There are many hardened travelers who’ve been to the corners of the Earth, crossing the globe on countless flights, yet who’ve never once signed up for a single frequent flyer program. Or you could be the other type of reluctant traveler – the one who takes very few flights in the average year and doesn’t think it’s worth signing up. In 8 minutes you can be signed up and earning thousands of points across more than 50 airlines without any more magic than clicking a mouse and typing on a keyboard.
Why You Really Should Be Earning Frequent Flyer Miles
For the record everyone who travels, whether it’s a lot or a wee little, should be signed up for frequent flyer miles (not doing so is one of 10 common travel mistakes). Aside from the fact that they’re all free to join, you can easily earn free upgrades plus little perks like getting your luggage at the claim faster. Of course free flights as well, even from a single flight or sometimes without flying at all.
Common Misconceptions About Frequent Flyer Miles
Some of the reasons that people don’t sign up for miles programs are because of the misconceptions, such as thinking that nobody ever gets free flights or miles only come from flying.
- Each Airline Has Their Own Program – Most major airlines belong to partner groups, the two largest being Star Alliance and OneWorld. When you sign up for a member program, you typically earn miles when you fly on any partner airlines. You can still only use the miles on the original airline (i.e. United) but earn across all the others.
- You Can Only Earn Miles By Flying – Many frequent flyer programs have online malls through their sites that let you buy from familiar companies (i.e. Dell, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, etc.) to earn multiple miles for each dollar spent. Choose the right bank and you can also earn miles for every dollar you spend.
- Miles Can Only Be Used For Free Flights – More commonly, people use earned miles to get upgrades on longer flights, access airport lounges, and use the business class lines when checking in.
- Past Flights Aren’t Redeemable – You can usually redeem miles for flights you took 3-18 months before you signed up for a frequent flyer program. Just took 3 long flights to Hong Kong from New York before signing up? You’ll still be able to earn the miles for those flights, so sign up!
One point to remember is that signing up to a frequent flyer program doesn’t hurt you in any way, even if you only earn 600 miles a year. They are free and you never know when you might have an unexpected flight half way around the world.
The Quick And Easy Ways To Earn Miles Fast
Now that you know why you should get working with frequent flyer programs, we’ve got a few minutes to get you going and all set up.
- Sign Up For The Major Programs – Pick you favorite Star Alliance member, the one you fly the most (or flies to most of the places you want to go). Do the same with OneWorld and Delta SkyMiles to cover most of the world’s major airlines. Once you have your three (one airline from each partner program) find the link to their miles program on this list.
- Redeem Miles From Past Flights – All the information you usually need is the flight number and date you took the flight. Check your email for past reservation information and add it through the miles program’s website.
- Get Organized – Once you’ve signed up for the various miles programs you can use Award Wallet to keep track of all your frequent flyer miles in one place.
- Earn Bonus Miles Right Away – Most major airlines have credit card programs that come with big bonuses for signing up. (United just ran a promotion for 50,000 miles. 20-30,000 is common for most cards.) Typically you have to spend around $250 in the first 3 months to earn the bonus miles and will earn a mile per dollar on top of that. Purchase things you normally would anyway through the mile program’s online mall and earn more on top of that – you can then cancel the card after 8 months to keep the miles and avoid the annual fee, or just keep earning miles. Be careful though to avoid the hidden underbelly of traveler debt.
- Don’t Forget To Enter Your Frequent Flyer Mile When Booking – It will save you time versus having to go back and enter in the flight information after the fact to redeem miles.
Frequent flyer miles from many programs do expire from if you don’t use your account for a certain period of time. Award Wallet for example, automatically keeps track of the deadlines and will email you 90 days in advance.
You’re Set To Earn And Learn More
That’s about all you need to get started, but there are still more in-depth resources you can use to take yourself from reluctant beginner to a pro.
- Nomadic Matt’s Secrets To Successful World Travel – Get more information about leveraging specific programs and saving money to travel the world on a smart budget.
- Frequent Flyer Master – Chris Guillebeau is traveling to every country in the world using his mile program methods and guarantees you a free flight after reading his ebook.
The number of miles you need for an upgrade varies across programs but generally you can get at least that (if not a full domestic flight) just for signing up and getting some bonus miles by opening up a frequent flyer-linked credit card. That’s just the basic approach but you can also take it further by spending smart and so much more. I hope now, after this 8 minutes, you’re just a bit less reluctant and signed up to at least one frequent flyer program.
[photos by: caribb (jumbo jet at gate), Transguyjay (skeptical man), JustinLowery.com (the miles)]
Great guide Anil. One more tip for Delta Skymiles: save your boarding passes from past flights on partner airlines. We took an Air France flight from Chennai to Paris and Delta refused to honor the miles even though they are a Skyteam partner and it was a Delta codeshare flight because we did not have the boarding passes. On more than one occasion, we have copied our boarding passes and faxed them in to Delta to get frequent flier miles from other airlines.
We have used frequent flier miles for several legs of our round the world trip, earned by flying and through our primary credit card, including a fantastic direct flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg and back for only 90,000 miles.
I’m surprised they didn’t add the miles for that flight at booking. That can be a (very!) frustrating aspect of mile programs. So far I’ve found United Millage Plus to be rather fair and easy to earn miles with and OneWorld as well, with Delta being the most difficult.
Excellent job on this article. My Father travels quite extensively for his job, so I am always attempting to steal his miles for free flights. I still need to sign up for a few of the programs that I am not a part of yet. Thanks for the suggestion of Award Wallet. Looks like a good idea, I will definitely check into it!
Thanks Mark. With the amount you travel + your dad’s miles you must be racking them up quick!
Oh this is a very informative post. Miles do expire as you said, most expire after 18 months of inactivity, and yet I still manage to maintain my three accounts (corresponding to the three major alliances) and yet I don’t even fly that often. Heck, I earn miles just by paying my electricity bill!
United and SkyMiles are 18 months and OnePass never expires but like you say, they only expire if you don’t add any additional miles in that period. With a FF program credit card that’s nearly impossible 🙂
Another common misconception is that you can only redeem miles for round-trip flights. Several airlines, including United, now allow you to redeem miles for one-way tickets without charging you the full round-trip mileage. So now a one-way ticket to Europe or Asia can be had for around 25,000 miles, which is much better than the old system which forced you to give up 50,000 miles regardless of whether or not you wanted a return ticket or not.
I didn’t know that until you told me the other day. That’s great for multi-city flights and adds a whole new dimension to FF miles 🙂
I just went through this with my parents who are booking a trip to Europe this fall. They don’t think they ever use the miles and recently let some expire…which of course killed me. Had I known that I would have had them transfer them and paid the fee myself!
So – also know that if you don’t think you can use the miles – you can always gift them for a small fee! Let others benefit!
Great point and glad you mentioned it. There are so many unused miles floating around out there – my parents fly all the time too but are behind when it comes to FF programs.
This really does pay off. My husband and I used to travel a lot for work, and by holding on to those miles and adding some miles earned through credit cards we were able to pay for 2 tickets to Ecuador to being our RTW trip this fall. I’m still far from an expert on this topic and hope to become a frequent-flyer ninja by reading Chris G’s book.
Chris has some good specific information in the ebook – but good to hear you’re flying for free on a leg of your RTW. You should have no problem racking up miles that extended trip!
I’ve saved up 100k miles on United – It’s been years in the making! I’m very excited but I wish I could get more out of it then 2 tickets to Europe or the like. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get compound miles out of your current miles???
Do I see a niche here?? 🙂
hahah, that would be great! One bonus of having the 100k is being an ‘elite’ member I suppose.
You are not elite by just having 100,000 miles over a few years–you need them all in one year to be elite.
Forgive me–I meant you need to FLY 100,000 miles in one year, or fly business or first frequently.
I have to admit that I have flown dozens and dozens of times and I’ve never been in a Frequent Flyer program. I feel kinda dumb now, after reading this article and realizing I probably could have taken that flight to Puerto Rico last winter for free. Oops. I’m definitely checking that stuff out now.
So glad you’re signing up now, a great decision 🙂
I’ll have to check this out more, I currently sign up for my first frequent flyer program through OnePass which is Continental and was thinking about getting their credit card to help earn miles but I like the idea of a multiple airline one. Wish they would do something similar for airlines in the US.
Your Continental miles will be absorbed into United’s Millage Plus now that they were bought out (got the FF information just yesterday via email). Now you can earn across the Star Alliance members as well.
Great advice Anil. I’m embarrassingly not signed up with a frequent flyer program, but will be doing so right now. Eight minutes well spent!
So happy to hear that, you won’t regret it!
Great tips, Anil, but the problem I run into is that I can never seem to earn enough miles on any one airline (or in any one alliance) before they expire. Because I always book the cheapest flight, my airline miles are spread across a dozen or so frequent flyer programs. I recently signed up for a credit card that allows me to earn miles on every day purchases, which should help, but I just haven’t had much luck in earning enough on any one airline to make a real difference.
Hmmm, when you book on an alliance airline, are you using the same FF account number or the individual account numbers? It might help if you stick to one account for each alliance so you can pool the miles together.