How do Frequent Flier Miles Work?

I am always amazed when I begin to discuss the concept of exploiting credit card offers to build huge piles frequent flier miles and travel for free.  Unfortunately, far too many people haven’t even looked into the programs.  This was painfully obvious in a recent conversation with someone who had traveled to China and neglected to enroll in the FF program, thereby abandoning some 17,000 miles to the netherworlds of lost frequent flier miles that we wanderlusters like to pretend doesn’t exist.  That’s like walking past a Benjamin and not even stooping to pick it up!

To begin with, “miles” is probably a misnomer.  People start to think that you can travel a mile per frequent flier mile.  That’s not how it works… as good as they are, they’re not that good.  You generally accrue miles at that rate, though having status and applying for bonus programs can often get you higher rates of accrual.

With most frequent flier mile programs, you’ll need at least 25,000 miles to take a domestic flight – regardless of how many miles the flight is.  Thus, if you see a credit card offer that generously kicks off 75,000, miles – like the AA Citi AAdvantage deal that people are still grabbing -essentially that could be 3 domestic flights.  If you figure that each of those is worth about $400… you’ll get the equivalent of $1200 in FF benefits for signing up for a single card.  If that sounds too good to be true, think about it in these terms – on AA, you can fly to Central America or even northern South America for 30,000 miles.  Those flights are generally around $600, so figure that you get 2.5 out of your 75k, and the FF mile benefit is closer to $1500.

A simple way to think of it, though it doesn’t always remain true, is that it takes roughly 25k+ for a domestic flight, roughly 35k+ for a Central America flight, 50k+ for a flight to Europe or South America, and closer to 100k for Africa, Asia, and Australia.

The number of miles required for specific flights varies widely by availability, time of year, origin and destination, but I always try to maximize my usage be using the “saver” mile options and using the least amount possible for a given route.

For instance, when I go to Honduras here soon, I’ll be flying Delta.  I opted for Delta because I was able to fly into Tegucigalpa, and out of San Pedro Sula and still use the minimum (35,000) number of miles.  It means an overnight layover in Atlanta, but it actually works out for me, though, because it enables me to catch the Boise State vs. Fresno State game before departing ESPN’s broadcast area for the world of SCUBA diving and Mayan Ruins.

Normally the “mile-pricing” is as dynamic as the pricing on various flights.  FF miles are a bonus program that allow airlines to reward faithful customers and fill flights that might otherwise run a little low, so, as with everything, there’s a premium when demand is high.  Also, they were not all created equal, so it’s nice to have a few different options when looking to book FF mile flights.  Sometimes AA might want 40k miles for a flight that you could get on United for 25k.

There are also special promotions which allow you to travel specific routes for reduced mileage.  Check out these recent posts:

No matter how you slice it, FF miles offer an amazing opportunity.  Don’t let them go to waste.

If you’re spending at least $2k a month for your business, check out this card.

American Express Business Gold Rewards Card. Bonus up to 50,000 Membership Rewards points


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3 Responses to How do Frequent Flier Miles Work?

  1. Karen says:

    I could be wrong, but don’t most airlines give you a year to put in your flight information to get the frequent flyer miles? So, it’s not too late to add the flight details if you have flown recently.

    • Sheldon says:

      Karen, I think that you are right. Keep in mind that you must already have your Frequent Flier account setup or they won’t allow you to get miles for a trip. This happened to my wife. Right after we got married we took a trip to Panama. In the midst of the wedding and everything we didn’t get the AAdvantage account set up before the trip. When we returned from the trip we tried to open the account and get the miles. American Airlines wasn’t so generous and we couldn’t collect on the 8,000 miles of the trip. What a bummer.

  2. Karen says:

    I can’t say for sure, as I just got online and signed my husband up for his account and requested the miles for our most recent flight (Middle to end of September), but I think he will be given the miles for the flight, even though he didn’t have an account before. This was through United. I also just signed up for Delta’s program and put in flight info from February. They said they will get back to me within 30 days. So, it looks like the Airlines are all different, but it worked for United, and looks like it might work for Delta too. I guess people should check with the specific airlines to see if they will allow it.

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