K member (think business travelers) would get up to 11x (5 base + 6 bonus) the price of a ticket credited as miles. That means if you are a basic member and purchased a $500 ticket, you would be credited 2500 miles, whereas the Premier 1K member would get 5500 miles for the same flight. This is great news for the frequent flyers that can afford more expensive tickets or have a higher membership status, but for the majority of us that fly economy and don’t fly as frequently, it will now take longer to accrue the same amount of miles than if it was distance-based. Loophole: fly on a partner airline that still offers distance-based miles and have them credited to your account! Instead of flying United, fly on Air Canada and have those miles credited to your United Mileage Plus account. More and more airlines are switching to price-based mileage, so rack up miles on those long flights before they’re gone!

The miles you get from hotels, rental cars, and cruises, also vary. Generally, the higher the category and longer your stay, the more miles you will get. Miles obtained through dining and shopping programs will vary as well. You can usually get anywhere from 2 up to 10 miles per dollar spent at stores online. Participating restaurants usually offer around 3 miles per dollar spent. Be sure to check out promos where certain hotels, rentals cars, cruises, restaurants, and stores will offer higher mileage bonuses. Using an airline or travel credit card will usually get you at least 1 mile per dollar charged. Some types of purchases, like dining and travel, can get your more miles per dollar. Want to double up on the miles? Use your airline or travel rewards credit card while participating in any of the mileage partner programs! Let’s say you are going out of town for the weekend and will get 1000 miles for staying 2 nights at a participating hotel. If you charge the hotel room to your airline or travel rewards credit card, you will not only get the 1000 miles promo, you will also get the miles for charging it to your card. If it was $400 for the 2 nights and your card gave you 2 miles per dollar charged, that would be an extra 800 miles credited to your account! Some airline credit cards will even give you mileage bonuses for using their card with their different mileage partner programs on top of the miles you would already be credited.

What can I get with all of these miles that I’ve accrued?

The majority of people will use their miles to get free flights. A roundtrip economy flight to/from the contiguous 48 states will put you back about 25,000 miles. If you want to go to Hawaii, it will be about 45,000 miles. Europe will be about 60,000 miles. If you want first-class, it’s usually about double the economy amount. Below is a chart with some popular destinations and their ballpark amount of miles for a roundtrip flight from the US. Each airline is different so be sure to check with your airline mileage program for specifics.

Economy First Class
48 Contiguous US 25,000 50,000
Hawaii 45,000 80,000
Europe 60,000 110,000
Caribbean 40,000 70,000
South America 60,000 110,000
Asia 85,000 140,000

You can also use your miles to upgrade your flight from economy to first-class. Some programs will also let you use your miles to purchase passes to the airline’s elite-only membership lounges where you can grab a drink or two and relax without having to deal with the normal stress of everyday economy travel. Mileage awards aren’t restricted to flights and airports: take advantage of the many other travel amenities offered that will accept miles as payment, from hotels to rental cars to cruises. You can ultimately get a free vacation if you have enough miles! One other thing that people tend to forget is that miles are transferrable. There is usually a transfer fee, but you can transfer miles you don’t plan on using to someone who needs them. The gift of travel is one of my favorite gifts!

So which mileage program should I enroll in?

The Big 3 airlines in the US right now are United, Delta, and American. Each is a part of their own alliance: United is with Star Alliance, Delta is with Sky Team, and American is with One World. By having an account with all 3, you will virtually be able to accrue miles from almost any airline due to the airline partnerships in each alliance. But if you’re not focusing on crediting miles to one account, it will take you longer to get that free flight. Out of the Big 3, United is price-based and Delta and American are distance-based. I used to be a big fan of United until they recently changed their program to price-based mileage. It’s made it a lot harder for me to accrue the same amount of miles that I was before they changed their policy. That leaves Delta and American… both offer distance-based accrual and have excellent airline partners that service many different parts of the globe. If you look at the list of both airlines’ partners, you’ll notice there’s an overlap: ALASKA AIRLINES. That’s right, you can fly on Delta and American flights and get miles for both, whereas if you had just Delta or American memberships, you’d only get miles for one and not the other. Alaska Airlines doesn’t overlap on all of the partner airlines, but does partner with what I think are some of the best airlines in each alliance. The other nice thing about Alaska Airlines is that you can book award travel on ANY of their partner airlines. This is a big deal because due to American Airline’s acquisition of US Airways, American is now the biggest airline in the US, maybe even the world at this point. You will have a multitude of award flight choices between Alaska, Delta, and American by having an Alaska Airlines mileage account, not to mention all of the foreign airlines like British Airways and KLM. If you had an American or Delta mileage account, your award travel could only be used on that specific airline. The only downfall of Alaska’s mileage rewards is that you can’t redeem miles for other travel amenities like hotels, rental cars, or cruises. I use my miles mainly for getting free flights, so Alaska is perfect for me. Plus they are one of the only airlines that flies to my favorite ski resort so that’s an extra bonus!

What about Southwest Airlines?

Southwest likes to do their own thing. They are not a part of any alliance and you can only book their flights through their own website. They are also a price-based mileage program so you will have a harder time accruing miles using their “Wanna get away?” prices. It doesn’t hurt to have an account with Southwest because sometimes their prices just can’t be beat, and you want to get credited for every flight that you take. One of their few partners that I’ve been able to benefit from is MGM, which has about 10 resorts in Las Vegas and a couple others scattered throughout the country. I am a frequent guest at the MGM resorts in Vegas, so I’ve been able to get a decent amount of miles credited to my Southwest account just by staying at one of the resorts.

I hope that this post has cleared up some of the confusion around mileage programs. I hope you all go out and register for a mileage account that works for you. Traveling is not always cheap, so a free flight just by accruing miles is not to be wasted. Make those miles work for you!