A Beginner's Guide to How Airline Miles Work


5 minute read

When it comes to choosing a loyalty program that best suits your lifestyle, it can be very overwhelming. That’s why we created this guide to breakdown the difference between airline miles (or frequent flyer miles) and points, along with in-depth explanations of what airline miles are, what they’re worth, the best way to redeem and earn them, and why, in the end, it may be worth going with a major bank loyalty program versus an airline rewards program.

1. Value and Comparisons

While Card Curator is the only company that is able to objectively value miles, the general consensus out there is that airline miles are not traditionally valued.  Although, various experts have tried to assign a value to airline miles through their personal experiences of redeeming them for travel. They sometimes consult their friends, colleagues, and other travel hackers to get their views. However, there is no scientific process for valuing them.

Moreover, programs vary greatly in value, especially considering US carriers alone: they vary in value from 0.9 cents for Hawaiian Miles to 1.8 cents for Alaska Miles, per Card Curator’s most recent valuations. Most US airlines fall somewhere between 1.3 and 1.5 cents in value, such as JetBlue, United, American Airlines, and Southwest, among others.

Internationally, airline miles from across the world are generally within the range of 0.8 cents to 1.8 cents, with most valued around 1.3 cents on average. That being said, travelers can get much more or much less value out of miles depending on exactly how they redeem them. Redeeming them for business or first class on international travel may yield an average of 2 to 3 cents in value, potentially getting as high as 10 cents or more.

2. The Best Way to Earn Miles

Credit card sign-up bonuses are the fastest and cheapest way to earn airline miles. On average, you can earn 70,000 miles for a $3,000 minimum spend over a three month period, and you can typically do this multiple times per year. 

The next best way is through daily credit card spending by maximizing category bonuses with a card that earns 3-4x for, say, groceries or dining. 

In general, the best cards are the ones issued by major banks that earn rewards through their own points programs, such as the Amex Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards. Those points programs are fully transferable between many airlines and hotels, making their flexibility very attractive. This also increases their points value and doesn’t lock you into only one program.

3. Ease of Booking

Flying economy to the Caribbean, Europe, or South America? Then one sign-up bonus alone is currently enough to book yourself a round trip! Since the miles needed to fly economy range from 40,000 to 80,000, the average credit card sign-up bonus of 70,000 points or miles will do the trick. Not to mention, sign-up bonuses can even be as high as 100,000 or 150,000 points or miles sometimes.

On the flip side, flying business class will typically take two credit card sign-up bonuses in order to attain the amount of miles needed. Usually, it all depends on how much you spend. Assuming an average of $4,000 is the minimum spend needed per sign-up bonus, it will probably take about three months per card for the average American to meet that spend. That being said, it’ll take way less time if you spend a lot more.

4. What Else to Redeem with your Airline Miles 

Short answer: nothing. Using your airline miles to redeem anything other than award travel is a pretty bad call. As nice as it may sound to have a shiny new iPad or toaster, or even a trip on a cruise, the value always plummets to less than 1 cent. Redeeming your airline miles for award travel will always yield the best and most lucrative results, especially when redeeming the miles for business or first class international travel.

5. Maximizing Airline Mile Value

The best way to maximize airline mile value is to compare the prices in dollars against the miles before you book, that way you can always be sure you’re getting at least 1.5 cents in value out of your miles. Personally, I never redeem my miles for anything less than that, and typically strive for 2 cents per mile.

As mentioned above, you’ll get the best value out of airline miles when redeeming them for premium cabins, such as business and first class, especially when it comes to international travel. However, redeeming airline miles for international travel in economy or premium can also be of great value. A good rule of thumb is to know that redeeming airline miles for domestic travel in economy will not give you a good value, though it can during peak travel dates.

6. Potential Issues
When redeeming miles, the most common and largest issue tends to be not finding good award availability. You’ll almost always find a price for miles for your trip if you’re looking to fly on one of the main carrier airlines, but the price is usually way too high and could only be 1 cent of a mile in value, or even less. Simply put: that’s not a good value at all. Award availability has not been an issue during Covid, though it is starting to get difficult to find again as more and more travel restrictions continue to be lifted. If you’re flying internationally on a different partner carrier, award availability is much harder to find and will typically be blank; in other words, not showing any value at all. So, the best advice is to be flexible with your travel dates.

7. Picking the Right Airline Miles Program

As with most things, this can be entirely subjective, but usually depends on where you are based. Of course, you need to have access to the airline; some cities don’t have a bevy or airline options, while others have an abundance, which is something people often forget or don't even think about. If you’re ok with some layovers, most cities will have a variety of airlines that fly there but aren’t hubs, so it really comes back down to the value. One World generally has better values (such as American Airlines and Alaska Airlines) than the other alliances.

Another important consideration should be if you have status with an airline, as you will rack up miles faster by actually flying them. If you don’t have status, then you’ll want flexibility, which means it’d be best to focus on the bank programs like Amex Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Want to maximize your airline miles? Then be sure to download the Card Curator app on the App Store or on Google Play today!


Written by John Garner
John Garner is the founder & CEO of Card Curator. John spent 5+ years as a volatility trader for Merrill Lynch before deciding to start Card Curator and follow his real passion: credit card rewards and travel. To date, he has visited almost 90 countries by using rewards earned from 100+ credit cards. He’s an expert in all things related to credit cards and free travel, and loves helping others crack the code in the points and miles game.

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