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How do airline miles work?

Airline miles can help you book free and discounted flights on most airlines. Join me as I explain how you can benefit from them.

I’m a huge fan of travel rewards. Since I really started focusing on earning through credit card rewards about a decade ago, I’ve redeemed them for tens of thousands of dollars in travel that may not have otherwise been possible.

For example, in December 2018 I took my dad on a trip to Israel, flying in business class. Each ticket would have cost $5,000 to $10,000 had I paid the list price. After using a big chunk of miles, I paid less than $100 per person in taxes and fees!

With the right airline miles credit card, you could easily earn enough miles for a few free flights per year depending on the card and your shopping habits. 

What are airline miles?

How Do Airline Miles Work?

Airline miles are a type of loyalty currency issued by airlines to reward frequent travelers and encourage them to maintain a strong relationship with the airline. You can earn miles by traveling with an airline or by using a credit card that rewards you with airline miles.

Once you build up a balance of airline miles in your frequent flyer account, you’ll have the ability to redeem miles for free or discounted flights, among other redemption options. When redeeming, you may be able to fly for free, or very cheap, to any destination served by the airline and its partners.

How do airline miles work?

Every airline has its own rules, policies, and processes for earning and redeeming airline miles. Here is a high-level look at how to sign up for an airline miles account at a major airline in the United States, Southwest. You need an account to earn, collect, store, and redeem your miles:

Choose your airline

Start by choosing your favorite airline. Most airline miles programs are free to join, so there is no harm in opening accounts with multiple airlines if you regularly travel with more than one.

Visit the airline’s website and find the link for its rewards program

The easiest way for most people to sign up is with a computer or smartphone on the airline’s website. You may also have the option to enroll using the airline’s mobile app.

How Do Airline Miles Work - Southwest sign-up

At, for example, click on the Enroll button at the top right of the homepage to start the signup process.

Complete the application to create a free account

Airlines are heavily focused on security, so they’ll want to know all of your basic contact information when you create an account. If you have a known travel number from the TSA Pre✓ ® or Global Entry programs, or a redress number, make sure to add those as well.

How Do Airline Miles Work - Delta application

As this application on shows, airlines will ask for your basic information. That will include your personal information, contact information, and a username/password combination to view and manage your account online. 

Store your account details somewhere safe

You will need that username and password again any time you want to log in and manage your account. Every user gets a unique frequent flyer number that you may need when making reservations or connecting to another travel account later on. Keep this information safe and secure where no one else has access.

Look at terms and conditions

How Do Airline Miles Work - A look at a member account

You can log into your account at any time to view your balance. Here’s a look at my United account, where I have about 31,000 miles saved for future flights. My account number is obscured by the black box.

When signing up, take note of important terms and conditions, such as rules for sharing miles with family and friends and expiration date policies. You don’t want to build up a big mileage balance at an airline just to lose it all or get stuck unable to redeem.

How to earn airline miles

How Do Airline Miles Work?

There are several methods to earn airline miles. The most common are travel with an airline or using an airline’s branded credit card. Here’s a more in-depth look at popular ways to accumulate airline miles:

Earn by flying

The default method to earn miles is heading to the skies. Most airlines offer miles to paying customers. Traditionally, you would earn one mile for every mile you fly. These days, however, some airlines give more or less based on the cost of a ticket, service class (economy vs. first class), and other criteria.

How Do Airline Miles Work - Sample calculations

American Airlines awards customers miles based on the cost of their flight and their elite status level. The most frequent flyers can earn higher status levels. You may also reach a higher status tier with a travel rewards credit card.

Earn with a credit card

Many popular travel rewards credit cards offer miles for specific airlines, like United, Delta, and American. Other general travel rewards credit cards give you points that can be redeemed with airlines, or sometimes transferred to an airline rewards program to grow your mileage account balance.

Examples of airline-specific rewards cards include the United℠ Explorer card, Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card, Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, and Citi AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Card. However, there are many more.

One of the best general rewards cards, in my opinion, is the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

For starters, new cardholders can earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.

In addition, you’ll also earn 5X points on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3X on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2X points on all other travel purchases, plus more. I know I could rack up some serious points just in those two categories alone. But, you’ll also earn 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.

Earn with partners

When staying at a hotel that partners with your airline’s mileage program, you can earn miles for hotel stays. That works for rental cars as well in some cases.

Most airline programs also have a shopping portal where you can follow their link to many popular stores online to earn bonus miles for every dollar you spend.

Buy airline miles

If you need to top up your account for an award flight, you can also buy miles from the airline. Buyer beware, however, as you may pay a hefty price to purchase miles directly. On occasion, airlines put miles on sale so you can scoop them up at a discount.


Airline miles make travel more fun and more affordable. I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot better boarding a flight that cost me less than $15 out of pocket than one that cost me hundreds of dollars.

If you’re excited by the idea of saving money on travel, you should definitely take advantage of airline miles.

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