If you’re new to collecting miles, I suggest starting with a US-based airline, such as American or United. Delta has one of the crappiest rewards programs out there and can be ignored. In fact, I won’t even be covering them on this website. As far as American vs. United goes, United is a little easier for newbies, but both programs are pretty good. You can find more details about these and other mileage programs at Which Credit Card Should I Get?
With that out of the way, let’s look at the various ways you can earn miles.
By far, the easiest way to collect miles is to sign up for credit cards. Each airline mileage program I cover has its own page with a table of credit cards as well as what types of bonus offers I typically look for before applying. For some, I simply list the standard offer because increased bonuses either don’t come around too often or don’t add too many miles. I also maintain a list of the current best offers at Credit Cards.
Some credit cards do not earn miles directly and instead reward you with points that can be converted to frequent flyer miles. The four major flexible point programs are American Express Membership Rewards (MR), Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR), Citi ThankYou Points (TYP), and Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Starpoints. Most conversions are at a 1:1 ratio, meaning you receive one airline mile for each point you transfer. There are a few exceptions to this, which I’ll cover later.
Credit CArd Churning
Some credit cards bonus offers can be earned more than once. The process of cancelling a card and applying for its bonus again is often referred to as churning. This strategy is slightly more advanced, but once you feel ready, head on over to How To Earn A Signup Bonus Multiple Times.
Bonus Category Spending
Some credit cards offer extra miles/points when you make charges in certain spending categories. On each airline-specific page, I’ll mention the most useful spending category bonuses as well as a few strategies on how to maximize them.
Manufactured spending (MS) is the process of purchasing things with your credit card that can be converted back to cash. The end result is that you earn miles from your purchases without spending any actual money. One example from a few years back: The U.S. Mint used to allow purchases of dollar coins at face value, and they allowed payment with credit card. You could quite literally buy cash, have it shipped to you, deposit it into your bank account, and then use that money to pay off your card. While this method no longer works, I discuss current strategies in How To Manufacture Spend. Manufactured spending is especially lucrative when you combine it with bonus category spending.
Many airlines, American and United in particular, offer dining rewards for eating out at select restaurants. This is not a fast way to earn a ton of miles, but I still recommend signing up and linking a credit card. Everyone once in a while, you’ll stumble into a participating restaurant and find that you earned a few miles without even trying.
American and United offer 1 mile per dollar spent at the basic level, but 3 miles per dollar if you sign up to receive emails. My recommendation is to sign up for these emails and to set up a filter to forward them to your trash.
You cannot enroll the same credit card in multiple airlines’ dining programs, so just sign up with your favorite one.
Like with dining rewards, many airlines also operate shopping portals where you can earn miles for making purchases through their affiliate links. I always search Cashback Monitor before making an online purchase and will use whichever shopping portal offers the highest payout. This often leads to using a portal that gives me cash rather than miles, however.
Actually… Paying for flights?
So it turns out you can earn miles when you pay actual money for a flight. I don’t do this very much, but if you do, here are a few tips:
- The two methods airlines use to award miles are distance-based (e.g. 1 mile per mile flown) and revenue-based (e.g. 5 miles per dollar spent). United (and American soon) is revenue based. Revenue-based programs generally award fewer miles.
- You don’t have to earn miles with the same airline you fly with. You can normally credit your miles to any member airline in the same alliance as well as any non-alliance partner. This can be a useful way to escape a revenue-based program and to earn miles based on distance instead.
- Earnings rates will vary by partner. Use Where to Credit as a reference to see how many miles you will earn if you credit to another airline. Enter your airline and booking class, and sort by Earning Rate to see your options.
As an example, searching United for a flight from SFO-LGA, I found an option in K-class for $154 base fare + $29 in taxes = $184 total. United would award 5 miles/dollar x $154 (base fare) = 770 MileagePlus miles for this flight. According to Where to Credit, if you credit a United K-class ticket to Singapore Airlines, you earn 100% of miles flown. The distance from SFO-LGA (with a layover in ORD) is 2,579 miles; therefore, you would earn 2,579 Singapore KrisFlyer miles if you credited this flight to Singapore Airlines, more than triple what United would give you.