A Complete Beginners Guide to Frequent Flyer Programs

Travelers love sharing tips on collecting frequent flyer points. However, trying to redeem them? Not so much!

It’s estimated that up to one-third of frequent flyer points go unredeemed every year.

Why consumers aren’t taking advantage of these potentially free flights isn’t a mystery: most airlines make it very difficult.

However, when used correctly frequent flyer memberships can potentially not only make air travel more affordable — they can allow for an expedited booking process and access to many other amenities through an airline’s partners as well.

The Basics: Choosing an Airline Alliance (Or Three)

Most major airlines belong to an alliance, which is an agreement between two or more airlines to cooperate in a way that simplifies booking and rewards for their customers. 

There are three major airline alliances. The first step in frequent flyer success is understanding which airline from each alliance is most advantageous for you:

  • Star Alliance includes United Airlines, Lufthansa, and Avian
  • One World includes American Airlines, British Airways, and U.S. Airways
  • Sky Team includes Delta, Air France, and China Airlines

While each alliance includes many other airlines, the nine above likely include at least one major airline that is most convenient for you to use. However, check their associated websites for a complete list.

How to Become a “Frequent Flyer”

Believe it or not, you don’t even have to set foot on an airplane to start collecting your frequent flyer points. Instead, it’s as simple as signing up online. 

To do so strategically, pick one airline from each major alliance. Why one from each? Because airlines will allow you to share points when picking a flight with one of their partners. However, you’ll still get the best rewards when using your points with whichever airline you sign up with.

For instance, if you fly Air France, those points can go into your Delta SkyMiles account, since both airlines are members of the SkyTeam alliance. Or, if you take a trip on Cathay Pacific or Qantas, you can accrue American AAdvantage points, as they're all part of Oneworld.

In any case, go to the websites for each of the three specific airlines you choose and sign up to be a part of their frequent flyer programs. These are free services — no hidden fees to worry about. However, they might send you a few annoying emails every once and awhile.

How Frequent Flyer Programs Work

Every frequent flyer program has its own set of rules, which vary widely from one to the next. However, there are some fundamental basics that will help you understand how a frequent flyer program works.

With every ticket sold, an airline builds in the cost for frequent flyer rewards. These rewards will consist of eligible “air points” and “level points” (The terminology may change with each). Air points are what you need to earn to qualify for rewards, while level points qualify flyers to hold different status tiers during the current or next rewards year.

The number of air and level points you’re awarded can be determined by a range of factors. This mainly includes how far you travel, your class of travel (economy, business or first), and the type of ticket that you have. With regards to ticket type, what these codes are and how they affect your accrued points varies with each airline.

As a general rule, your level points — which allow you to achieve new status tiers — will reset to zero at the start of each new year, although most airlines allow you to roll your air points over. However, some points last indefinitely while others expire after a specified period of time.

How to Earn Frequent Flyer Points

The most obvious way to earn frequent flyer points is to, well, fly! But if you want to accrue enough points to earn rewards, consider the following strategies as well:

1. Fly Smart

By all means, board as many planes as you can to rack up points. But it's essential to devise a strategy based on your needs and goals. The first step is to consider the airlines that service your home airport, where you travel to most, and which destinations are in the cards for upcoming vacations.

2. Rack Up Credit Card Bonuses

Credit card companies are offering lucrative sign-up bonuses at an unprecedented rate — allowing members to earn several hundred thousand frequent flyer points per year by strategically applying for specific cards.

So, if it's points you're after, paying for things in cash is like throwing away points. If your credit is good, charge everyday expenses, such as phone and utility bills, gas, groceries, and dining out, on a points-earning credit card.

To find out which offer is right for you, read: How to Pick a Travel Credit Card That Will Take You Places

3. Earn Points Through Everyday Purchases

In addition, airlines have online shopping portals that link to hundreds of retailers, like Target, Bloomingdale’s, BestBuy, Staples, J.Crew, and others. Make purchases through these portals, and airlines will give you bonuses of up to five points per dollar! 

Several airlines also have dining rewards networks that earn you two or three points per dollar spent when used at a participating restaurants.

See Also: 4 Types of Credit Cards Responsible Consumers Use for Big Rewards

How to Use Your Frequent Flyer Points

The surest way to get your first-choice flights is to reserve as early as possible. Tickets on most airlines go on sale about 330 days in advance.

However, planning nearly a year in advance isn’t practical for most travelers. If you’re in the majority, a good telephone reservations agent can help you get where you need to go, albeit occasionally with convoluted routing or a change of carriers. 

Furthermore, airlines have a notorious reputation for blackout dates and limited seat availability for frequent flyer customers. One of the most important parts of your conversation with the ticket agent will be the answer to the question, "What's available for the dates and flights that I want?" The airlines are under no obligation to offer any more than they decide is viable as outlined in their terms and conditions.

1. Before You Redeem Your Frequent Flyer Points

There are a few important issues that could affect how and when you use your miles. The actual monetary value is typically 2 cents per frequent flyer mile (reportedly the airline industry average). For example, if you want to redeem 25,000 miles for a free ticket, the number of miles multiplied by 2 cents per mile is $500. 

What does that mean for you? Frequent flyer-pros suggest that you cross-check the cost of any flight you are considering in cash versus the value of your points, as it may be smarter to save your miles and purchase a lower cost ticket to your destination.

2. Handy Tools to Make Your Frequent Flyer Points Work For You

MileBlaster.com is to frequent flyer programs what Facebook is to friendship circles; one place to keep track of your points in various programs, including balances, expiration dates, etc. Milewise.com does the same thing and uses an algorithm to recommend whether to purchase your next flight using points or cash.

Pointhub.com goes one further with side-by-side comparisons of cash vs. points based on some two-dozen factors, including the points’ monetary value and expiration date, and choices by other site users in similar situations.

3. Trade Frequent Flyer Points With Friends

Say the flight you want requires 25,000 miles but you have only 21,000 miles in your account. You can transfer miles from another of your frequent flyer programs or trade miles with someone else. It may not be a one-to-one transfer, and there may be a fee that varies by transaction, but it could be less expensive than purchasing the ticket outright.

4. Sometimes It’s More Rewarding to Give

If you’ve got miles to spare — or just have a generous heart — contact your airline about donating them to someone less fortunate. Some charities such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation and the Salvation Army have easy donation facilities as well. 

Bottom Line? 

Earning frequent flyer points means putting in the time to research which airline works best for you. Additionally, getting that right flight may take persistence and flexibility. However, with a little bit of extra effort frequent flyer programs can make taking the vacation you’ve been dreaming much more affordable.

If you’re a member of a frequent flyer program and have any extra tips on how to get more bang for your mile, please let us know in the comments!

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.

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