Getting Started With Miles — Flying

I hear it from people all the time:  “I can’t earn enough miles to do anything!”

Well, what these people generally don’t know is that there are a myriad of ways to earn miles.  And odds are, they don’t know how to effectively redeem miles in a way that offers the maximum value for those miles.  There are so many ways to earn frequent flier miles, and I try to maximize my earning to the greatest extent as possible.  In future posts, I will highlight various ways to earn more airline miles with a variety of frequent flyer programs.  Furthermore, I will detail some tricks of the trade for getting the most out of your miles.  Redeeming miles takes a keen understanding of each airline’s award charts in order to maximize the value of your hard-earned miles.  With that being said, each airline has its own caveats and “sweet spots” that one can exploit for maximum value.

In this post, I will detail what one should do, at minimum ensure that they’re getting credit for the miles that they’re actually flying.

In order to begin the whole mileage game, one needs to start with the basics:

  • Establish frequent flier accounts on the airlines that you typically fly
  • Track your miles online with a spreadsheet or an online resource such as AwardWallet.com
  • Remember:  Not all miles are equal!  Miles are only as valuable as the costs at which they can be redeemed – some programs offer much more lucrative value propositions than others.
  • Always credit your flights to a frequent flyer account – even if it’s not your primary program.  Every little bit of miles count.
  • Know your airline partners and alliances and try to stick to the airlines who partner with your primary carrier.
  • It is helpful to have a goal – what do you want to accrue miles for?  A first class trip to Europe?  A round-trip to San Francisco?  Knowing what, exactly you’re gunning for can help you focus on which airline best suits your needs.  For example, if your goal is for overseas, international travel, Southwest is probably not the airline for you, since you cannot redeem Southwest miles for travel outside the US, Mexico, and the Caribbean.  It is; however, an excellent option if domestic travel is your goal.
  • Know that redeeming miles is an art itself.  Every airline frequent flyer program features a different award chart, and has its own little caveats.

To figure out your strategy, it’s important to know how often you plan on flying.  If you fly enough to achieve elite status (generally at least 25,000 miles per year), then  it would be beneficial to pinpoint one airline where you focus your flying.  Elite status on airlines generally carries with it benefits such as priority boarding, no baggage fees, complimentary upgrades, and reduced fees for other services.  If you’re going fly enough during a calendar year to earn elite status, you should:

  • Try to stick to one airline’s mileage program.  Your hometown airport may have a significant say as to which airline you choose.
    • The major airlines in the US with connections to major, global alliances are:
      • United (Star Alliance)
      • Delta (Sky Team)
      • American (OneWorld)
      • US Airways (Star Alliance until November, and then OneWorld).
  • Know your airline partners and alliances and try to stick to the airlines who partner with your primary carrier.  For example, if you’re a United frequent flier, credit your miles to United when flying partners like Lufthansa, US Airways, or ANA.

If you are an occasional traveler, it makes more sense to simply hunt for the cheapest fares available on any airline.  You should still credit these flights to each individual airline’s frequent flier program, but since you aren’t trying to achieve status with an airline, the carrier does not matter as much — you just want to travel for cheap.  A good starting point would be my previous post on hunting for cheap airfares.

These are merely some tips to get you started.  In my next series of blog posts, I will detail some strategies for increasing your mileage balance through a variety of ways, including miles arbitrage, credit card sign ups, spending habits, and more.  Of course, I will also cover ways to derive maximum value from these miles.