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How airline miles work: The ultimate guide

Delta Airlines plane

Over here at 52 Cities, I obviously throw around terms like “frequent flier miles,” “award ticket” and “redemption” quite a bit. But what do all of those terms really mean? And more importantly—how do airline miles actually work?

In this post, I want to break down the basics for those of you who have been wondering what exactly airline miles are, how they differ from airline to airline, how to know what they’re worth and more. Ready? Let’s dive in!

HOW AIRLINE MILES WORK

Before we get to how airline miles work, let’s review what they are. In the world of “points” and “miles,” miles generally refer to the loyalty currency for a specific airline, while hotels—as well as banks that issue travel credit cards—use points (example: the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which earns Ultimate Rewards points). Southwest and JetBlue are exceptions in that they refer to their currencies as Rapid Rewards points and TrueBlue points, respectively, but they function the way airline miles do. (On the flip side, CapitalOne and Barclays are banks that uses credit card miles). 

Why is this distinction important? There are a few different ways to redeem points, depending on the type. You can transfer them to an airline partner of your choice, for example, or use them retroactively to wipe a charge from your statement. 

But with airline miles, you earn them from a specific airline and redeem your miles with that same airline, all in advance of the flight. 

EARNING AIRLINE MILES

Airlines created miles as part of loyalty programs to reward frequent fliers, and though the programs have changed immensely since their debut, flying is still a big way to earn miles today. In general, you can earn an airline’s miles by taking one if its flights or by taking a flight with one of its partner airlines, assuming you add your frequent flier number accordingly. For example, if you take an Air France flight, you can credit the miles to Delta, a partner of Air France’s under the SkyTeam alliance, by attaching your Delta SkyMiles number. 

So how many miles do you earn when taking a flight? That depends on a few factors. Some airlines will base the number of miles you earn off of how far you fly. But especially recently, a number of airlines have moved over to awarding you miles based on how much money you spend on your ticket. So even if you’re flying from New York to Thailand, you could earn more on a New York-San Francisco flight if it’s more expensive. 

Depending on the airline, you may also earn more miles if you’re in higher class of service (think business or first class vs. coach) or if you have an elite status with that airline. Finally, how many miles you earn on an airline depends on whether you’re flying on that airline’s own plane rather than a partner airline’s flight; some airlines will award you fewer miles on a partner flight than they would on one of their own flights. Wheretocredit.com is a great resource for checking!

EARNING WITH CREDIT CARDS

Of course, there are other ways to earn airline miles besides actually taking a flight. Take airline credit cards, for example: Card issuers offer travel rewards credit cards that are branded to specific airlines, such as the United Explorer Card from Chase or the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express. With these cards, you earn miles through spending, and the number of miles you earn depends both how much you spend and what you spend on. For example, the United Explorer Card awards you two MileagePlus miles for every dollar you spend on restaurants, certain hotel accommodations and United purchases, and one mile for every dollar you spend on anything else. Most of these cards come with annual fee, though there are some free options, including the American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp card.

While there are additional ways to earn airline miles, including dining out, shopping, renting cars and more, in this guide we’ll focus on the specifics of earning them through flying.

Plane after takeoff

SPENDING AIRLINE MILES

When it comes time to cash in your miles and book a flight, there are a few different methods airlines use to calculate the price of a ticket. The first is what’s called an award chart, which is a published table that tells consumers how many miles a certain route will cost. There are two main ways airlines configure their award charts: by distance and by region. British Airways, for example, bases award prices off of how far apart the origin and destination cities are in physical miles. Other airlines, such as American Airlines, breaks the world up into regions; there’s a set price from the contiguous 48 U.S. states & Canada to Europe, a set price from the contiguous 48 U.S. states & Canada to the South Pacific, etc.

Of course, a first-class ticket is going to cost more miles than a coach-class ticket, so each award chart, no matter the type, will include different prices in miles for each of the different classes. Some airlines may also have peak and off-peak pricing listed on their award charts, with routes costing more miles at more popular travel times during the year. And you’ll also find that airlines have separate award charts their partners’ flights than they do for their own flights. 

SAVER AWARDS

There’s one more thing that will affect the price in miles for your ticket, and it’s a critical one. For each class of service, you’ll usually see two or three different ticket types. And while each airline names these types differently, award travelers generally refer to the cheapest type as a “saver award.”

Unfortunately, just because you want a saver award doesn’t mean you can get one. It’s all a game of availability, and how many are out there depends on what the airline decides to make available and when. Savvy award travelers, though, will almost always target saver awards for their mileage redemptions in order to avoid overpaying, often choosing to pay cash instead if the mileage price an airline is asking is too high.

FIXED-VALUE MILES

In the world of credit card points, you’ll find fixed-value points whose value is pegged to the dollar. For example, a credit card issuer might set the value of a point to 1 cent apiece, meaning a $250 plane ticket would cost you 25,000 points. 

Some airlines, instead of determining set prices in miles for specific routes and distances, adopt a similar system, affixing their tickets’ prices in miles to their prices in cash. It works simply: If the cash price is high, the miles price is proportionally high, and vice-versa when it’s low. With airlines, though, the value isn’t entirely fixed to a specific dollar amount; with JetBlue, for example, you’ll find that if you do the math on award prices, a TrueBlue point is worth an average 1.3 cents. But with a given flight, you may see the value of a TrueBlue point inch higher or lower depending on the flight’s price in cash.

While this system is obviously much easier for consumers to wrap their heads around than an award chart with its various rules and exceptions, it doesn’t necessarily represent great value. You’ll never find a situation where the price in cash is high, but the price in miles is low, allowing you to get great value for the miles you’re spending. But on the flip side, you’ll also never have to worry that you’re “wasting” or overspending your miles, since their value is always the same!

DYNAMIC PRICING

The last methods airlines use to price their award tickets, and one that is gaining in popularity (to consumers’ detriment), is dynamic pricing. What does that mean, exactly? It’s basically a fancy way of saying that airlines use their own internal algorithm to determine mileage rates. Prices constantly fluctuate (there’s the “dynamic” part of dynamic pricing), but fliers get zero transparency when it comes to why or when. 

Airlines have said dynamic pricing helps align award fares with paid cash fares, meaning that while customers might have to pay up in miles for expensive flights, they can also save miles on flights with cheaper revenue fares. But mostly, consumers have watched mileage fares soar under dynamic pricing, sometimes seemingly with no rhyme or reason.

HOW DO FREQUENT FLYER MILES WORK? BY AIRLINE:

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s dive into specifics of the major U.S. carriers’ programs, airline by airline.

Alaska Airlines sign
Alaska Airlines signs

ALASKA AIRLINES – EARNING

Alaska’s Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program is a gem in that it still doles out miles based on how long your flight is, rather than how much you pay for it—and it’s one of the few remaining in that category. That means you can rack up miles for cheap if you find the right fares on the right Alaska-operated routes, although there are still some factors you’ll have to keep in mind.

On each Alaska flight, you’ll earn 100% of the miles flown, with the opportunity for some bonus miles, too. First-class passengers will earn 75% of the miles flown as a bonus, while economy passengers in fare classes Y or S will earn 50%. You’ll get a 25% bonus for tickets in class M or B, while those in H, Q, L, V, K, G, T, R and X will strike out in the bonus department.

That is, unless they have elite status. Alaska’s most frequent fliers, the MVP Gold 75K members, will earn 125% of their base miles as a bonus on every flight—and that’s on top of any bonus they’ve already earned from their fare class. MVP Golds will earn a 100% bonus, while MVPs will take home a 50% bonus.

While Alaska isn’t part of a major airline alliance, it does have a solid network of global partners—including Emirates, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines and British Airways, to name just a few—with which you can earn and redeem its miles. How much you’ll earn on partner flights varies, but it’s easy to check: Just head to this partner page and click on the partner icon to find an earning chart.

ALASKA AIRLINES – REDEEMING

Alaska uses an award chart, and it has different award charts for each of its various partners. And when I say different, in some cases, I mean VERY different: The airline can charge wildly different numbers of miles for different airlines flying from the same origin to the same destination! Definitely something to remember when you’re choosing a flight.

When it comes to redeeming Alaska Airlines miles, there’s also one unique (and amazing) policy you’ll want to keep in mind: Alaska offers one free stopover on each one-way award flight—and those stopovers can last days or even weeks, allowing you to see two destinations for the price of one. There are just a couple key rules to remember. First, you can’t combine partners on the one-way award ticket, although you can combine an Alaska flight with a partner flight. And second, the stopovers must occur in the hub city of the partner airline (i.e. in Hong Kong if you’re flying on Cathay Pacific). 

American Airlines checkin

AMERICAN AIRLINES – EARNING

Ah, our first money-based earning program on this list: American AAdvantage. To calculate how many miles you’ll earn on an American flight, the math is simple: Just multiply the price of your ticket—minus the taxes and fees—by 5 if you don’t have elite status, 7 if you have Gold status, 8 if you have Platinum, 9 if you’re Platinum Pro, and 11 if you’re Executive Platinum. Easy enough to figure out, but brutal for those trying to rack up miles by flying without spending the big bucks!

If you’re flying American’s partner airlines, the earnings system works the same way—but only when you book and ticket the itinerary through American. If you book a ticket on a partner’s website and add your AAdvantage number to the reservation, you’ll instead earn miles the old fashioned way, based on how long your flight is. Exactly how much you’ll earn in that scenario depends which partner airline you’re flying and what fare class you book, with lower economy classes offering less than 100% of your number of base miles. Tickets in higher fare classes, on the other hand, will earn you 100% of the base miles flown, plus what American calls a “cabin bonus.”

To calculate what you’ll earn on a partner flight, first make note of what letter fare class you’ve booked and then head to American’s list of partners. From there, you can click to pull up the chart from the partner you’re using and do the math!

AMERICAN AIRLINES – REDEEMING

While American Airlines still has award charts for both its own flights and its partner flights, unfortunately, for it’s own flights, it’s become increasingly difficult over the last couple of years to find saver space. At the lowest price in miles, the airline will often offer up only routings that make no sense geographically—i.e., offering a stop in Boston for an itinerary going between New York and Washington, D.C.—or itineraries with inordinately long layovers, often in the double-digits when it comes to length in hours. 

That said, it still is sometimes possible to find the saver award you need through American. How many miles you’ll need for your award ticket depends on whether you’re flying American or one of its partners, what region you’re flying from and to, what class of service you’re trying for and whether you’re looking for availability during peak or off-peak dates. American breaks its award chart down by region so you can clearly see what you’ll need to get from point A to point B and what the peak and off-peak dates are for any region you may be looking to travel to. Here’s its award chart for partner flights.

Delta Airlines checkin

DELTA AIR LINES – EARNING

The Delta SkyMiles program looks a whole lot like the American AAdvantage program you just read about when it comes to earning miles. Once again, to figure out how much you’ll earn on a given Delta flight, multiply the price of your ticket sans taxes and fees by 5 if you don’t have elite status, 7 if you have Silver status, 8 if you have Gold, 9 if you’re Platinum, and 11 if you’re Diamond. The multiples are exactly the same as those on American—the levels of status just have different names!

Delta’s earning system on partner airlines may look familiar, too. Like American’s, if you book a partner airline flight on Delta’s website and ticket it through Delta, the same earnings rates that apply to Delta-operated flights will apply to your partner flight. But if you book through a partner and attach your Delta SkyMiles number, you’ll earn based on the distance flown, with exact earnings figures depending on the partner, the fare class booked, and your elite status level (or lack thereof). To calculate your earnings, consult Delta’s list of partners, select the drop-down for your specific partner, and click the “mileage earn” button to access a pop-up chart.

DELTA AIR LINES – REDEEMING

Delta was the first of the three major U.S. carriers to do away with its award chart, which it did back in 2015. And these days, if you’re looking to use your SkyMiles, you’ll often find redemption rates so high they border on ludicrous. Sometimes, you’ll even see a business class ticket that costs fewer miles than an economy ticket for the same flight, leaving consumers to wonder if there’s even any logic behind the rates they see!

Luckily, you can still book Delta’s flights much more reasonably on its partner carriers, such as Virgin Atlantic (assuming you have miles in its partners’ programs). Delta has also introduced flash sales, where it’ll briefly sink redemption rates for a specific destination, allowing SkyMiles holders to get the type of value from their miles that they did back in the good old days. 

Hawaiian Airlines plane

HAWAIIAN AIRLINES – EARNING

Hawaiian Airlines’ HawaiianMiles is another program that keeps it simple when it comes to miles-earning: A mile flown is a mile earned. Buying a first-class ticket will secure you a 50% bonus, and those with Pualani Gold status get a 50% bonus in miles, too. Pualani Platinum members, meanwhile, receive a 100% bonus.

To figure out in advance how much you’ll net on a specific routing, the airline offers a handy chart on its website. No trying to figure out yourself what the distance is between two locations; it’s all right there!

Like Alaska, though Hawaiian isn’t part of a major airline alliance, it has a network of airline partners, including JetBlue, Japan Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. You can earn its miles by flying on those airlines, and Hawaiian breaks down just how much you’ll earn with each of its partners here (accrual depends on fare class).

HAWAIIAN AIRLINES – REDEEMING

Hawaiian recently jumped on the dynamic pricing bandwagon, meaning the prices of its flights in miles can vary greatly. But that doesn’t mean it completely leaves you in the dark about what to expect, as some of its peers do: It publishes a range of the redemption rates you can expect to see, and you can view it here.

It also hasn’t sent all of its award flight prices soaring; you can still find some reasonable ones!

While you can’t redeem Hawaiian’s miles to fly with all of its partners, the miles are good for flights with most of its partners, including the three mentioned above. Check out the award chart here.

JETBLUE AIRLINES – EARNING

While JetBlue TrueBlue has some attributes in common with its peers when it comes to its earnings system, it’s also got its share of fun quirks. The airline calculates how many TrueBlue points you’ll earn based on how much you pay for your flight, but it also takes into account the fare type you book and, interestingly, how you book it.

For every paid JetBlue flight, you’ll earn a base 3 points per dollar spent for booking in the Blue fare class, 4 points per dollar for booking a Blue Plus ticket, 5 points per dollar for Blue Flex and 3 points per dollar for Mint, the airline’s premium class. 

But JetBlue also incentivizes consumers to book through its own website or mobile app, as opposed to an online travel agency such as Expedia, Orbitz or even the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. If you do, you can add an additional 3 TrueBlue Points per dollar to each of the above earnings rates (meaning you’ll get 6 points per dollar on a Blue ticket, 7 points per dollar for Blue Plus, 8 points per dollar for Blue Flex and 6 points per dollar for Mint).

If you have JetBlue Mosaic elite status, you can add another 3 points per dollar spent on all paid JetBlue flights, no matter what type of fare you book. 

JETBLUE AIRLINES – MORE EARNING BONUSES

From here, things start to get even more fun. First off, you’ll earn an extra 200 points on your flight, regardless of how much you pay for your ticket, if you buy an Even More Space seat. Second, members who qualify for Mosaic status will pocket a one-time bonus of 15,000 points (see the requirements for qualifying here).

And finally, there are three bonuses you can earn based on your flight activity in a calendar year whether or not you qualify for Mosaic. They are:

  • Take 3 Bonus: Earn 5,000 bonus points when you purchase and fly three round-trip JetBlue flights in the calendar year.
  • Lucky 7 Bonus: Earn 7,000 bonus points when you purchase and fly seven round-trip JetBlue flights in the calendar year.
  • Go Long Bonus: Earn 10,000 bonus points when you purchase and fly 10 one-way JetBlue flights that are 1,600 miles or more in the calendar year.

JetBlue isn’t part of an airline alliance, but it still has substantial list of partners that includes the likes of Emirates, Hawaiian Airlines, Icelandair and Singapore Airlines. You can add your TrueBlue number to reservations with any of them to earn points, and how much you’ll earn depends on airline and booking class. JetBlue’s website features a partner page through which you can determine what you’ll earn before your flight; just click on the partner’s logo, find your booking class on the table and take a look at the “TrueBlue Point Accrual” column.

JETBLUE AIRLINES – REDEEMING

Remember when we talked about “fixed-value” currencies way up near the top of this post? JetBlue’s works more or less in this fashion. The more a flight costs, the more you’ll pay in TrueBlue points—although the ratio of dollars to points isn’t 100% fixed. In general, you can expect a TrueBlue point to be worth about 1.3 cents, although that can vary a little bit in either direction.

When it comes to partners, while you can earn TrueBlue points on flights with any of JetBlue’s partner airlines, you can only redeem your TrueBlue points on flights with one of them: Hawaiian Airlines. You’ll have to call JetBlue to make the booking, and this chart details how many points you can expect to pay for your Hawaiian flights. Unlike redeeming for JetBlue’s own flights, the redemption cost isn’t tied to a ticket’s price; it depends instead on how far away you’re coming from and whether you want to fly economy or business class.

Southwest plane

SOUTHWEST AIRLINES – EARNING

Southwest Rapid Rewards is yet another program on this list that figures how many points you’ll earn for a flight based on how much you pay for the ticket, but it also factors in which fare class you book and your elite status. If you book a Business select ticket, you’ll pick up 12 points per dollar, while an Anytime ticket will land you 10 points per dollar and a Wanna Get Away fare will reel in 6 points per dollar. Those with Southwest A-List status will see an additional 25% of the Rapid Rewards points, and those with A-List Preferred Status will gain an additional 100%. To easily see what you’d earn on a given flight, just hover over it on the Southwest search results page!

The airline is unique on this list in that it doesn’t have partner airlines, meaning Southwest’s own flights are the only flights that will earn you Rapid Rewards points.

SOUTHWEST AIRLINES – REDEEMING

Southwest works similarly to JetBlue when it comes to redeeming. When comparing the cash prices of specific tickets and their corresponding award prices, you’ll usually find that a Rapid Rewards point is worth about 1.5 cents. 

While Southwest’s lack of partner airlines hurts your options for redeeming—particularly if you’re trying to leave the country—it does have killer award ticket change and cancellation policies that keeps it in high esteem among some travelers. You can change any award flight for free, as long as you pay the difference in Rapid Rewards points between your old flight and your new flight. And if it’s gone down, you’ll actually get a refund for the difference! Cancellations are also free, and Rapid Rewards points will go straight back to your account provided you’ve canceled more than 10 minutes before your scheduled departure.

Something to note: Southwest has different points expiration rules than many of its peers. Here’s a post on how to keep Southwest points from expiring if you need to brush up!

United airlines planes at a gate

UNITED AIRLINES – EARNING

The Big 3 U.S. carriers tend to take one another’s leads, and with that in mind, it may not shock you that the United MileagePlus earnings structure looks identical to American’s and Delta’s. But here’s a refresher: If you want to know how much you’ll earn on any United flight, take the price of your ticket without taxes and fees and multiply it by 5 if you don’t have elite status, 7 if you have Premier Silver status, 8 if you have Premier Gold status, 9 if you have Premier Platinum status, and 11 if you have Premier 1K status.

Once again, partner flights will operate the same way in terms of mileage earnings if you book and ticket them through United. But if you book them through the partners themselves and add your MileagePlus number to the reservation, what you’ll earn will depend on airline and fare class. Head to this partner directory to see what exactly you’ll earn on the flight you’re eyeing. 

UNITED AIRLINES – REDEEMING

While Delta’s move toward dynamic pricing has proved unpopular with consumers, United has nonetheless decided to follow suit. It’s switching to a dynamic pricing system for all flights happening after mid-November, 2019, even if you book them beforehand. It remains to be seen whether the carrier will implement flash sales the way Delta has to keep value in its programs, but it’s something consumers are certainly crossing their fingers for. 

In the meantime, United has kept its award charts for partners, so you can still use your MileagePlus miles to lock in award-chart rates on flights with fellow Star Alliance carriers. 

To learn more about frequent flier miles and how they can help you travel for free, check out the 52 Cities free resource library. Also be sure to register for an upcoming points and miles masterclass!

CHECK OUT THESE POSTS FOR MORE ON EARNING AND USING AIRLINE MILES:

How to build airline miles
How to earn airline miles without a credit card

I hope this post clears up some of the mystery around how airline miles work! Do you have any other questions about using airline miles? Let me know in the comments! >>

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How airline miles work
How airline miles work: everything you need to know
Airline miles: How to earn and use them

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