Earn Miles for Every Flight (In as Few Accounts as Possible)

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When you buy airline tickets, you should always take advantage of the opportunity to earn miles from your flights.

Because you can typically earn miles for any flight with your choice of many different frequent flyer programs, you can concentrate your miles in just a few frequent flyer accounts (instead of spreading them out across many different programs). This can help you more quickly build up meaningful balances.

Why earn miles from every flight?

Many people don’t bother earning miles when they fly (at least on airlines they don't fly very often). They probably figure that they’ll never earn enough miles to pay for a free flight, so why bother. Not earning miles is like leaving free money on the street. Collecting miles is likely to provide at least some value.

  • You don't always need to fly very often to be able to use your miles for frequent flyer tickets.
    • You can combine miles from many different airlines into a single account. As discussed in more detail below, for any given flight, you can choose to earn miles with one of many different frequent flyer programs. That allows you to gradually collect the miles from different flights on different airlines into the same account. You just need to take an extra minute to find the place on the airline’s website where you can choose which frequent flyer program you want to use.
    • You might be able to combine miles you earn from flying with miles you get from your credit card points, so you don't need to fly as much to build up the miles you need for a free ticket. Some credit cards earn points that can be transferred to a set of many different frequent flyer programs. For example, any Ultimate Rewards points you earn can be combined with your United miles to have enough to book a free ticket. Looked at another way, any points you earn with a frequent flyer program can offset the number of credit card points you'd need to use for a free ticket. Introduction to 'Transferable' Reward Points.
    • You might be able to combine miles from different family member’s accounts to make it easier to get enough miles to book a free ticket.  Some frequent flyer programs allow you to combine miles from multiple family member’s accounts. If so, it is much easier to eventually earn enough miles for a free ticket. You might even be able to earn a free ticket after only a single international trip. Frequent Flyer Programs where Family Members Can Share Their Miles.
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  • You might be surprised and wind up earning enough additional miles for a free flight sometime in the future. Even if you can’t credit your miles to one of your core set of frequent flyer accounts, you should still try to earn the miles. You never know what the future holds. Perhaps you’ll wind up flying on that airline again. You don’t want to miss an opportunity for a free ticket, because you didn’t bother collecting miles from an earlier flight. Once several months of passed, it is too late to go back and claim your miles.
  • Even if you never earn enough miles for a free flight, you can still get some value from your points. Realistically you may never earn enough miles in some programs for a free ticket. Fortunately, most programs allow you to redeem smaller number of points for other things—allowing you to get some value from the points you earn. For example, you can use Spirit Airlines miles to purchase magazine subscriptions.
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  • AwardWallet makes it easy to keep track of your frequent flyer accounts. If you take our advice and sign up for AwardWallet, it eliminates the downsides of having additional frequent flyer accounts. It will remember your account information, so you don’t have to. Use AwardWallet to Easily Manage Your Loyalty Program Information.
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  • It takes only a few minutes to sign up. Yes, it does take a minute to sign up for a new frequent flyer account. But it doesn’t take much more than that. The value of the miles you earn are likely to make it worthwhile.
Don't Focus Too Hard on the Miles You can Earn from Your Trips

Balance the cost of any flights with the value of the miles you can earn. But it doesn’t make sense to spend a huge premium, just to make sure you are earning miles with your favorite program. At the same time, miles are valuable, so it can sometimes be worth paying a somewhat higher fare to get the type of miles you want. If you are aiming for airline status, miles in the targeted program are worth more than just their likely award redemption value.

Many people focus on trying to be very loyal to a specific airline, in order to earn as many redeemable and status qualifying miles as they can. The benefits of elite status are lower than they’ve ever been, and you are usually better off just taking advantage of well-priced and/or convenient tickets instead.

Consolidating your miles in a small set of accounts

In most cases, you only need a small number of frequent flyer accounts. You can credit flights on dozens of different airlines to each of those accounts, without needing to set up separate accounts for each airline.

  • It is almost always better to earn miles in as few programs as possible. The more you concentrate the miles you earn, the easier it is to accumulate enough miles for award tickets and possibly earn enough in a year to get elite airline status. In addition, you’ll have fewer accounts to manage and keep active (to avoid losing your miles).
  • You can credit airline miles from a flight to any airline in the alliance or to most other partner airlines. For example, you can credit a flight on Singapore Airlines, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Hawaiian, or many other airlines to your United Airlines account.
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  • With one account per major alliance, you are can earn miles on most major airlines. Most people should choose one frequent flyer program for each alliance: Star Alliance, Oneworld, and SkyTeam. Then you can credit any participating flights to those accounts. You can these accounts for many non-alliance flights as well.
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  • The most straightforward approach is focus on the US-based airlines. Use an United account to earn miles from all your Star Alliance flights, an American or an Alaska account to earn miles from all your Oneworld flights, and a Delta account to earn miles from all your SkyTeam flights.
  • Choosing between American and Alaska for your Oneworld flights is a little more complicated. If you primarily fly on Alaska and you expect to earn at least level mid-level status, you probably want to credit your Oneworld flights to Alaska. You'll get your best chance of first-class upgrades and have the benefits of being able to credit flights from several extra international partners. Otherwise, it is probably better to choose American Airlines, so that you have the opportunity to use credit card spending to close the gap to the next status level and to gain elite benefits on JetBlue. American Airlines and Alaska Airlines elite members get most of the same benefits when flying on the other airline as that airline's own elite members.
  • However, if you are willing to spend the time to do the analysis, you may be better off using a foreign airline’s frequent flyer program instead. Foreign programs can provide a faster path to elite status and/or better earning and redeeming opportunities. It can be a bit complicated to figure out which program is the best for your individual circumstances, but once you've made your decision, it takes very little extra effort to select your favorite program each time you take a flight. For more details see The Best Frequent Flyer Programs for Earning Miles from Your Flights.
  • Sometimes, you are just going to have to set up a new account. While you can frequently choose to earn miles with one of your core frequent flyer accounts, there will be times you can’t, and you’ll need to set up a new account. Before you rush to set up an account with the airline you are flying, make sure to consider signing up for a new account with one of their partners instead. If the partner airlines has a set of other partners that you might fly in the future, you are more likely to be able to eventually earn additional miles in that account. Or a partner program may just be a better program for earning or redeeming miles.
Keep Your Points from Expiring

With most frequent flyer programs, you will lose your points if your account is inactive for some period of time (ranging from 12 to 36 months). One of the advantages of focusing on a small set of accounts is that it more likely that you will generate some activity in each one. However, if you don't wind up using a frequent flyer account for some time, you can usually take steps to keep the account alive or to redeem the miles for some sort of non-flight purchase (rather than having them expire). Keep Your Points from Expiring.

When you should earn miles with a different account

It usually makes sense to choose to earn miles with one of your core frequent flyer accounts. However, it may sometimes be worthwhile to set up or choose a different account instead (even if that means spreading your miles over multiple accounts).

  • Each frequent flyer program will give you a different number of miles for the same flights. Every frequent flyer program maintains their own mileage earning chart that controls the “multiplier” used for different classes of service. Class of service doesn’t just mean whether you are flying in the economy, business, or first-class cabin. Each of those main types of tickets has several different “classes of service" buckets, which are indicated by a single letter, such as "R" class. Each fare bucket has different rules and pricing. For example, highly discounted coach tickets will be in one fare class, more expensive coach tickets will in a different fare class, and fully refundable coach tickets in yet another class. If you fly on a super-discounted rate, you might earn 50% of miles flown with one program, 25% of miles flown with another, and no miles at all with yet another program. If you fly on a premium ticket, you might earn double the miles with one program and only regular miles with another. Or a program may give you “miles” based on the actual price you paid for the ticket. Determine How Many Miles You Will Earn for Your Flight.
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  • If you will be flying a lot of miles on a trip and you can receive a significant number of extra miles with a specific program, you should consider choosing it, instead of your normal account. Most of the time, we prefer to concentrate the miles we earn in our core set of frequent flyer accounts. However, if we are taking a long trip, we will sometimes choose to credit the flight to an alternative program that will credit us with a lot more miles.
  • You might also consider crediting to an alternative program if you are trying to take advantage of a special promotion or status-earning opportunity. For example, you might be in a position to take a status challenge with a particular program or to take advantage of some other frequent flyer promotion. 

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