Airline Miles and Frequent Flyer Programs (2015.6 Updated)

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Miles and frequent flyer programs (FFP), are often talked about because they help customers save money. However, it is not uncommon that many customers are frustrated with the complex award ticket system and feel overwhelmed by enormous information available on the Internet. Hence, our review here is to provide an easy and ready-to-use guide for those in need.

Why you need to know about miles?

Most people need to make contact with airlines from time to time, whether it means flying to another U.S. city for travel or conferences, or booking international tickets to other countries. In either case, however, you are leaving your money on the table if you just ignore your miles. In fact, you can redeem for more than $200 cash back with the miles you earn from a round-trip travel to Asia. And you can even get a free round-trip ticket by transferring your credit card points into airline miles. Besides, you may get a better price using your miles, when you hurry to catch your flight, instead of using cash.

How to earn miles?

  1. Those who have registered with airlines’ frequent-flyer programs can earn miles with every air travel.
  2. Sign up for credit cards that provide a good mileage bonus, or earn points through purchases and then transfer your points to miles.
  3. Buy miles directly with cash. It is most expensive, so we recommend you use this approach only when your miles are close to required miles for a ticket.

What are the three major airline alliances?

Most airlines worldwide are members of one of three major alliances: the Star Alliance, One World and Sky Team. Here are some common airlines in these alliances:

Star Alliance: United Airlines, Asiana Airlines, All Nippon Airlines, Air China and Air Canada.

OneWorld: American Airlines, Japan Airlines and British Airlines, etc.

SkyTeam: Delta Air Lines and China Eastern Airlines etc.

To get more information on the membership of each airline, please click the alliance links provided here.

How to earn miles with air travel?

To earn miles, the first step is to register with airlines’ frequent-flyer programs. Some of you may prefer to register with every airline you fly with. However, the best strategy is registering with the “best” airline of each alliance. To understand why this strategy stands out, there are a few fine prints you need to know about the so-called loyalty programs. Firstly, miles earned from one flight should be credited to one and only one program account. Secondly, miles usually cannot be transferred between different airlines even within the same alliance. Thirdly, a certain minimum amount of miles are required for redemption. So it is not difficult to see why putting all your miles in your best airline account helps you accrue miles most efficiently. And here are our recommended airline options for you:

Star Alliance: United Airlines MileagePlus;

OneWorld: American Airlines AAdvantage;

SkyTeam: Delta Air Lines SkyMiles.

After registering with these airlines’ programs, all you have to do is to buy your tickets from certain airline, find out which alliance the airline belongs to, and enter your frequent-flyer number when booking your ticket, or show your corresponding frequent-flyer number when you board, or send request on the corresponding website after your flight. For instance, I flew to Japan this summer with JAL. It turned out that JAL is a member of OneWorld. So I sent request on website of AAdvantage program after my flight and earned the miles.

Then what about the flights before your enrollment in these programs? Well, it depends on the alliance policies. Some still give you miles for flights within 6 months before register, while others within 12 months. You can check this information up on their program websites.

How to earn miles with credit cards?

All of three major U.S. airlines have issued their own credit cards. Apply for these credit cards and you’ll get a good mileage bonus. Here are the credit cards that offer mileage sign-up bonus bonuses:

UA: United MileagePlus Explorer, United MileagePlus Club;

AA: Citi AAdvantage, Citi AAdvantage Executive;

Delta: Gold Delta SkyMiles, Platinum Delta SkyMiles, AmEx Delta Reserve.

In addition, you can transfer your credit card points to airline miles. See Maximize Your Credit Card Points Values for more information.

How to redeem miles for flights?

Go to the official websites of the airlines and use the tools designed for award search, such as United Airlines Award Flight Search, American Airlines Award Flight Search, Delta Air Lines Award Ticket Reservations. Click the associated links to see required miles for the ticket you want to book.

Can miles be transferred between different airlines within the same alliance?

No you can’t.

Is it possible to redeem miles earned in one program for flights on another airline?

The answer is yes, as long as these different airlines are members of the same alliance. For example, you can redeem your BA miles for AA tickets or ANA/AC miles for UA tickets. However, there are times when BA website may fail to show AA tickets available. In this case, you can search on AA website and call BA offices to book the ticket.

How many miles are required for a flight?

It depends. Typically you need around 25k/45k/60k/70k miles for a free round trip ticket to most states in the US/Hawaii/Europe/Asia, respectively.

How many miles can I earn with a flight?

You only get about 10k miles for a round trip to Asia. It’s not much compared to most credit cards sign-up bonus (see Maximize Your Credit Card Points Value for more information).

Do miles expire?

UA MileagePlus and AA AAdvantage miles expire after 18 months of no earning or redemption activity. On the other hand, Delta SkyMiles never expire.

How to keep your miles active without flying?

If your miles are to expire, and you just do not have enough miles to cover any flight, there are several strategies you can use to reset the mile expiration clock:

  1. You can make purchases with your co-branded credit cards issued by UA, AA or Delta.
  2. You can make purchases with any credit card through MileagePlus X (MPX). You can buy gift cards including Amazon Gift Card.
  3. You can transfer your UR points, MR points or SPG points to miles. See Maximize Your Credit Card Points Values for more information.
  4. You can buy some small items or subscribe a cheap magazine at the airline’s online shopping mall.

With these strategies, you can keep your miles active and extend the expiration date.

Is it possible to earn miles from tickets booked for others?

No you can’t. You can only earn miles from your own flights

Can I book tickets for someone else with miles from my frequent-flyer program account?

Yes, you can book tickets for other travellers like your friends and family members. However, the travellers should know your basic information such as your name, address and phone number (Airlines know this information, too). Otherwise, you’ll end up in serious situation if the traveller knows nothing but your EBAY ID. (Because you are suspected of selling miles) In addition, some airlines may require that taxes be collected with credit cards that match your name. And other airlines may require passengers to show the credit card used to book the trip when they check-in. In this case, you, as thecard holder, should go to the airport counters or airline agencies in advance and show your credit card yourselfin order to waive the requirements mentioned above.


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