How Mile and Point Programs Work

I am always amazed when I begin to discuss the concept of taking advantage of 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 50,000, miles – like some of the ones that are offered on our Travel Points Credit Cards Page -essentially that could be 2 domestic flights.  If you figure that each of those is worth about $400… you’ll get the equivalent of $800 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 for example, you can fly to Central America or even northern South America for 30,000 miles.

A simple way to think of it, though it doesn’t always remain true, is that it this is the breakout on most point programs.

  • 25k+ for a domestic flight
  • 35k+ for a Central America flight
  • 50k-60+ for a flight to Europe or South America 
  • 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 went to Honduras, I flew on 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 meant an overnight layover in Atlanta, but it actually worked out for me, though, because it enabled 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 saver programs from American and United.

FF miles offer an amazing opportunity.  Don’t let them go to waste.

5 Responses to How Mile and Point Programs Work

  1. C Johnson says:

    I appreciate your feedback. Do you know if Wells Fargo points can be transferred to other companies for points, miles, etc?

    • Sheldon says:

      @courtney- Not to my knowledge. As I understand it you can probably get gift cards to AA, Delta, United, etc., but I don’t think that you can actually transfer them to any of the travel companies. Good time to switch cards, right? :)

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  4. Angie Balzen says:

    Hi Brad! This is Angie Balzen. Keven and I starting our journey in the world of credit card points and such. The question I have right now is, how do you use the points for two people? Do we need two seperate cards? I’ll just ask you this question for now, but I’m sure I will have more. :)

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