What Are Travel Miles: A Comprehensive Guide

travel miles

If you’ve ever booked airfare directly through an airline’s website, you’ve probably seen the option to pay in travel miles or points instead of U.S. dollars. But maybe you haven’t quite been able to answer the question, What are travel miles, and how do I obtain them? The below guide should give you all the answers.

What Are Travel Miles?

Travel miles, also known as frequent flyer miles or airline miles, are travel rewards you earn when you buy plane tickets. You can also accrue travel miles when you use certain airline credit cards on all types of purchases. Once you’ve accrued enough, you can exchange them for a free flight or other travel perks.

You can also think of this as an airline’s currency. In that case, travel miles would have an equivalent USD value. Experts have calculated that, depending on the airline, one travel mile is worth between 0.7 and 2 cents.

How Do Travel Miles Work?

The easiest way to accumulate travel miles is to register for a specific airline’s loyalty program. Once you’re enrolled, you’ll earn points every time you buy flight tickets directly from the airline’s website while logged into your account. Once you’ve taken the flight in question, you’ll see your newly earned miles in your account. Should you take this approach, you’ll earn varying quantities of flight miles based on your flight price, trip distance, and seat class. 

You can also earn credit card miles with certain co-branded airline credit cards. With these airline cards, which are offered by a major credit network like Visa or MasterCard in partnership with the airline, you’ll earn rewards points with every purchase you make, whether from an airline or not. That said, you’ll likely earn a greater number of miles for flights, hotel stays, and other related purchases. The same is true when your credit card issuer partners with certain companies for limited-time promotions.

Another key thing about travel miles: Most of the time, they’re specific to one airline. For example, if you’ve earned 10,000 travel miles on American Airlines, you likely can’t transfer them to United. However, you may be able to use your American Airlines travel miles to buy flight tickets from airlines in its alliance. Each major U.S. airline belongs to such an alliance.

How to Earn Travel Miles

There are four key ways to earn:

Booking Flights

Buying plane tickets is the most obvious way to earn travel miles. You’ll need to actually take the flight you’ve booked rather than just buying it and awaiting your travel rewards. You may also want to consider opting into airline loyalty programs’ elite tiers to earn more travel miles per mile flown or dollar spent.

Making Reservations With Travel Partners

In some cases, an airline with which you’re looking to earn travel miles will have partnerships with hotel and rental car companies. If you enter your frequent flyer number when you book with these companies, you can earn flight miles. For example, you can use American Airlines miles to rent cars through Alamo. Alternatively, in some cases, you can rent cars or book hotels with your travel points right from the airline website interface where you book flights.

Using Credit Cards

As travel miles go, you should concern yourself with two types of credit cards: airline credit cards and general travel rewards credit cards. Airline credit cards earn you extra money whenever you buy flights with the airline behind the card. They earn a smaller amount on non-travel purchases. 

General rewards cards earn a small amount of rewards on pretty much every purchase. They also facilitate the transfer of these points directly to frequent flyer accounts. However, most general rewards cards only allow you to transfer your points to certain airlines. These airlines are called transfer partners. American Express, for example, counts Delta and JetBlue, but not American Airlines or United, among its 17 transfer partners.

Making Purchases Via Dining Partners and Airline Shopping Portals

Many airlines offer dining programs through which you earn extra miles for dining out. For example, through the Spirit Airlines dining program, you can earn five points for every dollar you spend at restaurants. If you’re big on going to restaurants with friends, you can earn travel miles relatively quickly through dining programs.

Similarly, many airlines have their own web portals for rewards-heavy online shopping. If you make certain purchases from these portals instead of from another tab in your web browser, you’ll earn extra miles. A great example is the American Airlines AAdvantage eShopping portal, where you can earn extra miles on purchases from Kohl’s, CVS, and more.

How to Spend Your Travel Miles

Once you’ve earned a bunch of travel miles, you’ll probably want to do something with them. To that end, the most common ways that people spend theirs include the below.

Flight Purchases

When you search for flights through airline websites, you can see prices listed in miles or points instead of dollars. If you have enough miles, you can purchase free flights. You’ll still have to pay taxes and fees, but the flight itself will be free.

You can often use your miles for one airline on another airline within its alliance. Chances are your airline of choice is in one of the major three alliances: Oneworld, SkyTeam, and StarAlliance. For example, since both Delta and Air France belong to SkyTeam, you might be able to use your Delta miles for Air France flights.

Other Travel Purchases

Some airline loyalty programs earn you points that you can use to book rental cars, cruises, and live entertainment. In some cases, points can help you pay for airline lounge membership fees, charitable donations, and vacation packages. However, the dollar value per mile when you go this route is typically much lower than with flight purchases. That said, a free rental car may make more short-term sense than continuing to save long-term for flights.

Non-Travel Purchases

You may be able to use travel miles for non-travel purchases as well, but doing so is rarely a smart move. That’s because the dollar value used for non-travel purchases is especially low. Prioritizing long-term savings over short-term purchases is typically the smarter move.

Best Airlines for Travel Miles

When deciding which airline is best for earning points, the most reliable metric to use is the U.S. dollar per travel mile. That said, this metric itself is somewhat unreliable. Many sources have conducted independent analyses and come up with different values. These values are typically within a cent of each other, so the range of values is likely correct. It’s the exact value that fluctuates. 

Complicating matters further, the USD value of one single travel mile may change in subsequent months. However, between September and October 2021, these values remained constant. For the below nine major U.S. airlines, the values were as follows.

  • Alaska Airlines: $0.018/mile
  • American Airlines: $0.015/mile
  • Delta Air Lines: $0.01/mile
  • Frontier Airlines: $0.011/mile
  • Hawaiian Airlines: $0.009/mile
  • JetBlue Airways: $0.013/mile
  • Southwest Airlines: $0.013/mile
  • Spirit Airlines: $0.011/mile
  • United Airlines: $0.016/mile

Below is a selection of additional airlines and their USD value per mile:

  • Air Canada: $0.015/mile
  • Air France: $0.014/mile
  • British Airways: $0.0125/mile
  • Emirates Airline: $0.011/mile
  • Korean Air: $0.016/mile
  • Lufthansa: $0.013/mile
  • Turkish Airlines: $0.013/mile
  • Virgin Atlantic: $0.014/mile

Based on all these values, Alaska Airlines travel miles correspond to the greatest cash value, and Hawaiian Airlines correspond to the least. That said, Alaska Airlines, as its name suggests, can only get you to so many locations. For airlines with excellent domestic and international options, the USD values of American and United travel miles might be worth a membership.

Start Earning Travel Miles Now

You now know that registering for airline loyalty programs and buying flights directly from airlines is the fastest way to earn travel miles. You’ve also learned that travel credit cards are a great second option. If travel credit cards do seem more up your alley, read our AmEx Green Card review. You’ll learn all about why this card is one of our top picks for earning airline miles with every purchase.

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