Are Frequent Flyer Miles Worth It?
It seems like there's no lack of credit card and airline companies trying to win your business by dangling frequent flyer miles in front of you. While their promotions may look tempting, you may find yourself asking if frequent flyer miles are worth the hassle. Honestly, the specifics of how frequent flyer perks work can make a traveler’s head spin. It can be a learning curve that’s complicated to understand and use — sort of like a moving target.
Let’s look at the basics of the ever-changing world of frequent flyer miles, so you can eventually answer this question of “worth” for yourself.
What are frequent flyer miles?
Airline miles, also known as frequent flyer miles or travel points, are part of a loyalty program offered by airlines and/or credit cards. Miles or points are like currency a traveler can earn in a variety of ways. That currency can be applied towards future travel. You can earn miles from air travel, car rentals, hotel stays, and affiliate shopping sites. You can even buy points or supplement earned miles with cash. Travelers can earn by signing up for free airline programs, using a mile-earning major credit card for travel expenses (and even everyday purchases), or using a specific airline’s credit card. With airline alliances like the big three — Star Alliance, One World, and Sky Team — you can earn miles from one airline and redeem with another in the same alliance. Doing your research on airline partnerships can help make your miles go further if you're a member of several programs.
How frequent flyer miles work
Frequent flyer miles or points work like any other rewards program. You buy things and, over time, accumulate points. While it sounds great to be rewarded with points or miles that can be converted to cash towards travel, it’s not always clear how much those points are worth, and finding out isn’t always clear-cut. Just as the U.S. dollar is worth a different amount than other country’s currency, each reward program has its own specific value.
Most airlines have a public award chart, but each airline’s chart is different. These charts set the price for a flight based on where you want to go and where you’re departing from. Some are based on regions and others are based on flying distance. Experts say travelers should use their miles instead of hanging on to them, as the value most likely will decrease — or at least change — over time.
Airline vs. credit card programs
As mentioned earlier, a traveler can sign up for airline programs or a credit card that earns miles. Certain credit cards only work with certain airlines, while others are more flexible with airlines and points transfer. A bonus for the traveler however, is that you can use both at the same time to accumulate points faster.
Every airline has their own free frequent flyer program where you can accumulate miles by flying with that airline. When you sign up, you’ll use your assigned account number every time you book a flight. As long as you keep booking flights, you’ll accumulate miles over time that you can convert to a free flight (or a portion of one). Even better, you can hold accounts with multiple airlines as well, earning miles with each one. You may decide that one airline has a better deal than another, or choose airlines that regularly offer deals to locations you travel to frequently.
If you've signed up for a credit card rewards program, you earn points when you make purchases. Buy enough and eventually you can redeem points for frequent flyer miles. How much these points are worth depends on a variety of factors: promotions, partnerships, annual fees, terms and conditions of the card itself, and any other benefits or restrictions. It can pay to get a credit card offering large bonus miles just for signing up, then using that card to make your everyday purchases. Some cards will offer double or triple the miles for a period of time or offer more for things like groceries or gas. Jumping on a promotion and spending $1000+ can really pay off. So how does a person choose? Consider which airline has a “hub” in the airport you’re most likely to use and which airline has frequent flights to cities you often visit. You can maximize your rewards redemption potential by choosing a credit card that allows you to use travel points through their partners. Keep in mind that with certain travel credit cards, you'll earn the most by booking directly through the airline. Do your research before you decide what may work best for your situation, and always read the fine print.
Compare frequent flyer and reward programs
We suggest doing some homework to decide which airline and/or credit card program is best for you and your travel habits. Check out a few of the latest on credit card and airline program deals to help you get started:
- The Points Guy helps break down what points and miles are worth.
- Credit Karma lists some of the best airline rewards programs.
- Forbes shares its list of the best airline credit cards.
Many travelers score big when strategically earning and using frequent flyer miles. With some calculated planning and a little know-how, you can enjoy using miles as well — and hopefully travel even more in the future. When you’re ready to travel, remember to protect the trip you worked so hard to earn. Get a travel insurance quote today.