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.
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:
- The cabin you want to fly: economy, Business, or First
- Whether you found Saver award space or not
- 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.
Some credit card offers in this post have expired, but they might come back. If they do they will appear –> Click here for the top current credit card sign up bonuses.
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.
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.
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.
Beyond the scope of this post, but there are plenty of ways to earn free lodging on your travels.
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.