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How to earn and redeem airline miles

Your guide to airline miles and the benefits they provide.

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If you’re a member of a frequent flyer program, you can earn miles on flights with the associated airline and select partners. You can redeem these miles for such options as flights, flight upgrades, hotel stays, gift cards and merchandise.

Depending on the frequent flyer program, you may even be able to use a combination of miles and cash, or buy more miles if you’re short from qualifying for your chosen redemption.

How do I earn airline miles?

Frequent flyer programs offer a variety of opportunities to earn miles. Depending on the program and activity, you may earn miles based on distance flown or dollars spent. In some cases, you’ll earn a set number of miles per transaction — for example, 500 per stay at a hotel.

A few of the most popular ways you can earn airline miles include:

  • Flights.

    You can earn miles for flights you take with the main frequent flyer airline or partner airlines.

    For example, if you’re a Delta SkyMiles member, you’ll earn miles for flights on Delta. You’ll also earn miles when you fly on airlines in the SkyTeam alliance — of which Delta is a member — or on non-alliance carriers such as Hawaiian Airlines or Virgin Australia.

    Mile earnings are often calculated based on dollars spent, and sometimes on factors like distance flown and fare class. You’ll often earn more miles if you have elite status.

  • Hotels and accommodations.

    Many frequent flyer programs offer miles for stays with hotel partners around the world.

    For example, as a United MileagePlus member, you’ll earn miles when you stay at properties in Marriott Bonvoy, World of Hyatt, IHG Rewards Club and more. You’ll also score miles when you book through sites like Rocketmiles and PointsHound.

  • Rental cars.

    Frequent flyer programs commonly offer miles for car rentals with such partners as Hertz, Thrifty, Enterprise and National. You may also earn miles for rideshare services.

  • Other travel.

    Depending on the frequent flyer program, you may earn miles for other travel, including cruises and vacation packages.

  • Credit cards.

    Cobranded airline credit cards let you earn miles for spending on everyday purchases, and may offer bonus miles for certain categories. They’re good options to earn rewards when you’re not traveling.

    Most of these cards also include signup bonuses that could give you thousands of miles when you meet spending requirements.

  • Shopping.

    You may earn miles when shopping through select partners.

    For example, you can earn American Airlines miles through partners like Sprint, Lending Club, Universal Orlando Resort and Rover. You may receive a one-time haul of bonus miles, a certain number of miles per dollar spent or a combination of both.

Our pick for earning airline miles

United℠ Explorer Card

  • $0 first-year intro annual fee, then $95.
  • Signup bonus: 40,000 miles after you make $2,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.
  • 2x miles on United purchases, hotel stays and restaurant purchases.
  • Credit every four years for your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee.
  • 25% back as statement credit on United inflight purchases. Plus, priority boarding and your first checked bag free on United-operated flights.
  • 2 United Club one-time passes each card anniversary.
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Compare airline credit cards

Name Product Welcome offer Rewards Annual fee Filter values
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
50,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months
10x points on Lyft rides, 3x points on dining and travel after earning your $300 travel credit and 1x points on all other purchases
$550
Get a generous $300 in annual travel credits, 3x points on travel and dining, and a 50% bonus on point redemptions with Chase's premier card.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
80,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months, a value of up to $1,000 through Chase Ultimate Rewards
5x points on Lyft, 2x points on travel and dining and 1x points on all other purchases
$95
Earn a huge signup bonus worth $1,000 with this popular travel card. Combine with other Chase Ultimate Rewards cards for even greater value.
Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi
N/A
4% at gas stations on up to $7,000 annually (then 1%), 3% at restaurants and on travel, 2% at Costco and 1% on all other purchases
$0
Get 3% back on your travel and dining purchases with no foreign transaction fees and use the card for your Costco membership.
CardMatch™ from creditcards.com
See terms
See terms
See terms
Use the CardMatch tool to find cards you're likely to qualify for with your credit score, without a hard pull on your credit.
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
50,000 miles after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months until 10/28/2020
2x miles on Delta purchases, restaurants and at US supermarkets and 1x miles on all other purchases
$0 intro annual fee for the first year ($99 thereafter)
With a welcome offer worth up to $600, up to 2x miles on select purchases, and assorted Delta perks, this is a strong choice for Delta fans. Rates & fees
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What can I use my airline miles for?

You can redeem your miles for a variety of redemption options. The number of miles you need varies based on the frequent flyer program and the redemption. Generally, flights and flight upgrades offer the greatest value.

Redemption options vary between frequent flyer programs but could include:

  • Flights.

    Use miles instead of cash to book flights with the frequent flyer airline or partner airlines. Known as award flights, these fares are available for a specific number of miles, usually calculated based on the distance flown and the fare class (economy, business, etc). Award seats are subject to availability, so they may be more limited than regular fares.

  • Flight upgrades.

    You can use your miles to buy flights in premium fare classes. Or if you’ve already booked your flight, you can upgrade it. Flight upgrades can be a cost-effective way to get a better seat, but — similarly to award flights — the option to use miles is subject to availability.

  • Hotels.

    Some frequent flyer programs let you use miles for hotel stays. For example, as an American Airlines AAdvantage member, you can search for and book stays at Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton and more through the airline’s travel-search portal.

  • Other travel rewards.

    Depending on the frequent flyer program, you may be able to redeem miles for car rentals and vacation packages.

  • Merchandise and gift cards.

    While less common than flight or travel rewards, you may be able to redeem miles for gift cards or merchandise in such categories as electronics, kitchen and apparel.

What if I don’t have enough miles for my chosen redemption?

Most frequent flyer programs let you buy additional miles when you don’t have enough for a specific redemption. Pound for pound, buying miles is usually a poor value — but it could be useful if you need only a few more miles and must redeem soon.

Some frequent flyer programs let you use a combination of miles and cash for some redemption options, especially flights.

Airline miles: Pros and cons

Pros

  • Take nearly-free flights. Airline miles give you the chance to book flights you might not normally pay for out of pocket.
  • Collect miles through everyday spending. If you have an airline credit card or membership with program partners, you can earn miles without flying.
  • Sit in the best seats and enjoy other airport privileges. You can use your miles for seat upgrades as well as perks like airport lounge access.

Cons

  • The value of miles can be unclear for award flights. To make sure you’re getting good value from your miles, do the math yourself. You’ll also need to pay taxes and fees, so each award flight technically still costs.
  • Limited seat availability for award flights. When using miles for bookings, you may not find the flight dates or times you want.
  • You may need to put in extensive research. There are many great frequent flyer programs, and you may need to conduct diligent research to find the one that’s best for you.

What else do I need to know about airline miles?

Keep these factors in mind to make the most of your airline miles:

  • Reward value.

    The number of miles you need varies based on what you want to redeem them for. This means your rewards value will differ.

    An easy way to calculate the value of each mile is by dividing the dollar value of the redemption by the number of miles you must pay. One cent per mile is the average, so anything over that is solid.

  • Go for flights.

    Booking award seats or upgrading flights tend to offer the greatest value for your miles.

  • Rewards expiration.

    Your miles may expire. Check the terms of your frequent flyer program to see what the expiration policy is.

Membership Rewards vs. Chase Ultimate Rewards

You can transfer points to select airline and hotel partners with Amex’s Membership Rewards and Chase’s Ultimate Rewards.

Amex has an edge in international airline partners, which makes it the favorite in our book. But look at the lists of partners for yourself and see what works for you. Chase lets you transfer points to Southwest and World of Hyatt, two high-value options that Amex doesn’t work with.

For more on earning airline miles, check out our full miles earning guide.

Bottom line

If you fly often, airline miles can bring worthwhile benefits. Before redeeming your miles, calculate their value in dollars to see if you’re getting a good deal.

To earn airline miles, consider using a cobranded airline credit card.

Frequently asked questions

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