TravelThe Strategist

How to Earn Airline Frequent-Flier Miles Fast

Choose the best program for your needs and rack up rewards quickly with these expert tips.

By some estimates, there are over 20 trillion airline frequent-flier miles left unused. This number should be no surprise, since there are more mileage and points programs than ever these days. How you earn and redeem miles varies from airline to airline, so it’s harder, yet more crucial than ever, to put together a strong, cohesive frequent-flier strategy.

Here are some insider tips to select the best airline program for your needs, rack up those frequent-flier miles faster, and put them to better use to get where you want to go.

Choose the Right Airline Program for You

Get Acquainted: First things first. Sign up for frequent-flier accounts with all major airlines you are likely to fly. It’s fast, it’s easy, and it’s free. All you need is an email address. With accounts set up, you’ll be poised to earn miles with the appropriate program whenever you fly, as well as to take advantage of any bonus-mile promotions or deals that come along.

Find Your Match: Now it’s time to get specific and pick the airline program to concentrate your travel activity. That way, you’ll earn miles faster and accrue enough to redeem for awards when the time comes. Make sure to ask the right questions:

  • Do you fly one airline more than any other because you live near its hub?
  • Where do you plan to fly the most, and which carriers service those destinations?
  • Do you tend to buy discount economy tickets, or splurge on first class?
  • Do you fly and spend enough on airline tickets in one year to earn elite status?
  • Once you are ready to cash in on airline miles for award tickets, do you have specific destinations in mind? If so, which airlines fly there?

The Earning Equation: You might think it’s as easy as: you fly, you earn miles. But there are actually two main types of mileage programs: distance-based and revenue-based. Distance-based programs are the traditional kind where fliers generally earn one mile per mile flown. Most U.S. carriers used to have distance-based programs, and some, including Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines, still do.

Now most U.S. airlines, including American, Delta, and United, have switched over to revenue-based programs, awarding fliers with a certain number of miles (usually between 5-15) per dollar spent on airfare—based on your elite-status level and whether you use a co-branded airline credit card to purchase the ticket. For the majority of fliers who routinely purchase inexpensive economy tickets, distance-based programs tend to be a better fit. Those with elite status who buy expensive fares in business and first class will generally earn more miles with the revenue-based programs since more dollars equals more miles.

Charting Your Course: Earning miles is only part of the equation. You must consider how airlines let you redeem those miles. Some airlines, such as American and United, have region-based award charts. They price award tickets at fixed mileage amounts between various regions such as North America and Europe or Asia. Those amounts remain the same regardless of airfares, though seats designated for awards must be available. These kinds of awards are harder to book, but you can find some amazing values if you’re able to redeem miles for otherwise expensive tickets.

Others airlines, such as Southwest and JetBlue, peg their miles at a certain value (usually around 1-1.5 cents apiece), and you can redeem them for any open seat on the plane, just like purchasing airfare. However, the more expensive the ticket, the more miles you’ll need for it. Fliers with relatively flexible schedules who want to redeem miles for expensive awards—such as for last-minute tickets or rare awards in business or first class—should focus on programs whose awards charts are based on regions. Travelers who need to redeem miles for economy seats on specific dates or for multiple people at once, such as a family of four, will probably get more use out of fixed-value programs like Southwest's and JetBlue’s.

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Passengers, prepare for landing.

Ways to Rack Up More Miles

No matter which airline program you settle on, there are plenty of ways to earn miles faster and put award travel within reach by doing everything from flying to shopping online to going about your daily business. Here’s how:

Alliances: You should earn airline miles every time you fly. That’s because, aside from flying your main airline itself, most major carriers belong to one of the three airline alliances: Oneworld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam. That means you can both earn and redeem miles when flying your airline’s alliance partners. For instance, if you fly KLM, those miles can be credited to your Delta SkyMiles account since both are in SkyTeam. Or if you take a trip on Cathay Pacific, you can credit those flights to your American Airlines AAdvantage account thanks to their Oneworld partnership. Some airlines are not part of an alliance, but still have other partners. Etihad is partners with American Airlines, for example, and Virgin Atlantic is partners with Delta. Check your airline’s partners, and when you book a ticket with one of them, list your associated frequent-flier number on your reservation.

Credit cards: The easiest and fastest way to earn miles is to carry your airline’s co-branded credit card. In addition to lucrative sign-up bonuses that can range up to 100,000 miles, an airline credit card allows you to earn frequent-flier miles on every dollar you spend. Put as many of your expenses as possible on a card to earn award flights faster, but pay them off responsibly!

Shopping and dining: Many airlines field online shopping portals with links to major retailers like Target, iTunes, and Best Buy among hundreds of others. Click through to a merchant to make purchases, earning bonuses of up to 30 miles per dollar spent. Several airlines are also members of the Dining Rewards Network. When you register a credit card on your airline’s dining site, every time you use it at participating restaurants (and there are hundreds in most big cities), you can earn up to five miles per dollar on top of any points or miles you might earn for using the credit card itself.

Promotions: Airlines regularly offer bonus miles for various activities such as flying new routes, or even just signing up for email newsletters or playing online sweepstakes. Paying attention to the promos out there at any given time can add thousands of bonus miles to your account.

Elite status: In addition to other valuable perks like free checked bags and priority boarding, if you fly enough on an airline and its partners in a given year to earn elite status, you can also earn mileage bonuses of 25-120 percent.

It’s important to stay up-to-date on your various mileage balances with various airlines, so sign up with a website like AwardWallet.com to help you keep track of them. With complicated earning formulas, changing redemption charts, and a preponderance of credit card offers, mastering airline frequent-flier programs can be a Herculean task. But if you ask these simple questions, keep track of your travel activity, and stay on top of airline partnerships, travel rewards can be within your reach much sooner than you think.

Eric Rosen is a freelance travel writer and loyalty-program expert who contributes regularly to National Geographic Traveler, the Los Angeles Times, The Points Guy, and more. He is also the founder of ClusterCrush.com, an insider’s guide to the world of wine from grape to glass. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter for more travel tips.