What are Air Miles and How Do They Work?

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Air miles, also known as airline miles or frequent flyer miles, are rewards you can earn through certain loyalty programs. But how do air miles work? Join us for a crash course in air miles rewards to find out how they work, how to earn them and how to find the best air miles plan for you. 

What Are Air Miles?

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These days, many credit cards come with rewards programs. Some allow you to earn cash-back rewards, while others reward you with travel points or air miles. When you collect a certain number of miles or points, you can redeem them for things like free flights, hotel stays, or other travel-related purchases. 

The travel rewards programs of today largely sprang from frequent flyer programs of the past. Originally, frequent flyer programs were a way to reward travelers for flying a certain number of miles through a particular airline. Much like other loyalty programs, the more miles you flew, the more free air miles you could earn. 

These days, however, it’s less about how far you fly and more about how much money you spend. Many air mile rewards programs are now linked to credit cards. Some airlines have their own branded cards, while others partner with major providers such as Visa and Mastercard. 

How Do Air Miles Work?

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The key to finding the best air miles plan is realizing that air miles can work very differently from one program to the next. In general, most travel rewards programs are associated with a credit card. If you tend to travel frequently with one particular airline, it may be worth looking into whether they offer a branded card. Otherwise, you’re probably better off going with a more flexible travel card from a major provider. 

Different cards offer a variety of different ways to earn air miles, from booking travel through their online portals to simply spending on everyday purchases. It’s also important to look into how to calculate air miles as far as how much money each mile you earn is actually worth. 

Figuring out how many air miles you’ll need for a free flight won’t necessarily be as easy as calculating the number of actual miles to your destination. This is why air miles are sometimes referred to as “travel points,” which is merely a less misleading name for the same concept. 

The retail value of air miles can vary depending on the loyalty program, but according to research from Value Penguin, air miles are worth an average of around 1.3 cents apiece. 

For a more detailed comparison of the value of miles from various programs, visit The Points Guy’s continually updated air mile valuation comparison chart. It’s also essential to look into how exactly each card’s redemption program works. 

Do you have to earn a minimum number of miles before cashing in? Can air miles be redeemed through any airline or only one? Can the points only be redeemed for flights, or can they also be used for things like hotels and car rentals? The answers to these questions can vary widely based on the program.

How to Earn Air Miles

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As mentioned, different airlines will reward you with points for different activities. That’s why it’s important to get a thorough breakdown of each card’s earning opportunities when searching for the best air miles card for you. While you’ll obviously be rewarded for traveling, most cards offer plenty of other ways to earn extra miles. 

Sign-Up Bonuses

One of the quickest ways to earn bonus miles is to find a card that offers a generous signup bonus. Just beware that actually cashing in on the bonus offer usually entails spending a certain amount of money within a given timeframe. For instance, the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card offers three free nights at participating hotels (equal to 150,000 points) if you spend $3,000 within three months of signing up. 

Everyday Purchases

If you’re not a frequent traveler, but would like to be, then you might consider signing up for a card like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which offers 1.25 – 2 miles for every dollar on every purchase you make. 

Shopping Portals

Some airline cards, such as the American Airlines Advantage Card offer associated shopping portals that you can use to shop online at thousands of popular retailers. Simply by shopping through the portal, you’ll earn extra air miles, even if you don’t pay with your AA Advantage card. 

Bonus Spending Categories

Cards like the Citi Premier® Card allow you to earn bonus points on everyday purchases at restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card also offers bonus opportunities for things like dining, streaming services and online grocery purchases. 

Are Air Miles Reward Cards Worth It?

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Now comes the major question: are travel reward credit cards worth it? The answer highly depends on both how often you travel and which card you choose. 

Many travel rewards credit cards charge an annual fee, which will reduce your overall savings. Additionally, you’ll want to take a good look at the card’s APR and never spend more than you’re sure you can pay off before getting hit with interest. 

After all, there’s little point in saving hundreds on travel each year if you’re losing thousands in interest costs. It’s also worth considering if you would earn more money with a cash-back card instead. A survey from NerdWallet found that “domestic travelers who spend less than $8,600 per year on travel expenses would earn higher overall rewards with a cash-back card than a travel card.”

If you are a frequent traveler, however, it may be worth looking into an air miles plan. Booking flights and hotels through the program may be a good way to score the best deals while racking up extra bonus miles. Air miles cards may also be worth considering if you’re not the best at tucking away cash and want an effortless way to save for your dream vacation.