I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

I’m reprinting this post today because tomorrow (Saturday August 21, 2015) at 10:33 AM ET, I will be on the Rudy Maxa’s World radio show talking about segment-by-segment searching. You can listen live here.

This is a post about the main process I use every day to search for awards.

In an ideal world, you collect the right frequent flyer miles for the trip you want, go straight to the website of the airline whose miles you have, search for award space, and your dream trip pops up.

Airlines use frequent flyer miles to give away seats they don’t expect to sell otherwise, though, which means your ideal itinerary might not have award space if it’s at a popular time on a popular route. In fact, no itineraries with award space may show up on your search.

Just because nothing shows up on an airline search engine doesn’t mean no award itinerary is available.

When a simple search produces no result, you need to move on to segment-by-segment searching.

The idea is that just typing where you live and where you want to go into an airline’s award search engine may not reveal Saver award space even when there is a legal, possible award. Searching segment-by-segment–starting with the hardest segment–can yield itineraries that the search engine missed.

In this post I’ll give a step-by-step example of how I used segment-by-segment searching to find award space between San Francisco and London when united.com didn’t show any award space.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.29.52 PM

  • What are the six simple steps to search segment-by-segment?
  • What popular non-travel website is your secret weapon in segment-by-segment searching?

The Six Steps to Segment-By-Segment Searching

There are six steps to an effective segment-by-segment search:

  1. Simple search
  2. Wikipedia
  3. Hardest segment search
  4. Home-to-gateway search
  5. Gateway-to-destination search
  6. Call in to book

Example: Find Saver economy award space from San Francisco to London, departing July 10, 2014 (this is an old example that I’m reprinting, no need to reinvent the wheel) with United miles for two passengers

1. Simple Search

There’s no need to start by searching segment-by segment. Maybe a simple home-to-destination search will bring up award space. I searched united.com for two passengers from San Francisco to London and found no Saver economy award space on July 10.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.28.09 PM

2. Using Wikipedia

I use Wikipedia to research possible routings. In this case, I pulled up the London-Heathrow page and looked for Star Alliance flights between Heathrow and North America since United miles can book flights on all 27 Star Alliance airlines. Here are some flights to consider:

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.58.42 PM Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.58.56 PM

3. Search the Hardest Segment

Search for the hardest-to-find segment first. This is usually going to be the longhaul flight. In this case, I need to find transatlantic award space first and then award space to and from that flight later.

It turns out that both Vancouver and Calgary had award space almost every day this summer in economy for two passengers to London.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.27.43 PM

The Calgary flight leaves at 6:30 PM. I need to note this to figure out what the best flight to get to Calgary from San Francisco is.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.29.28 PM

4. Home-to-Gateway Search

In this case, the home-to-gateway search is very easy. The transatlantic flight left Calgary every day in July at 6:30 PM with award space, so I just needed to find a day with a flight from San Francisco to Calgary that lands before 6:30 PM and had economy award space. Here was the award calendar for direct flights from San Francisco to Calgary in July.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.29.08 PM

There was economy award space on July 10 that landed in Calgary at 11:53 AM, six-and-a-half hours before the transatlantic flight.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.28.57 PM That layover is not ideal, but if it is the only way to get from San Francisco to London for 30k United miles, it might be something to consider.

5. Gateway-to-Destination Search

In this case, this step is not necessary because we have already found award space all the way to London, our destination. But imagine if the destination were Split, Croatia instead.

In that case, we’d need to find economy award space from London to Split that lined up with our first two flights.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 3.55.38 PM

6. Call the Airline to Book

The last step is to book the award by calling the airline whose miles you want to use, United in this example.

(In fact, I would first put the transatlantic segment on hold using this trick, and then call United at 800-UNITED-1 to add the San Francisco to Calgary flight, and ticket the award.)

Bottom Line

No matter where you’re going and what miles you’re using, the same segment-by-segment searching principles apply.

Practice and master this lesson, and you can be an expert award booker.

If you don’t want to mess with searching this way or can’t seem to find the award you want for your dream trip, you can hire my Award Booking Service to search and book awards with any airline program. We have the expertise to search all award partners, to minimize or eliminate fuel surcharges, and to maximize comfort.

Bonus

Here are two recent real award searches in which I used these principles.

  1. How I Booked My Friend an Award Home from Europe When There Was “No” Award Space
  2. Anatomy of an Award: Honolulu to Bogota in Business Class for 27,500 Asiana Miles. This one is interesting because I didn’t search segment-by-segment to find award space as much as I searched segment-by-segment to find award space on the exact routing I wanted.

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Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 2.52.22 PM

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the tenth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Where We Are and Where We’re Going

We’re in the section on redeeming miles. Once you understand how to redeem miles, you’ll understand which miles are right to earn for your travel goals. This post will focus on Delta miles, which are useful for a number of awards especially now that one way awards are allowed and award space has improved in 2015.

Why Collect British Airways Avios?

British Airways Avios are very often the best miles to book short, direct, economy flights.

I like international First Class as much as the next guy, but sometimes I just want to fly from Los Angeles to Hawaii or Hong Kong to Tokyo or Chicago to Dallas.

British Airways Avios are completely different than the other major types of miles like United and American miles.

While most major airline miles are region-based, Avios are distance-based.

Different equals more valuable when it comes to miles because it opens up different types of high value awards.

  • What airlines can you fly with British Airways miles?
  • What are the routing rules for British Airways awards (stopovers, open jaws, free one ways)?
  • What are the special features of the Avios program?
  • How can you book a British Airways award?

Mileage Price

British Airways charges a price for each segment of your award. The number of Avios–BA’s silly name for its miles–is determined by only two things: the distance of the segment and the cabin of the segment.

British Airways increased the number of Avios needed for Business and First Class awards yesterday. Here is the new award chart:

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 1.00.40 PM

If your award is more than one segment, figure out the price of each segment from the chart above and sum the prices of each flight.

The prices for the shortest flights in economy are unbeatable.

Partners

British Airways is a member of oneworld. That means you can use Avios on all these airlines:

  • American Airlines
  • US Airways
  • airberlin
  • British Airways
  • Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong)
  • Finnair
  • Iberia (Spain)
  • Japan Airlines
  • LAN (Chile and Peru)
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Qantas (Australia)
  • Qatar Airways
  • Royal Jordanian
  • S7 Airlines (Russia)
  • SriLankan Airlines
  • TAM Airlines (Brazil)

British Airways also has two partners that are not a part of oneworld. You can also redeem miles to fly these airlines:

  • Aer Lingus (Ireland)
  • Alaska Airlines (Western US, Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico)

Routing Rules? What Routing Rules?

You pay a price for each flight depending on its cabin and distance.

Since you are paying for each flight, you can think of each flight as its own award. That means you can combine the individual flights however you want.

Stopovers & Open Jaws

You can stopover after every city on an Avios award if you’d like. You just pay for each segment based on distance and cabin regardless of the length of your stopover.

When each flight has its own price, you can have as many open jaws as you’d like.

Free One Ways

Free one ways are impossible on British Airways awards. There is no way to get a free segment. You pay for each segment based on distance and cabin.

Special Features of the Avios Program

Cash & Avios awards allow you to use fewer Avios by paying more cash for your award. Different awards offer different Cash & Avios prices.

Check out my full Cash & Avios analysis here because sometimes these awards are a phenomenal value.

Taxes, Fees, and Fuel Surcharges

Taxes

British Airways awards require you to pay the government taxes associated with the itinerary.

These start at $5.60 each direction for domestic awards and go up to $300 if you fly to a high tax country. Generally international awards have roundtrip taxes of $50 to $150.

Fees

Phone Fee: There is a fee of $25 per passenger to make a phone booking. Aer Lingus and Alaska Airlines flights have to be booked by phone, and I have had success getting phone agents to waive this fee when I have to book by phone.

Changes: There is a $55 date/time change fee per ticket.

Cancellation: There is a $55 cancellation fee per person to get your Avios redeposited. However, in my experience, if your award had taxes/fuel surcharges of less than $55, British Airways will just keep what you paid out of pocket and give you your miles back. That means that the cancellation fee is effectively $5.60 for a domestic one way award since $5.60 is the total out of pocket on those awards.

Full details on British Airways’ award fees can be found here.

Fuel Surcharges

British Airways collects massive fuel surcharges on almost all partners. Notable exceptions include American Airlines flights within the Western Hemisphere, Alaska Airlines flights, Aer Lingus flights, Niki flights, and airberlin flights.

For full details, check out When Does British Airways Add Fuel Surcharges to Avios Awards?

How to Book British Airways Awards

All partners except Aer Lingus and Alaska Airlines are bookable on ba.com. Here’s how to search ba.com.

Aer Lingus and Alaska Airlines can be booked by calling British Airways at 800-AIRWAYS. Alaska Airlines space can be searched on aa.com before calling. Aer Lingus space can be searched on Expert Flyer before calling.

If you can’t seem to find the award you want for your dream trip, you can hire my Award Booking Service to search and book your British Airways awards, probably as part of a larger trip with other awards using other miles. We have the expertise to search every British Airways partner to maximize convenience and luxury while minimizing out-of-pocket cost.

Bottom Line

British Airways are unbeatable for:

  • short
  • direct
  • economy flights
  • on partners with no fuel surcharges

British Airways Avios complement the other big types of miles, which tend to be better for international premium cabins.

Any questions? What did I leave out?

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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the ninth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Where We Are and Where We’re Going

We’re in the section on redeeming miles. Once you understand how to redeem miles, you’ll understand which miles are right to earn for your travel goals. This post will focus on Delta miles, which are useful for a number of awards especially now that one way awards are allowed and award space has improved in 2015.

Why Collect Delta Miles?

Because they exist. It is no secret that Delta miles are less valuable than American Airlines, United, and Alaska miles.

But worth less does not mean worthless. Delta miles can be used to get to all six inhabited continents, and Delta miles are often the best to get to Australia in a flat bed. Plus since Delta now allows one way awards for half the price of roundtrips, lack of award space has become less of an issue.

  • What airlines can you fly with Delta miles?
  • What are the routing rules for Delta awards (stopovers, open jaws, free one ways)?
  • What are the special features of the SkyMiles program?
  • How can you book a Delta award?

Mileage Price

Delta SkyMiles are region-based miles. See The Five Types of Miles.

The number of miles for a Delta award is based on an award chart, but Delta stopped publishing its award chart in February 2015.

A region-to-region chart–even Delta’s unpublished chart–means that instead of having to calculate the number of miles for an award from your origin city to your destination city, say Atlanta to Rome, you merely figure out how many miles you need for an award from your origin region to your destination region, in this case North America to Europe.

Delta’s secret chart has five price levels in each cabin.

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 1.52.41 AM

We redeem miles for Level 1 awards, the capacity controlled awards that cost the fewest miles, which are not available in every cabin on every flight. Level 2 awards only cost a little more while Level 3-5 awards are a ton more miles.

To have a multi-segment award price at Level 1, every segment in that direction must have Saver award space.

To find out the prices of Level 1-5 awards to each region, check out these screenshots of Delta’s charts before they were taken down.

Partners

Delta is a member of SkyTeam. That means you can use its miles on all these airlines:

  • Delta Airlines
  • Aeroflot (Russia)
  • Aerolineas Argentinas
  • Aeroméxico
  • Air Europa (Spain)
  • Air France
  • Alitalia
  • China Airlines (Taiwan)
  • China Eastern Airlines
  • China Southern Airlines
  • Czech Airlines
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Kenya Airways
  • KLM (Netherlands)
  • Korean Air
  • Middle East Airlines (Lebanon)
  • Saudia
  • TAROM (Romania)
  • Vietnam Airlines
  • Xiamen Airlines (China)

Delta also has several partners that are not a part of SkyTeam. You can also redeem miles to fly these airlines:

  • Air Tahiti Nui
  • Alaska Airlines
  • GOL (Brazil)
  • Hawaiian Airlines (only interisland flights)
  • Virgin Atlantic (United Kingdom)
  • Virgin Australia

Subject to other routing rules, which I’ll detail below, you can freely combine Delta flights, SkyTeam partner flights, and other partner flights onto a single award.

Routing Rules

You can book one way awards with Delta miles for half the price of roundtrip awards since January 1, 2015.

Roundtrip Delta awards cannot have any stopovers.

Beyond that, awards have the same routing rules as paid tickets. You can search the routing rules for paid tickets on Expert Flyer. For most domestic itineraries, your legal layover points are specified. For most international awards, a Maximum Permitted Mileage that you can fly is specified, and you can layover anywhere.

All award travel must be completed within one year of the original booking. Changes can’t extend this time frame, so if you can’t fly within one year of your original booking, you’ll have to cancel you award.

Stopovers

Since January 1, 2015, Delta awards do not allow stopovers.

A stopover is a layover of more than 4 hours on a domestic award or 24 hours on an international award.

Open Jaws

When you can book one way awards, like you can with Delta miles, you can always book as many open jaws as you’d like.

Keep in mind that an open jaw is not a hole in the middle of a single one way award. Those are prohibited.

Free One Ways

Free one ways require a stopover at your home airport. Delta awards can’t have free stopovers. Therefore Delta awards cannot have free one ways.

Taxes, Fees, and Fuel Surcharges

Taxes

Delta awards require you to pay the government taxes associated with the itinerary.

These start at $5.60 each direction for domestic awards and go up to $300 if you fly roundtrip to the United Kingdom in Business Class. Generally international awards have roundtrip taxes of $50 to $150.

Fees

Phone Fee: There is no award booking fee for awards booked at delta.com. Calling Delta to book an award incurs a $25 per person fee, which is waived for Gold Medallions and higher.

Changes: There is a $150 fee per person to make changes to Delta awards, which is waived for Platinum and Diamond Elites. No changes are allowed within 72 hours of departure.

Cancellation: There is a $150 fee per person to cancel Delta awards, which is waived for Platinum and Diamond Elites. No cancellations are allowed within 72 hours of departure.

Full details on Delta’s award fees can be found here.

Fuel Surcharges

Delta collects fuel surcharges on many of its partners. See a near-complete list here.

How to Book Delta Awards

These partners can be searched on delta.com.

  • Delta
  • Aeroflot
  • AeroMexico
  • Air France
  • Alaska Airlines
  • Alitalia
  • China Airlines
  • China Eastern
  • China Southern
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • GOL
  • KLM
  • Korean
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Virgin Australia

Partners that can’t be searched online can be searched by calling Delta at 800-323-2323 or by searching other SkyTeam award search engines.

If you can’t seem to find the award you want for your dream trip, you can hire my Award Booking Service to search and book your Delta awards. We have the expertise to search every Delta partner to maximize convenience and luxury while minimizing out-of-pocket cost.

Bottom Line

I don’t love Delta miles, but I collect them as part of a balanced miles strategy.

Delta miles are great to Australia and can be used to fly to any inhabited continent.

Delta’s award chart is expensive for economy and Business awards, and you can’t book First Class awards at all on international flights.

No stopovers are allowed on Delta awards, but at least you can now book one way awards for half the roundtrip price.

Any questions? What did I leave out?

————————————————————————————————————
Never miss a post again! Follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook. And sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts!

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the eighth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Where We Are and Where We’re Going

We’re in the section on redeeming miles. Once you understand how to redeem miles, you’ll understand which miles are right to earn for your travel goals. This post will focus on United miles, which are ideal for international economy and business class awards with stopovers, open jaws, and free one ways.

Why Collect United Miles?

United miles are easy to collect in bunches. There are big sign up bonuses available on a half dozen cards that earn United miles or Ultimate Rewards, which can be transferred to United miles. When the miles are so easy to earn, it makes fancy trips or family trips easier to book.

United is part of the biggest and best alliance–the Star Alliance–with the most award space. I find better award space on United’s partners to most parts of the world than I do on any other airline alliance.

United never collects fuel surcharges on awards. The ability to book flights on all of the Star Alliance without fuel surcharges is incredible. Delta and American Airlines–United’s two major award program competitors–both collect fuel surcharges on some awards.

  • What airlines can you fly with United miles?
  • What are the routing rules for United awards (stopovers, open jaws, free one ways)?
  • What are the special features of the MileagePlus program?
  • How can you book a United award?

Mileage Price

United miles are region-based miles. (See Five Types of Miles)

United has two region-to-region charts, one for travel on United flights and one for travel on its partners, both of which can be found here. The award charts are identical for economy awards, but United charges a large premium to fly its partners’ Business and First Class products versus its own.

A region-to-region chart means that instead of having to calculate the number of miles for an award from your origin city to your destination city, say Atlanta to Rome, you merely figure out how many miles you need for an award from your origin region to your destination region, in this case North America to Europe.

The chart for travel on United has two prices in each cabin: the Saver and Standard prices.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 10.56.50 PM

We redeem miles for Saver awards, the capacity controlled awards that cost the fewest miles, which are not available in every cabin on every flight. Standard awards cost approximately twice what Saver awards cost and are available on almost every flight.

The partner chart doesn’t have a Standard level because partner awards always price at the Saver award.

To have a multi-segment award price at the Saver level, every segment in that direction must have Saver award space.

Which countries are in which region of the chart can be found at the bottom of the award chart.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 10.59.16 PM

Partners

United is a member of the Star Alliance. That means you can use its miles on all these airlines:

  • United Airlines
  • Adria Airways (Slovenia)
  • Aegean Airlines (Greece)
  • Air Canada
  • Air China
  • Air India
  • Air New Zealand
  • ANA (Japan)
  • Asiana Airlines (South Korea)
  • Austrian Airlines (Vienna)
  • Avianca (Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Peru)
  • Brussels Airlines (Belgium)
  • Copa (Panama)
  • Croatia Airlines
  • EgyptAir
  • Ethiopian Airlines
  • EVA Air (Taiwan)
  • LOT Polish Airlines
  • Lufthansa (Germany)
  • Scandinavian Airlines (Denmark, Norway, Sweden)
  • Shenzhen Airlines (China)
  • Singapore Airlines
  • South African Airways
  • Swiss International Air Lines
  • TAP Portugal
  • Thai Airways International
  • Turkish Airlines

United also has several partners that are not a part of the Star Alliance. You can also redeem miles to fly these airlines:

  • Aer Lingus (Ireland)
  • Aeromar (Mexico)
  • Azul (Brazil)
  • Cape Air (Puerto Rico)
  • germanwings
  • Great Lakes (Denver)
  • Hawaiian Airlines (only interisland flights within Hawaii)
  • Island Air (Hawaii)
  • Jet Airways (India)
  • Silver Airways (Florida)

Subject to other routing rules, which I’ll detail below, you can freely combine United flights, Star Alliance partner flights, and other partner flights onto a single award.

ROUTING RULES

You can book one way awards with United miles for half the price of roundtrip awards.

One way United awards cannot have any stopovers. Roundtrip awards can have one free stopover (in addition to the destination) and two open jaws.

Unfortunately, beyond that, it’s difficult to say much about United’s routing rules other than whatever the computer says, goes. The computer accepts some wacky routings and rejects others. If you try a routing online that gets an error, you can call in to book the award with an agent, but you are unlikely to talk them into charging you the mileage price you want if the computer rejects your routing.

The computer likes routings with fewer segments and less backtracking.

All award travel must be completed within one year of the original booking. Changes can’t extend this time frame, so if you can’t fly within one year of your original booking, you’ll have to cancel you award.

Stopovers

Stopovers are not allowed on one way United awards. One stopover is allowed on roundtrip United awards except that roundtrip United awards wholly within the continental United States, Canada, and Alaska cannot have a stopover.

A stopover is a layover of more than 4 hours on a domestic award or 24 hours on an international award.

Open Jaws

Roundtrips can have two open jaws.

Keep in mind that an open jaw is not a hole in the middle of a single one way award. Those are prohibited.

Here’s an example of an award with one stopover and two open jaws.

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 1.14.27 AM
Source: gcmap.com

 

  • The award starts in Chicago and flies to Munich for a stopover.
  • The award continues to Athens, its destination.
  • The return begins in Rome. There is an open jaw between Athens and Rome that you’d have to fill in with transportation that is not part of this award.
  • The award ends in Washington DC, which is not where it started, so there is a second open jaw between Chicago and DC.

Free One Ways

Free one ways are possible on United awards. Since a free one way requires a stopover at your home airport, booking a free one way on a United award means you cannot use a stopover en route on the main award.

The free one way can be BEFORE your main award TO your home airport or AFTER your main award FROM your home airport.

The free one way can be to most places in the continental United States, Alaska, and Canada. If you want the one way to go to Hawaii, the Caribbean, South America, or somewhere else, you have to pay the difference between flying to those places and flying to your home airport.

For full details on Free One Ways on United Awards, check out this Master Thread.

Special Feature of United Miles

There are two features of the United program everyone should be aware of.

1. United’s multi-city search results are extremely buggy.

This is the search page you use if you want to book an award with a stopover or open jaw.

This is a problem since nearly every award I book with United is a multi-city award.

If you search each part of your multi-city award one way, you will see far more options for each part then when you do a multi-city search on united.com.

The solution is simple: put on hold part of your award and call in to change the held award to the award you really want.

For more information on this problem and solution, see this post.

2. United charges a ton more miles to fly its partners’ premium cabins than its own.

United BusinessFirst (business) and Global First (first) are solid, but not spectacular products that I’ve flown eight total times.

Since United went to separate charts for its own flights and partner flights in February 2014, I have lost interest in using United miles for premium cabin awards on its partners. Usually, its partners’ products aren’t a big enough improvement to justify a big increase in the miles price, and sometimes the partners’ product is worse.

Taxes, Fees, and Fuel Surcharges

Taxes

United awards require you to pay the government taxes associated with the itinerary.

These start at $5.60 each direction for domestic awards and go up to $300 if you fly roundtrip in Business Class to the United Kingdom. Generally international awards have roundtrip taxes of $50 to $150.

Fees

Phone Fee: There is no award booking fee for awards booked at united.com. Calling United to book an award incurs a $25 per person fee. You can usually get the agent to waive that phone fee.

Late Booking Fee: There is a $75 booking fee per person to book an award less than 21 days from the date of departure. This fee is reduced for elites and waived for Platinum and 1K members. Here’s a trick to never pay the late booking fee again.

Date and Time Changes: Changing the date, time, or routing costs up to $100 per person. This fee is cheaper if the change is made at least 21 days before departure and if you have elite status. It is waived for Platinum and 1K members.

Origin/Destination Changes: There is a $100 fee per person to change the origin or destination. This fee is reduced for elites and waived for Platinum and 1K members.

Cancellation: There is a $200 fee per person to cancel your award and get the miles back. This fee is reduced for elites and waived for Platinum and 1K members.

Full details on United’s award fees can be found here.

Fuel Surcharges

United does not collect fuel surcharges on any award tickets.

How to Book United Awards

Most of United’s partners can be searched and booked on united.com. Two major exceptions:

  • Singapore Airlines
  • Brussels Airlines

Partners that can’t be searched online can be searched by calling United at 800-UNITED-1 or by searching other Star Alliance award search engines.

If you can’t seem to find the award you want for your dream trip, you can hire my Award Booking Service to search and book your United awards. We have the expertise to search every United partner to maximize convenience and luxury while minimizing out-of-pocket cost.

Bottom Line

United MileagePlus is one of the best frequent flyer programs. Its strengths are United’s huge network of partners and the lack of fuel surcharges on awards.

United has fantastic availability domestically, and many of its partners have great availability too. Availability is a big strength of this program in all classes of service.

United has unwritten routing rules, but any simple awards, and many complicated awards, price exactly as you’d expect.

United awards are flexible for one way travel. If you book a roundtrip, you can add one stopover and two open jaws to your destination.

Most United are bookable on united.com, while others require a call to United.

Any questions? What did I leave out?

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Never miss a post again! Follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook. And sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts!

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the seventh post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Where We Are and Where We’re Going

We’re in the section on redeeming miles. Once you understand how to redeem miles, you’ll understand which miles are right to earn for your travel goals. This post will focus on American Airlines, which are ideal for international premium cabin awards.

Why Collect American Airlines Miles

American Airlines miles are the best miles for ultra-luxury redemptions like Cathay Pacific First Class, Etihad First Class, or Qantas First Class.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 1.42.22 AM
Cathay Pacific First Class booked with American Airlines miles

American Airlines has very cheap off peak awards. If you are willing to go to Europe in the fall, winter, or spring in economy, you can pay only 20,000 miles each way. There are also great off peak economy awards to Japan, Korea, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.

American Airlines has not devalued its award charts for years. United and Delta greatly increased the miles price of premium cabin awards in 2014.

  • What airlines can you fly with American Airlines miles?
  • What are the routing rules for American Airlines awards (stopovers, open jaws, free one ways)?
  • What are the special features of the AAdvantage program (off peak awards)?
  • How can you book an American Airlines award?

Mileage Price

Of the Five Types of Miles, American Airlines miles are region-based miles.

American Airlines has two region-to-region charts, one for travel on American Airlines and one for travel on its partners.

A region-to-region chart means that instead of having to calculate the number of miles for an award from your origin city to your destination city, say Atlanta to Rome, you merely figure out how many miles you need for an award from your origin region to your destination region, in this case North America to Europe.

The chart for travel on American Airlines looks confusing with four levels of award prices. I’ll make it simple:

  • MileSAAver Off Peak awards are available between the United States and some regions. Look for the dates that off peak awards are available to each region (much more on these awards below in “Special Features” section)
  • The rest of the year MileSAAver awards are the cheapest awards.
  • Ignore AAnytime Level 1 and AAnytime Level 2, which are the extremely expensive awards that are available on every flight (in the case of Level 2), but that we avoid booking

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 3.11.55 PM

 

The partner chart doesn’t have all these levels because partner awards always price as MileSAAver or off peak awards.

To have a multi-segment award price as a MileSAAver, every segment in that direction must have MileSAAver space.

Links to see which countries are in which region of the chart can be found at the bottom of the partner award chart.

Partners

American Airlines is a member of the oneworld alliance. That means you can use its miles on all these airlines:

  • American Airlines
  • US Airways
  • airberlin
  • British Airways
  • Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong)
  • Finnair
  • Iberia (Spain)
  • Japan Airlines
  • LAN (Chile and Peru)
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Qantas (Australia)
  • Qatar Airways
  • Royal Jordanian
  • S7 Airlines (Russia)
  • SriLankan Airlines
  • TAM Airlines (Brazil)

American also has several partners that not a part of the oneworld alliance. You can also redeem miles to fly these airlines:

  • Air Tahiti Nui
  • Alaska Airlines/Horizon Airlines
  • El Al (Israel)
  • Etihad (Abu Dhabi)
  • Fiji Airways
  • Gulf Air (Bahrain)
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Jet Airways (India)
  • Seaborne Airlines (Caribbean)

Subject to other routing rules, which I’ll detail below, you can freely combine American Airlines flights, oneworld partner flights, and other partner flights onto a single award.

Routing Rules

You can book one way awards with American Airlines for half the price of roundtrip awards.

Unfortunately American Airlines has complicated routing rules that no other airline has.

  1. The airline that flies the flight that connects you from one region on the award chart to another must have a published fare all the way from your origin to your destination.
  2. When flying from one region to a second region on the award chart, you cannot connect in a third region or your trip will price as two separate awards. Here is a partial list of exceptions based on experience. American Airlines doesn’t publicly release the complete list.

You don’t really need to know these rules because most convenient routings will usually follow these rules. But if you think you have a good award and an American Airlines agent prices it higher than you were expecting, you probably violated one of these two rules.

You can check whether your region-connecting airline has a published fare from your origin to your destination by using Expert Flyer. Note that “having a published fare” and flying the whole route are two totally different things.

American Airlines also has three other rules that are less likely to trip you up:

  1. No stopovers are allowed on awards. A stopover is a layover of more than 4 hours on a domestic award or 24 hours on an international award.
  2. You can fly up to 125% of the Maximum Permitted Mileage between your origin and destination. This is generous and allows for out-of-the-way flying, but that doesn’t do you much good now that stopovers are prohibited. Find the Maximum Permitted Mileage for you origin and destination by using Expert Flyer.
  3. All award travel must be completed within one year of the original booking. Changes can’t extend this time frame, so if you can’t fly within one year of your original booking, you’ll have to cancel you award.

Stopovers

Stopovers are not allowed on American Airlines awards.

A stopover is a layover of more than 4 hours on a domestic award or 24 hours on an international award.

Open Jaws

When you can book one way awards, like you can with American Airlines miles, you can always book as many open jaws as you’d like.

Keep in mind that an open jaw is not a hole in the middle of a single one way award. Those are prohibited.

Free One Ways

Free one ways require a stopover at your home airport. American Airlines awards can’t have free stopovers. Therefore American Airlines awards cannot have free one ways.

Special Features

The main special feature of the American Airlines program is the ability to redeem for incredibly cheap economy awards during off peak months. For many regions, the off peak dates include some great times to visit.

Off peak awards are available on American Airlines awards, regardless of which partners you fly, to the following regions on the following dates:

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 3.21.11 PM

If you fly only American Airlines and US Airways flights, you have even more off peak options:

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 3.20.59 PM

While other airlines offer off peak awards occasionally, American offers them on the most dates to the most places with the most partners. For people who don’t need to travel to Europe at the height of summer, this is a major plus of the American Airlines program.

Taxes, Fees, and Fuel Surcharges

Taxes

American Airlines awards require you to pay the government taxes associated with the itinerary.

These start at $5.60 each direction for domestic awards and go up to $300 roundtrip if you fly to the United Kingdom in a premium cabin. Generally international awards have roundtrip taxes of $50 to $150.

Fees

Phone Fee: There is no award booking fee for awards booked at aa.com. There is no award fee for booking awards by phone at 800-882-8880 that cannot be booked online.

Late Booking Fee: There is a $75 booking fee to book an award less than 21 days from the date of departure. This fee is waived when the booking is made from an American Airlines Gold, Platinum, and Executive Platinum account.

Date and Time Changes: Changing the date or time of travel is free unless the change occurs within 21 days of departure when it costs $75. This fee is waived when the booking is made from an American Airlines Gold, Platinum, and Executive Platinum account.

Origin/Destination Changes: There is a $150 fee to change the origin or destination of an award ticket plus $25 for each additional person on the same reservation. This fee is waived when the booking is made from an American Airlines Executive Platinum account.

Cancellation: American Airlines also charges $150 to cancel an award ticket and redeposit the miles plus $25 for each additional person on the same reservation. This fee is waived when the booking is made from an American Airlines Executive Platinum account.

Fuel Surcharges

American Airlines does not charge fuel surcharges on awards except on British Airways and Iberia flights.

The fuel surcharges on British Airways longhaul segments can be up to $500 one way per person. In all but the rarest circumstances, you’ll want to avoid booking British Airways flights with American Airlines miles.

How to Book American Airlines Awards

The following airlines’ award space can be searched and booked at aa.com.

  • American Airlines
  • US Airways
  • airberlin
  • British Airways
  • Finnair
  • Qantas
  • Royal Jordanian
  • Alaska Airlines/Horizon Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines

All other award space can be searched and must be booked by calling American Airlines at 800-882-8880. I recommend searching award space for these other airlines before calling because phone agents might not find what you can find with a diligent search.

If you can’t seem to find the award you want for your dream trip, you can hire my Award Booking Service to search and book your American Airlines awards. We have the expertise to search every American Airlines partner to maximize convenience and luxury while minimizing out-of-pocket cost.

Bottom Line

American Airlines AAdvantage is one of the best frequent flyer programs. Its strengths are ultra-luxury redemptions on its partners and its off peak awards.

American has fantastic availability domestically, and many of its partners have great availability too. Availability is a big strength of this program in all classes of service.

American has complicated–some would say “annoying”–award routing rules, but most reasonable awards comply with the rules naturally.

American Airlines awards are flexible for one way travel, but unfortunately you cannot add stopovers to the awards.

There should never be a fee to book an American Airlines award more than 21 days before departure because the phone booking fee is waived if your award cannot be booked online.

American Airlines miles are very easy to get. Right now the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® comes with 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months. The card also comes with other awesome benefits like a 10% rebate on miles used for award bookings.

The business version, the CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World MasterCard®, also comes with 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months. This card comes with 2x miles on select business purchases and a 5% miles bonus on renewal. One person can have both cards, which would be 106,000 American Airlines miles after meeting the minimum spending requirements.

Take advantage of the AAdvantage program as much as possible for the next six months. I expect an award chart devaluation in late 2015.

Any questions? What did I leave out?

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Never miss a post again! Follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook. And sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts!

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the sixth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Where We Are and Where We’re Going

We’re in the section on redeeming miles. Once you understand how to redeem miles, you’ll understand which miles to earn. This post will focus on the three major alliances, which among them have most of the world’s most important airlines. Every airline in these alliances has a distance-based or region-based award program as far as I know.

The Three Alliances

You can always book awards using one airline’s miles on its own flights or on that airline’s alliance partners.

Below is a list of each alliances’ members and those members’ hubs and codes. Knowing these lists or at least where to find them will make you a much savvier flyer.

Carriers are in alphabetical order except American carriers are listed first. Each entry includes the airlines name and its hubs.

Star Alliance

United Airlines (Newark, Houston-Intercontinental, Washington-Dulles, Chicago-O’Hare, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Cleveland, Tokyo-Narita, Guam)

Adria Airways (Ljubljana, Slovenia)
Aegean Airlines (Athens, Greece)
Air Canada (Calgary, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver)
Air China (Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai)
Air India (Delhi, Mumbai)
Air New Zealand (Auckland)
ANA (Tokyo-Narita, Tokyo-Haneda, Osaka, Osaka-Kansai)
Asiana Airlines (Seoul-Incheon, Seoul-Gimpo)
Austrian Airlines (Vienna)
Avianca (Bogota, Colombia; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Quito, Ecuador; San Salvador, El Salvador; San Jose, Costa Rica; Lima, Peru)
Brussels Airlines (Brussels, Belgium)
Copa (Panama City)
Croatia Airlines (Zagreb)
EgyptAir (Cairo)
Ethiopian Airlines (Addis Ababa)
EVA Air (Taipei, Taiwan)
LOT Polish Airlines (Warsaw)
Lufthansa (Frankfurt, Munich, Dusseldorf, Berlin)
Scandinavian Airlines (Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm)
Shenzhen Airlines (Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Nanjing)
Singapore Airlines (Singapore)
South African Airways (Johannesburg)
Swiss International Air Lines (Zurich)
TAP Portugal (Lisbon)
Thai Airways International (Bangkok)
Turkish Airlines (Istanbul-Ataturk)

SkyTeam

Delta Airlines (Atlanta, New York-JFK, New York-LaGuardia, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, Memphis, Detroit, Amsterdam, Tokyo-Narita, Paris-Charles de Gaulle)

Aeroflot (Moscow-Sheremetyevo)
Aerolineas Argentinas (Buenos Aires-Ezeiza, Buenos Aires-Aeroparque)
Aeroméxico (Mexico City)
Air Europa (Madrid)
Air France (Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Paris-Orly, Lyon, Toulouse-Blagnac, Marseille, Nice)
Alitalia (Rome-Fiumicino)
China Airlines (Taipei, Kaohsiung)
China Eastern Airlines (Kunming, Shanghai-Pudong, Shanghai-Hongqiao, Xi’an)
China Southern Airlines (Beijing-Capital, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Urumqi)
Czech Airlines (Prague)
Garuda Indonesia (Jakarta, Bali)
Kenya Airways (Nairobi)
KLM (Amsterdam)
Korean Air (Seoul-Incheon, Seoul-Gimpo)
Middle East Airlines (Beirut, Lebanon)
Saudia (Dammam, Jeddah, Medinah, Ryiadh)
TAROM (Bucharest, Romania)
Vietnam Airlines (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City)
Xiamen Airlines (Xiamen, Fuzhou, Hangzhou)

oneworld

American Airlines/US Airways (Dallas-Fort Worth, New York-JFK, Los Angeles, Chicago-O’Hare, Miami, Charlotte, Phoenix, Philadelphia)

airberlin (Berlin, Dusseldorf)
British Airways (London-Heathrow, London-Gatwick)
Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong)
Finnair (Helsinki)
Iberia (Madrid, Barcelona)
Japan Airlines (Tokyo-Haneda, Tokyo-Narita, Osaka, Osaka-Kansai)
LAN (Santiago, Chile; Lima, Peru)
Malaysia Airlines (Kuala Lumpur)
Qantas (Sydney, Melbourne)
Qatar Airways (Doha)
Royal Jordanian (Amman)
S7 Airlines (Moscow-Domodedovo, Novosibirsk)
SriLankan Airlines (Colombo)
TAM Airlines (Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia)

Not Alliance Members

Tons of airlines are not part of any alliances. They usually make one-off codesharing deals or several partners across many alliances. Major unaffiliated airlines include virtually all budget airlines and several premium airlines:

Alaska Airlines
Southwest
JetBlue
Frontier
Hawaiian
Allegiant
Virgin America
Virgin Atlantic
Virgin Australia
Emirates
Etihad
every other airline not mentioned in this article

Where to Search Award Space

Few sites show award space for all members of an alliance, so it is often necessary to search several award search engines to completely search an alliance for award space.

Normally an airline will release award space to all of its partners equally, so if you see Brussels Airlines space on ana.com, for instance, that space is equally bookable with miles from any Star Alliance carrier (by calling the loyalty program of the carrier whose miles you want to use.) Click the links below for tutorials on how to search each site and which carriers can be searched there.

Star Alliance

  • united.com (quickest to search, many partners displayed)
  • aeroplan.com (more partners than united.com, better at finding complicated itineraries)
  • ana.com (most accurate to confirm award space on a single segment)

SkyTeam

  • delta.com (shows more and more partners)
  • airfrance.us (shows many more partners than delta.com, but not all)
  • Expert Flyer (shows some SkyTeam members’ award space that aren’t searchable elsewhere)

oneworld

Next, I’ll start going through programs one at a time and explaining how they work.

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Never miss a post again! Follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook. And sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts!

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the fifth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Where We Are and Where We’re Going

So far I’ve just tried to get you excited about the possibilities with miles, but now the real education begins.

And this education begins at the end. With miles you always need to work backwards from your goals to which miles are best for those goals to which strategy is best for earning the miles you need.

That means this section of the beginners’ guide will be about redeeming frequent flyer miles. Later posts will delve into the specifics of a type of miles–like American Airlines miles–but today I’ll start generally by talking about the five types of miles.

The Five Types of Miles from Easiest to Understand to Most Complicated

  1. Credit Card Points Pretending to Be Miles
  2. Airline Points
  3. Region-Based Miles
  4. Distance-Based Miles
  5. Transferable Points (ie points that transfer to two or more of the types above)

1. Credit Card Points Pretending to Be Miles

If you’ve seen a Capital One Venture Card ad with Jennifer Garner, you probably don’t understand what Capital One points are because the marketing deliberately obfuscates the product.

Whenever you see an ad that promises miles you can use on any airline with no blackout, the card does not earn true miles. It earns points worth 1 cent (usually) each toward the purchase of any cash ticket. Because you can redeem the credit card points for any cash ticket at a fixed rate, they can legitimately market the card as having no blackouts.

Cards that earn points that can be used at a fixed rate toward any flight are great for people who know how to find cheap tickets, people who don’t mind flying low cost carriers, people who need to travel on completely fixed dates, and families who travel in economy.

These are the simplest rewards program to understand: 1 point = 1 cent or 1.14 cents or whatever the company says they’re worth. You never have to search for award space (explained below); you just purchase any cash ticket on any airlines and redeem your points to offset the cost of the ticket.

Examples of Cards/Programs In This Category:

  • Capital One Venture
  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus and Arrival
  • Discover Miles
  • Many Smaller Banks’ “Miles Earning” Cards
  • Any Card that Promises Redemption of Rewards on Any Airline with No Blackouts

Program to Start with For Beginners: Start with the Barclaycard Arrival PlusTM World Elite MasterCard® with 40,000 bonus “miles” after spending $3,000 in the first three months. The card earns 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, and the miles are worth 1.14 cents each toward any flight, hotel, car rental, cruise, or other travel expense. It is the best of the bunch for its sign up bonus, value of its miles, and the fact that you can redeem for any travel expense not just flights.

Further Reading: Three Steps to Get $500 in Free Flights, Hotels, and Car Rentals from the Arrival Plus Card

2. Airline Points

Airline points are points that have a fixed value or close to a fixed value and can be redeemed on any flight that airline operates. The number of points you need is based on the ticket price.

These are conceptually very similar to the fixed-value credit card points above, except that these can only be used on one airline.

For example, Southwest’s Rapid Rewards can be redeemed for any Southwest flight with no blackouts as long as tickets are for sale. You just pay 70 Rapid Rewards times the base fare. A flight with a $100 base fare would cost 7,000 Rapid Rewards.

These programs are much easier to understand than traditional airline miles that require award searching (explained below) and amounts of miles based on an award chart and award availability.

Examples of Programs In This Category:

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards
  • JetBlue TrueBlue
  • Virgin America Elevate

Program to Start with For Beginners: If Southwest serves routes you want to fly, join the program and get one of the Southwest credit cards when the bonuses go to 50,000 points every few months. If you usually fly with the same companion, get the Southwest Companion Pass–possibly the best deal in travel.

Further Reading: Basics of Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America Points

3. Region-Based Miles 

The three legacy carriers in the United States–American, Delta, and United–plus Alaska and a host of foreign carriers like Singapore and AirFrance Flying Blue have region-based mileage programs.

Each of these airlines is a member of an alliance with a few dozen airline partners. You can use your miles on any of the partners. American Airlines is part of oneworld, and there are 24 airlines on which you can redeem American Airlines miles. United is part of Star Alliance. Delta is part of SkyTeam.

On its own flights, each legacy carriers either releases Saver award space or doesn’t (in which case it releases Standard/AAnytime/Level 2-5 award space.) Saver award space costs the fewest miles, but it is not available on every flight in every cabin. It is most available when the airline expects to have empty seats. Think unpopular days, routes, and seasons.

All partner award space prices at the Saver level, so if you are booking Cathay Pacific or Qantas flights with American Airlines miles, you are paying the Saver price.

The number of miles you need for an region-based award is determined by three things:

  1. The cabin you want to fly: economy, Business, or First
  2. Whether you found Saver award space or not
  3. The departure region and arrival region. The cities you fly into/out of don’t matter. Just the regions. Think North America and Europe.

Once you have those three piece of information, you read off the price of your award from the award chart of the airline whose miles you’re using.

These types of miles are complicated because you have to be proficient at searching for Saver and partner award space, or you have to hire an Award Booking Service like mine in order to maximize the value of your miles. But if you can handle the complexity, these miles are more valuable than any other type of miles.

If you find Saver award space, you can fly one way from Los Angeles to Paris in Business Class for 50,000 American Airlines miles. That’s probably a $2,000 ticket, which means it would cost about 200,000 Arrival miles.

American, United, Alaska, and Delta miles tend to be best for international trips, especially in premium cabins.

Program to Start with For Beginners: American Airlines has the cheapest award chart because United and Delta more recently increased the prices on their charts. You can go to Peru for 15,000 miles one way or Southeast Asia in First Class luxury for only 67,500 miles one way. For a limited time, the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® comes with 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months. The card also comes with other awesome benefits like a 10% rebate on miles used for award bookings.

The business version, the CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World MasterCard®, also comes with 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months. This card comes with 2x miles on select business purchases and a 5% miles bonus on renewal. One person can have both cards. Getting both would be enough for a roundtrip anywhere in the world and up to four roundtrips to the Caribbean.

Further Reading: Basics of American, United, Alaska, and Delta miles

4. Distance-Based Miles

British Airways has by far the most important distance-based program though there are other distance-based programs like All Nippon Airways (ANA.)

With British Airways awards, miles needed for an award are calculated by adding up the miles needed for each flight on an award. The miles needed for each flight are calculated by only two things:

  1. the distance of the flight
  2. the cabin of the flight

All flights within a certain band, like 0-650 miles flown, cost 4,500 British Airways Avios. Flights from 651-1151 cost 7,500 Avios and so on.

You can see how these will have different strengths than region-based awards. With region-based awards your cities didn’t matter, so New York to London is the same miles as Los Angeles to Istanbul. In distance-based awards, your regions don’t matter so Los Angeles to Honolulu is the same price as Los Angeles to New York. (Normally awards to Hawaii are more expensive with region-based miles.)

The ideal use of distance-based awards is for short flights that would otherwise be expensive with region-based miles or cash. With British Airways Avios, for instance, the best deals are short, direct, economy flights in the Western Hemisphere.

5. Transferable Points

Transferable points are points you earn from a credit card that you can transfer to many different types of airline miles or other points. For instance, Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 to six airline miles/points programs, four hotel programs, and Amtrak points.

Transferable points are awesome because they give you so much flexibility. Each airline program has strengths and weaknesses in terms of the number of miles you need and the availability from point A to point B. Collecting transferable points ensures that no matter where you decide to go, you can always transfer your points to the type of airline miles that is best for the award you want.

Transferable points are most valuable when there is a transfer partner in every alliance; when there are partners with region-based, distance-based, and fixed-value programs; and when the points can also be used like cash to buy flights.

Examples of Programs In This Category:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Citi ThankYou Points
  • American Express Membership Rewards
  • Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints

All four of the transferable points programs:

  • have transfer partners in all three alliance
  • have some partners with region-based programs and some with distance-based programs
  • allow you to directly buy flights with the points at a fixed rate (not that that’s necessarily a good idea)

As you can see, transferable points are the most complex. You need to understand the other four types of miles, so that you can understand your options with transferable points. But if you master the transfer partners, you will get more valuable from transferable points than any single type of miles.

Bottom Line

Those are the five types of miles:

  1. Credit Card Points Pretending to Be Miles
  2. Airline Points
  3. Region-Based Miles
  4. Distance-Based Miles
  5. Transferable Points (ie they transfer to two or more of the types above)

Did you notice they all have different strengths? That’s why it’s so important to diversify across the types of miles. You want to have the best mile for the job, and you want to use the types of miles in concert.

In the next few posts, I’ll explain in detail the most important programs, so that you’ll have an idea which miles you’ll need for your dream trip. Then we’ll work backwards and talk about all the ways to earn those miles.

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Never miss a post again! Follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook. And sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts!

Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the fourth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

There are currently some huge sign up bonuses that folks new to the miles game can pick up.

I’ve categorized some of the best offers below, but before applying for any cards, I recommend checking out my Introduction to Travel Credit Cards from yesterday.

I also recommend getting a Free Credit Card Consultation instead of picking cards on your own. It breaks my heart when people come to my Award Booking Service with the wrong miles for the trip they want. There’s no reason to Make the Biggest Mistake in Our Hobby.

  • What are the best cards for beginners?

Best Card for Economy Travel

Citi Prestige® Card

The Citi Prestige® Card comes with 50,000 bonus ThankYou Points after $3,000 in purchases made with your card in the first 3 months the account is open.

ThankYou Points can be used like cash toward the purchase of any airline ticket with no blackouts. You get 1.6 cents off of American Airlines and US Airways flights or 1.33 cents off any other flight. That means 50,000 bonus points are worth $800 in flights on American Airlines.

The card also comes with up to $250 in statement credits each calendar year to offset airfare purchases. So the first $250 in plane tickets in 2015 and the first $250 in plane tickets in 2016 are free. That’s another $500 in free tickets before you pay the annual fee again in 12 months. (We’re up to $1,300 in flights so far if you’re counting.)

My review of the Citi Prestige Card explains its other benefits like access to the American Airlines Admirals Clubs and Priority Pass lounges, the fourth night free on hotel stays, 3x points per dollar on air travel and hotels, and 2x points on dining and entertainment. $250 Air Travel Credit each year.

The card comes with a $450 annual fee that is not waived for the first year, but remember that you get $1,300 in free flights during the period covered by the $450 annual fee.

Application Link: Citi Prestige® Card

Best Card for Awards to Asia, South America, Central America, Australia

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®

With recent devaluations to the United and Delta award charts, American Airlines miles are the most valuable miles.

American Airlines miles are the undisputed best miles for ultra-luxury redemptions, and the miles are valuable for trips to Asia, South America, Europe, and Australia. On a recent trip, I spent 67,500 American Airlines miles for a First Class redemption from New York City to Singapore with 23 hours in Macau along the way.

The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® offers 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months.

That’s enough for a roundtrip to Asia, Europe, South America, or Hawaii.

Beyond the sign up bonus, cardholders also get a 10% rebate on American Airlines miles redeemed each calendar year up to 100,000 miles redeemed.

The card’s $95 annual fee is WAIVED the first year.

Application Link: Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®

Best Business Card

Ink Plus

The Ink Plus is a business card that offers 50,000 Ultimate Rewards sign up bonuses after spending $5,000 in the first three months. Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 to United, Singapore, British Airways, Korean, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, Hyatt, Amtrak, and more.

The Ink Plus earns 5x points on internet, phone, and cell phone bills; 5x points on purchases at office supply stores; 2x points on hotels and gas; and 1x points on everything else.

The Ink Plus has no annual fee the first 12 months, $95 thereafter.

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Best All-Around Card

Sapphire Preferred

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a personal card that earns 40k Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in 3 months. Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 to United, British Airways, Korean, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, Hyatt, Amtrak, and more.

You also get 5k bonus points for adding an authorized user while applying, so I think of this as a 45k bonus point card. (Adding an authorized user does not prevent that person from getting the card at the same time or in the future as a primary account holder and getting the full sign up bonus.)

The Sapphire Preferred earns 2x points on dining and travel. Dining includes bars, restaurants, and fast food. Travel includes airfare, hotels, taxis, rental cars, tolls, parking, and much more.

The Sapphire Preferred has no annual fee the first year, then $95 thereafter.

Best Hotel Credit Card (Limited Time Offer)

Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card

The Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card is the best card for giving you free luxury hotel nights. The card comes with two free weekend nights at Hiltons worldwide after spending $2,500 in the first four months. The free nights are best spent at top-tier Hiltons and Conrads that can go for $500 or more per night.

For a limited time, the card even comes with a $100 statement credit if you spend $100+ on a Hilton stay in the first 90 days after getting the card.

This card is perfect to get aspirational stays at top tier properties like the Conrad Koh Samui that goes for 95,000 Hilton points per night and costs more than $1,000 per night.

The card also comes with Hilton Gold Status, so you can enjoy free internet and breakfast on those free stays.

The card earns 10x points on Hilton stays, 5x on airlines and car rentals, and 3x on all other purchases.

There card has no foreign transaction fee. The annual fee is $95.

Application Link: Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card

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Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the third post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

If you’re new to miles and points, you could easily open credit cards today with sign up bonuses totaling more than half a million miles and points.

There are other ways to earn miles and points, but none is as easy, quick, and cheap as opening up travel rewards cards. I’ve earned over 90% of my lifetime miles and points from credit cards, mostly from their sign up bonuses.

A startling amount of fun I’ve had in life has been the direct result of trips taken with miles earned from opening a credit card and meeting its minimum spending requirement. I don’t want to over-sell credit cards, but I don’t want to under-sell them either. Credit cards are the bread and butter of this hobby.

Today’s post will be one of the longest of the entire 2015 Beginners Series because I want the entire introduction to travel credit cards to be in one place.

  • How do travel credit cards affect your credit score?
  • How can you get three free credit reports per year?
  • What are the three things I look for in a credit card?
  • How do I double my miles with business cards?
  • How long do I hold my credit cards?
  • What about annual fees?
  • Will you ever run out of credit card bonuses to get?

How Credit Cards Affect Your Credit Score

Credit cards affect your credit score in several ways according to FICO, which produces the most widely-used credit score in the United States.

Note that I am not offering financial advice, nor am I a financial professional. I am an expert on miles and points who has opened dozens of credit cards. Consult FICO’s website directly or your financial professional instead of blindly trusting my synopsis.

  1. Applying for a credit card hurts your credit score. In my experience, my score drops 2-5 points per hard credit pull. By the way, these hard credit pulls stay on your credit report for 24 months.
  2. Getting the new credit line that comes with a new credit card raises your credit score. When you open a new card but don’t spend more money per month on your cards., your “credit utilization ratio” gets better.
  3. Canceling credit card accounts that are less than 10 years old doesn’t affect your credit score because accounts stay on your credit report for 10 years from opening no matter what. (Average age of your accounts is part of the score.)
  4. Making on time payments raises your credit score. And this is the most important part of your credit score.

The net result of opening dozens of cards and having around 15 open at the moment is a credit score in the mid-700s for me. That’s excellent for a 27 year old. There are older folks in this hobby who have opened more cards than me with scores in the 800s. My credit score is already high enough to get approved for any credit card I want. If I get it above 760, I’ll qualify for the lowest interest rate on pretty much any loan.

Check Your Credit Report

Start by going to annualcreditreport.com, the only site where you can get a free, no-strings-attached credit report from the three bureaus once a year. Some people like to get one of these reports every four months instead of all three at once.

Make sure the information on the reports is accurate and that no one has stolen your identity.

The reports do not include your credit score. There is often an option to buy a score for $8 or so, but these are usually “FAKO” (that is, not true FICO) scores.

You can get a free FICO score if you have any Barlcaycard or Discover card.

Do Not Get a Credit Card If…

Don’t get a credit card if you will spend more on a card than you do by carrying around currency and paying for things in cash.

Don’t get a credit card if you will not pay the bill in full each month to avoid interest charges.

Don’t get a credit card if you will need a major loan in the next 24 months, since the credit pull from opening a card stays on your credit report for 24 months.

Credit Card Basics

If you’ve looked at your credit report and understand how a credit score works and have decided to open one or more travel rewards cards, that’s where I can help. There are four main things I look at when deciding whether to get a card.

  1. The card’s sign up bonus
  2. The card’s category bonuses
  3. The card’s perks
  4. The card’s annual fee

Notice what isn’t on the list. I don’t know and don’t care what the APR on any of my cards are. I pay off my credit cards in full each month. If you can’t do that 100% of the time, don’t get a credit card.

Sign Up Bonus

Rewards cards tend to offer [x] miles or points after spending $[y] on the card in the first [z] months after getting the card.

We want the sign up bonus to be as big as possible while also ensuring we can meet the minimum spending requirement in the specified time frame.

Sign up bonuses are where I get most of my miles. If spending $1,000 on a new card gets me 50,000 miles, I’m earning miles 50 times faster than spending $50,000 on any old card to get 50,000 miles. The key to being a miles millionaire is clearing many sign up bonuses.

Category Bonuses

Category bonuses are far less important than sign up bonuses, but you should be aware of them.

I have cards that offer me 5 points per dollar on telecom bills, 3 points per dollar on dining, 2 points per dollar on gas, and tons of other bonuses on many categories of spending.

When I’m not spending toward a minimum spending requirement, I’ll consider my category bonuses, but my first priority is minimum spending requirements.

Why? A 50,000 mile bonus after spending $1,000 on a new card is like getting 50 miles per dollar, and my best category bonus on an existing card is 5 points per dollar.

Perks

I have cards that offer me free checked bags, free airport lounge access, airline fee credits, discounted award prices, and more.

I put a dollar amount on a cards’ perks just like I put a dollar value on its sign up and category bonuses before deciding whether to get or keep a card.

Annual Fee

Almost all rewards cards have an annual fee, though many waive the fee for the first 12 months you hold the card.

Some people have a hard-and-fast rule that they only want to get cards with no annual fee. I don’t understand those people.

Fees stink, but I pay them if I get enough value to more than offset them.

I’m not afraid to get a card with an annual fee the first year, but I’m also not afraid to cancel a card because of its annual fee.

Canceling Credit Cards

I would hold all my credit cards forever if it weren’t for annual fees. As mentioned above, that would increase my credit score by keeping my total credit line and average age of accounts high.

Unfortunately most cards just aren’t worth paying an annual fee to hold year after year.

Whether to keep a card or cancel a card is an arithmetic problem that involves adding up the marginal benefits of holding the card and subtracts the annual fee. Here are the factors to consider.

When I get a card, I put a note on my calendar for 11 months later to decide whether to keep the card. If I decide to cancel the card, I call the number on the back and let an agent know I want to cancel the card because of the annual fee.

The agent usually offers me something of value to keep the card. Sometimes they’ll waive the annual fee. Sometimes they’ll offer bonus miles. If the retention bonus is good enough, I’ll keep the card. Otherwise I’ll cancel the card.

Canceling a hotel or airline card where the points or miles go into your hotel or airlines account does not cause you to lose the miles. Those miles are safely in your airline or hotel account and will expire in accordance with normal expiration rules.

Canceling a card that earns credit card points like Chase Ultimate Rewards does forfeit all of the points you haven’t yet redeemed. Redeem those points before canceling the card.

Business Cards

Most awesome travel credit cards have a nearly identical business version. If you can open business cards, you can basically double your miles-earning opportunities.

You don’t have to have a huge, profitable, or even incorporated business to open business cards.

You can sign up with your social security number as a sole proprietorship and truthfully describe your side business on the application.

Will You Run Out of Cards?

This is a question I get from a lot of people. They wonder if opening a lot of cards at once makes sense because one day they might run out of cards.

Don’t worry about it.

First of all, there are over 20 worthwhile cards to open on the market. Second, new cards are being created all the time by the banks, and many of them are attractive. Third, you can get many cards more than once.

Some cards you can get over and over without canceling your first card. This is the case for the Alaska Airlines card.

Other cards you can get every so often. For instance, you can get Chase cards and their bonuses again after waiting two years from your last bonus. This rule varies by bank.

Further Reading

This post will be by far the longest post in the series. But I barely scratched the surface of the many things you should know about travel credit cards. For more in depth information on each sub-topic:

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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the second post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

In just a few days, you’ll be earning hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles, and you need a place to put and track them. Below are the bare minimum airline and hotel programs that Americans should be members of, and as you get more involved with the miles game, you’ll probably sign up for more.

By signing up for these programs, you’ll be able to take advantage of most major miles promotions and credit card offers, and you’ll be able to fly domestically and internationally for pennies.

Each program should just take a moment to sign up for, so don’t skip any even if you’ve never flown the airline. Trust me that they all have a lot of value. For instance, you might not expect that British Airways is often the best program for domestic flights within the United States, and that its miles are also very easy for an American to amass..

If you already have an account with a listed airline, then try to sign into it, so you can figure out your account number and password. Write down your user name or number and passwords all in one place because you’ll add them into your new Award Wallet account today.

  • What airlines and hotel programs should you join today?
  • What is Award Wallet and why should you join it?

The Programs

If you fly any other carriers like Virgin America or JetBlue, you should also sign up for their programs, but if you don’t fly them, you can stick to the seven listed airlines. If you’re an avid couchsurfer, you can skip signing up for the hotels.

Airlines

Alaska Airlines

American Airlines

British Airways

Delta Airlines

Singapore Airlines

Southwest Airlines

United Airlines

Hotels

Club Carlson

Hilton

Hyatt

IHG Rewards Club

Starwood

Award Wallet

I keep track of my miles and points with Award Wallet.

Award Wallet is a free service that tracks your balance, status, user name, and password in nearly every airline, hotel, credit card, rental car, and loyalty program in one place.

The three big exceptions are United, Delta, and Southwest which have blocked Award Wallet from accessing your account information.

I still use Award Wallet because it tracks other airlines, my transferable points, and my hotel points. All told, it tracks 32 of my accounts.

Not only are your balances now listed in one place, but you can click the Update All button to see them all updated in a fraction of the time it would take to go to every program’s site.

Another great feature of Award Wallet is that it automatically enters your programs and finds your upcoming travel plans and puts them in one place, the Travel Plans tab.

Award Wallet is a fantastic resource that I use every day to keep track of almost all my balances in one place.

Open your free Award Wallet account now. Populate it with the accounts you set up in this post by clicking the Add a Program Link, then searching for its name or finding it listed alphabetically by category.

By doing this, you can forget about memorizing account numbers and passwords; they are all stored by Award Wallet. You can also substantially cut down on the number of programs you have to log into to see your award balances.

Unfortunately the free version of Award Wallet only shows expiration dates for three programs’ miles. I have some free codes to upgrade, which will cause Award Wallet to display all your expiration dates. First 30 come, first 30 served:

If all the codes are used, but I frequently announce the giveaway of new codes on Twitter. Follow @milevalue.

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Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the first post in a monthlong series. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Frequent flyer miles are your ticket to travel more, better, and cheaper.

Mastering frequent flyer miles, hotel points, and credit card programs truly is life changing. (I’m literally typing this from a free $500-a-night ocean view room on Maui.) To help you master travel rewards, I am revising and updating my Free First Class Next Month series for beginners, which I first ran in March 2012.

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A sunset on Oahu I saw because of hotel points

 

Frequent flyer miles from travel credit cards have allowed me to visit 55 countries at the age of 27, with enough miles left over to go anywhere in the world tomorrow if I wanted to. I pay less for these trips than you probably did for your last vacation, and I’m usually flying in Business or First Class.

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Where I’ve Been. Next stops: Cuba, Colombia, Spain, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania

First Class

When I say “First Class,” I’m not talking about those slightly wider seats at the front of the plane you see as you board a flight to Cleveland. International First Class means your own fully flat bed in your own enclosed suite while being waited on and served fine foods and wine.

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You can fly First Class on an Etihad A380 for only 36,000 miles (less the sign up bonus on one credit card)

Luxury is attainable with frequent flyer miles, and it usually costs far less than a paid ticket. I flew in Cathay Pacific First Class for the miles I had gotten for opening one credit card plus $43 out of pocket. Do you have $43?

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Cathay Pacific First Class Suite

More Travel

I know for many people luxury travel is not the goal. They just want to get their family on vacation or to visit grandparents, and they don’t have the money in the budget for these trips. Using frequent flyer miles can also help a family travel for peanuts. I recently described how a family of four could fly to Europe for only $274 total!

What’s the catch? You’ll have to learn a few things and open the right credit cards.

In this series, I’m going to be showing you the tricks that experts use to fly in First Class anywhere in the world for pennies. By next month, you’ll be a pro at earning frequent flier miles for doing things you already do and redeeming them for dream First Class vacations you thought you could never afford.

more than 50 countries
We got to the Great Wall of China with miles

In addition to frequent flyer miles, I’ll be teaching you about how to find incredibly cheap cash fares and hotels, so that you’ve got a full arsenal of ways to travel cheap or free.

If you have two minutes a day, you can enjoy Free First Class Next Month! Bookmark this page, and check back tomorrow when we take the first step to Free First Class Next Month. Or better yet, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts

Forward those emails to your friends, so they can also learn and become your travel companions.

For those who can’t wait until tomorrow, here is a link to every post in the last series. This series will follow roughly the same topics.

Free First Class Next Month 2014: Table of Contents

  1. The Beginners Guide to Frequent Flyer Miles and Points (Introduction)
  2. Signing Up For Travel Loyalty Programs and Award Wallet
  3. Introduction to Travel Credit Cards
  4. Best Current Credit Card Offers
  5. Transferable Points Program Basics
  6. Earning Miles from Flying
  7. Shopping Portals
  8. Manufactured Spending
  9. You Can Earn Miles Doing Anything
  10. Don’t Let Your Miles Expire
  11. Airline Mile and Hotel Point Redemption Basics
  12. Airline Hubs, Alliances, and Award Search Engines
  13. Basics of Redeeming American Airlines Miles
  14. Basics of Redeeming United Miles
  15. Basics of Redeeming Delta Miles
  16. Basics of Redeeming US Airways Miles (this program no longer exists)
  17. Basics of Redeeming British Airways Avios
  18. Basics of Redeeming Alaska Airlines Miles
  19. Basics of Redeeming Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin America, and Frontier Miles
  20. Basics of Redeeming Singapore, Aeroplan, Flying Blue, ANA, Lufthansa, and Korean Miles
  21. How to Book Complicated Awards with Segment-by-Segment Searching and Wikipedia
  22. How to Pick the Best Seat with Seat Guru
  23. Setting Kayak Price Alerts to Always Pay the Lowest Price for Flights
  24. Basics of ITA Matrix to Find Cheap Flights and Fuel Surcharge Info
  25. Should You Chase Status?
  26. Cheapskate Lodging with Hotel Promos, Hostels, airbnb, and CouchSurfing
  27. Name Your Own Price on Priceline to Save Hundreds on Hotels
  28. Cancelling Cards
  29. The End

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Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

Most of the posts on this site are minutia: a discount on awards to Brazil and Chile or a new Delta route with good award space to Europe. Such posts are only valuable once you understand the big picture and how the miles world works and fits together. Here’s the current big picture.

How to Earn Big Miles

Now, more than ever, the way to earn big miles and points for free travel is through credit cards. United and Delta have slashed the number of miles they give to you for flying their flights, while the number of miles you can earn from signing up for a credit card is often 40,000, 50,000, or more.

There are a lot of types of miles and points you can earn.

Types of Miles and Points from Easiest to Understand to Most Complicated

1. Credit Card Points Pretending to Be Miles

If you’ve seen a Capital One Venture Card ad with Jennifer Garner, you probably don’t understand what Capital One points are because the marketing deliberately obfuscates the product.

Whenever you see an ad that promises miles you can use on any airline with no blackout, the card does not earn true miles. It earns points worth 1 cent (usually) each toward the purchase of any cash ticket. Because you can redeem the credit card points for any cash ticket at a fixed rate, they can legitimately market the card as having no blackouts.

Cards that earn points that can be used at a fixed rate toward any flight are great for people who know how to find cheap tickets, people who don’t mind flying low cost carriers, people who need to travel on completely fixed dates, and families who travel in economy.

These are the simplest rewards program to understand: 1 point/mile = 1 cent or 1.14 cents or whatever the company says they’re worth. You never have to search for award space (explained below); you just purchase any cash ticket on any airlines and redeem your points to offset the cost of the ticket.

Examples of Cards/Programs In This Category:

  • Capital One Venture
  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus and Arrival
  • Many Smaller Banks’ “Miles Earning” Cards
  • Any Card that Promises Redemption of Rewards on Any Airline with No Blackouts

Program to Start with For Beginners: Start with the Barclaycard Arrival PlusTM World Elite MasterCard® with 40,000 bonus “miles” after spending $3,000 in the first three months. The card earns 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, and the miles are worth 1.14 cents each toward any flight, hotel, car rental, cruise, or other travel expense. It is the best of the bunch for its sign up bonus, value of its miles, and the fact that you can redeem for any travel expense not just flights.

Further Reading: Three Steps to Get $500 in Free Flights, Hotels, and Car Rentals from the Arrival Plus Card

2. Airline Points

Airline points are points that have a fixed value or close to a fixed value and can be redeemed on any flight that airline operates. The number of points you need is based on the ticket price.

These are conceptually very similar to the fixed-value credit card points above, except that these can only be used on one airline.

For example, Southwest’s Rapid Rewards can be redeemed for any Southwest flight with no blackouts as long as tickets are for sale. You just pay 70 Rapid Rewards times the base fare. A flight with a $100 base fare would cost 7,000 Rapid Rewards.

These programs are much easier to understand than traditional airline miles that require award searching (explained below) and amounts of miles based on an award chart and award availability.

Examples of Programs In This Category:

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards
  • JetBlue TrueBlue
  • Virgin America Elevate

Program to Start with For Beginners: If Southwest serves routes you want to fly, join the program and get one of the Southwest credit cards when the bonuses go to 50,000 points every few months. If you usually fly with the same companion, get the Southwest Companion Pass–possibly the best deal in travel.

By the way, to figure out where any airline flies, search “[airline] destinations wiki.” To figure out all the routes from your home airport, search “[city] airport wiki.”

Further Reading: Basics of Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America Points

3. United, Delta, and American Airlines Miles

Airline mergers have winnowed down the legacy carriers in the United States to three: American, Delta, and United. They’re miles all work basically the same.

Each is a member of an alliance with a few dozen airline partners. You can use your miles on any of the partners. American Airlines is part of oneworld, and there are 24 airlines on which you can redeem American Airlines miles. United is part of Star Alliance. Delta is part of SkyTeam.

On its own flights, each legacy carriers either releases Saver award space or doesn’t (and releases Standard/AAnytime/Level 2-5 award space.) Saver award space costs the fewest miles, but it is not available on every flight in every cabin. It is most available when the airline expects to have empty seats. Think unpopular days, routes, and seasons.

All partner award space prices at the Saver level, so if you are booking Cathay Pacific or Qantas flights with American Airlines miles, you are paying the Saver price.

The number of miles you need for an American Airlines, Delta, or United award is determined by three things:

  1. The cabin you want to fly: economy, Business, or First
  2. Whether you found Saver award space or not
  3. The departure region and arrival region. The cities you fly into/out of don’t matter. Just the regions. Think North America and Europe.

Once you have those three piece of information, you read off the price of your award from the award chart of the airline whose miles you’re using.

These types of miles are complicated because you have to be proficient at searching for Saver and partner award space, or you have to hire an Award Booking Service like mine in order to maximize the value of your miles. But if you can handle the complexity, these miles are more valuable than any other type of miles.

If you find Saver award space, you can fly one way from Los Angeles to Paris in Business Class for 50,000 American Airlines miles. That’s probably a $2,000 ticket, which means it would cost about 200,000 Arrival miles.

American, United, and Delta miles tend to be best for international trips, especially in premium cabins.

Program to Start with For Beginners: American Airlines has the cheapest award chart because United and Delta more recently increased the prices on their charts. You can go to Peru for 15,000 miles one way or Southeast Asia in First Class luxury for only 67,500 miles one way. For a limited time, the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® comes with 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months. The card also comes with other awesome benefits like a 10% rebate on miles used for award bookings.

The business version, the CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World MasterCard®, also comes with 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months. This card comes with 2x miles on select business purchases and a 5% miles bonus on renewal. One person can have both cards. Getting both would be enough for a roundtrip anywhere in the world and up to four roundtrips to the Caribbean.

Further Reading: Basics of American, United, and Delta miles

4. Transferable Points

Transferable points are points you earn from a credit card that you can transfer to many different types of airline miles or other points. For instance, Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 to six airline miles/points programs, four hotel programs, and Amtrak points.

Transferable points are awesome because they give you so much flexibility. Each airline program has strengths and weaknesses in terms of the number of miles you need and the availability from point A to point B. Collecting transferable points ensures that no matter where you decide to go, you can always transfer your points to the type of airline miles that is best for the award you want.

To maximize transferable points is extremely complex, though, because you need to understand the basics of every transfer partners to ensure you are using transferring your points to the right partner.

For instance, most people with Ultimate Rewards who want to go to Hawaii from the East Coast are probably transferring their points to United miles to book United flights. That’s a huge mistake. Another Ultimate Rewards transfer partner–Singapore Airlines–can book the exact same United flights for fewer miles. Not knowing that fact would lead to spending too many Ultimate Rewards for your trip to Hawaii.

Examples of Programs In This Category:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Citi ThankYou Points
  • American Express Membership Rewards
  • Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints

Program to Start with For Beginners: I like Chase Ultimate Rewards roster of credit cards and partners a lot, and I always start friends and family off with a Chase Sapphire Preferred personal card and Chase Ink Plus business card. They both have 40,000 to 50,000 point sign up bonuses and category bonuses of 2x points that let you rack up points.

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Further Reading: Transferable Points Basics

5. Other Mileage Programs

While you’re mastering transferable points, you’ll have to master other, mostly foreign, airline miles programs.

Programs like British Airways Avios, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, Lufthansa Miles & More, Singapore KrisFlyer, and Air France Flying Blue all offer tremendous value to Americans for certain awards, and you can get all of their miles by earning the right transferable points.

While it might seem interminable to learn about 10-20 other airline programs, it’s actually not very tough. I always say that understanding one airline program like American Airlines is the same difficulty as understanding airline programs 2 through 99 combined. All airline programs share certain principles, which make learning the basics of each one a snap. You just have to learn the few quirks.

Examples of Programs In This Category:

  • British Airways Avios (great for short, direct, economy flights on American Airlines, US Airways, and Alaska Airlines within United States; for flights intra-Europe; for flights intra-South America; for flights from the West Coast to Hawaii; for flights from the East Coast to Europe)
  • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan (great for Business and First Class on Emirates and Cathay Pacific)
  • Lufthansa Miles & More (great for flights within the Western Hemisphere on Star Alliance)
  • Singapore KrisFlyer (great for Singapore Suites and flights within the Western Hemisphere on Star Alliance)
  • Air France Flying Blue (great for Promo Awards and some Delta flights)
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club (great for Economy and Premium Economy to the United Kingdom)

Program to Start with For Beginners: If you live somewhere with a lot of American Airlines, US Airways, or Alaska Airlines flights, start collecting Avios.

Further Reading: Basics of Redeeming Singapore, Aeroplan, Flying Blue, ANA, Lufthansa, and Korean Miles

Hotel Points

Beyond the scope of this post, but there are plenty of ways to earn free lodging on your travels.

Bottom Line

Miles and points are still the best way to travel for free. The main way to earn them is through credit card sign up bonuses.

The miles world is complicated, so learn about it a chunk at a time. Start by understanding fixed value credit cards that claim to offer miles. Progress to airline points and airline miles. Pretty soon you’ll understand all the foreign mileage programs to which you can transfer your transferable points. Along the way, you’ll have earned and redeemed hundreds of thousands of miles for thousands of dollars in free travel.

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Earn up to 20 free hotel nights after meeting spending $2,500 in the first 90 days on the Club Carlson Visa.

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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the final post in a monthlong beginners’ series that started here.

You did it! You passed Miles Collecting 101. You should now have the basic tools to accrue millions of miles through credit card sign up bonuses mainly, but also manufactured spending, online shopping, dining, flying cheap paid fares, and many other ways.

So what’s next?

Your mileage education is never complete. There’s always something more you can learn, so check back daily at this blog, and sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts. You should now have the basics down and can understand the more complicated posts.

Keep up with your new hobby, and maybe I’ll see you at the front of the plane in the flying bed across the aisle from mine. It’s your turn to enjoy Free First Class Next Month This Month.

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Here is a link to every post in the series in case you missed one. Reading the whole thing should take less than hour.

Free First Class Next Month 2014: Table of Contents

  1. The Beginners Guide to Frequent Flyer Miles and Points (Introduction)
  2. Signing Up For Travel Loyalty Programs and Award Wallet
  3. Introduction to Travel Credit Cards
  4. Best Current Credit Card Offers
  5. Transferable Points Program Basics
  6. Earning Miles from Flying
  7. Shopping Portals
  8. Manufactured Spending
  9. You Can Earn Miles Doing Anything
  10. Don’t Let Your Miles Expire
  11. Airline Mile and Hotel Point Redemption Basics
  12. Airline Hubs, Alliances, and Award Search Engines
  13. Basics of Redeeming American Airlines Miles
  14. Basics of Redeeming United Miles
  15. Basics of Redeeming Delta Miles
  16. Basics of Redeeming US Airways Miles
  17. Basics of Redeeming British Airways Avios
  18. Basics of Redeeming Alaska Airlines Miles
  19. Basics of Redeeming Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin America, and Frontier Miles
  20. Basics of Redeeming Singapore, Aeroplan, Flying Blue, ANA, Lufthansa, and Korean Miles
  21. How to Book Complicated Awards with Segment-by-Segment Searching and Wikipedia
  22. How to Pick the Best Seat with Seat Guru
  23. Setting Kayak Price Alerts to Always Pay the Lowest Price for Flights
  24. Basics of ITA Matrix to Find Cheap Flights and Fuel Surcharge Info
  25. Should You Chase Status?
  26. Cheapskate Lodging with Hotel Promos, Hostels, airbnb, and CouchSurfing
  27. Name Your Own Price on Priceline to Save Hundreds on Hotels
  28. Cancelling Cards
  29. The End

Here are some other good beginners’ posts and resources while you’re at it:

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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the twenty-eighth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Most travel credit cards have an annual fee. One of the main questions people email me to ask is whether they should cancel one of their rewards cards before the next annual fee.

Whether you got a card from my list of top current credit cards or from a personalized suggestion during a Free Credit Card Consultation, eventually you’ll probably wonder whether the card is worth keeping through its next annual fee.

I’ll lay out the two-step process you should use to determine which cards to keep and which to cancel.

How do I approach the decision of whether to keep or cancel a card?

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the twenty-seventh post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Today I’ll continue the theme of cheap paid travel when you don’t have or don’t want to use points.

This is a topic I love: saving 60% on hotels using Priceline.com. If you aren’t being reimbursed for your hotel expenses, and you have any flexibility over which hotel you can stay in, Priceline.com’s “name your own price” bidding tool can save you hundreds of dollars per stay, so bookmark this post!

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As the commercials say, hotels give their unsold inventory to Priceline to sell at a steep discount to get at least some revenue. We can swoop in and book hotels through Priceline for a fraction of the retail price, but you have to know the system.

  • How does “Name Your Own Price” work?
  • What trick allows us to circumvent the rules and make it work even better for us?
  • What are the drawbacks of using Priceline that you need to know?
  • How have I saved hundreds with the Name Your Own Price tool?

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