Updated June 22, 2020.
In 2019, I flew to Verona, Italy with my husband; London, England with my husband; Edinburgh, Scotland with my brother; Denver, CO on my own; and Casablanca and Tangier, Morocco with my husband… all using miles we earned flying with United and the Star Alliance! We hoarded miles for so long while Steve was earning his Million Miles with United and all the benefits that brings, so we took full advantage of those miles when we saw opportunities. And I’m here to help you figure out how to do that, too!
I’m putting the fine print right up front for you! There are definitely a few things to take into consideration when using airline miles to book your flight.
You can pay for the flight itself with miles, but you will still have to pay the taxes. Within the United States, that can be as low as $11.20, but different countries have different tax rules. For instance, last March our flight from D.C. to London cost us $11.20, but the taxes for the return flight from London to D.C. were $180.03! So don’t be blindsided; you will always have to pay the taxes.
Redeeming vs. Earning Miles
You won’t be able to double-dip. This means that while you’re using reward miles, you won’t also be earning more miles. For instance, when I used miles to Edinburgh, I used 60,000 miles, but earned none. If I’d paid for my ticket instead, I would have earned about 20,000 miles instead to put toward a future flight.
How to Earn Airline Miles
Before you can use them, you’ll have to earn them! Pro tip: You’ll earn miles more quickly by picking one airline for your loyalty.
Sign Up for Loyalty Programs
Before you buy that plane ticket, sign up for the airline’s loyalty program. They all have one! United’s is Mileage Plus, American Airlines’s is AAdvantage, Delta’s is Sky Miles, Southwest’s is Rapid Rewards, etc. Even if you don’t think you’ll fly with them again, sign up anyway. You never know!
Pro Tip: If you didn’t sign up before you purchased the ticket but still want the miles, you can put your reservation number into your loyalty account. If you’ve already taken the flight, call the airline to get your miles. Make sure you have your loyalty account number, reservation number, and date of travel handy! Most airlines have a grace period for that situation.
There are a few ways to earn miles, but you can definitely still earn miles the old fashioned way, by actually flying! How many miles you earn depends on how much you spend on your ticket (the “fare class”). It’s pretty simple: You fly, you get the miles, then you use the miles to fly some more!
Use an Airline Credit Card
Want to earn miles faster? You can do it with an airline credit card. Often you will earn one point per dollar spent on everyday purchases, but more points per dollar that you spend on tickets and purchases on their website. You’ll use those miles the same way you’ll use the miles you accrue from flying.
Have you been earning miles or points with a credit card, but you’re not sure how to use them? Check out my post on How to Use Credit Card Points for Travel!
How to Redeem Airline Miles
Now that you’ve got them, use them!
Visit the Airline’s Website
You may find amazing deals on third-party websites, but you won’t be able to use miles there. You can only use reward miles on an airline’s website.
Search for the Flights You Want
Search for flights the way you normally would, but be sure to check the box that says, “Book with Miles” or something similar.
When searching for the flights you want, the same rules apply as if you were looking pay for a ticket outright: prices vary! A good rule of thumb is that one “mile” equals one cent if you want to make a “miles to dollars” comparison. Think Economy is always cheapest? Check out the table below: the Business Saver (that means lay-flat seats and better service!) is a lot less than the Premium Economy ticket! Look at all your options.
Additionally, some days will cost less money or fewer miles either way you look at it. For instance, as you can see below, the cheapest Saturday flight costs nearly twice as many miles as the cheapest Friday flight! Be flexible for the best deals!
Need more money saving tips to fuel your travels? Check out the Beginner’s Guide to Using Credit Card Points for Travel and my Saving and Money Page!
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