How to Earn Miles and Fly for Free

As I boarded the plane to Costa Rica, the scan of Dave’s boarding pass showed that he was now sitting in seat 4D, not 21E as his old boarding pass had said.  Well, 4D is pretty close to the front, which meant that my loving husband had been upgraded to first class while I was stuck back in coach.  This hardly seemed fair!  Being as it was our 1 year anniversary trip (and hopefully even if it wasn’t), he ended up switching seats to remain with me back in coach, thereby giving another unsuspecting passenger a seat up in first class.  But it got me thinking.  Dave is fortunate because he flies a lot for work, but even though I’ve never had a job that required travel, I still had managed to score my fair share of free flights and upgrades.  What are some tricks that can help you to earn frequent flier miles so that you can reap the maximum benefits from the airlines?

1.  Know the alliances.  Most airlines in the world fall into one (or more) of the three main alliances for earning and redeeming frequent flier miles.  These are:

  • Star Alliance (US Carriers: United Airlines & US Air)
  • SkyTeam (US Carrier: Delta)
  • Oneworld (US Carrier: American Airlines)

There are many one-off airlines that have their own programs (JetBlue, SouthWest…Etihad) but for the most part, these are the big three for global travel.  Even if an airline has their own program (like Qantas), they sometimes ALSO belong to one of these alliances and thus you can earn your miles in one of the “Big Three” (for Qantas, it’s Oneworld) rather than the Qantas’ own program that you’ll probably never use if you’re not Australian.

It is to your benefit that once you start traveling, you join all three of these programs (plus any one-off programs for airlines you use that aren’t part of the the Big Three) but you do your best to stick to just one program.  If you stick to one program, you can end up with a sizable amount of miles and actually use them for a free trip or an upgrade.  If you’re left with a few thousand miles across all carriers, you’ll probably just trade those in for some magazine subscriptions in few years.  That’s really lame.

2.  Know the partners.  Obviously United, Delta and American Airlines are not going to cover you very much once your travel plans don’t originate from the US.  That is why these airlines develop alliances in the first place.  One carrier actually flies the plane, but an another carrier gets to call it their flight.  So sometimes you’ll end up on a flight that has like five airline codes attached to it – “code shares”.  I actually don’t think United Airlines even owned planes before they merged with Continental.  They simply tacked on their codes to one of their partners’ flights and Tah-Dah!! Its a United flight now – never mind that writing on the plane that says Lufthansa, Turkish, Swiss Air, South African Airways or All Nippon…to name a few.

All Nippon Airways to New York Boarding in Tokyo

All Nippon Airways, a United Codeshare Flight, Star Alliance - Boarding in Tokyo

3.  Travel within your alliance.  There is a ridiculously complex structure to all of these alliances, but figuring it all out is never more than a wikipedia search away.  Just search for the airline, and there will be a section in there that tells you which alliance they belong to.  It will also usually provide info on if the airline is planning on switching alliances, or leaving the alliance program all together.

So, when you’re faced with a choice of which airline to fly, you should just see which alliance they belong to and, still keeping price in mind of course, try to stick with your selected alliance.  I’ve found that Star Alliance is by far the best and gives you the best selection of carriers all over the globe at reasonable rates.

4.  Always ALWAYS ALWAYS make sure that your frequent flier number shows up on your boarding pass when you check into your flight.  Even if you entered it when you booked the flight, it could always mysteriously disappear.  If its not there, have a ticket agent add it and reprint your boarding pass, or enter it at the kiosk.  If you noticed its missing too late to do that, keep the boarding pass stub.  After your trip, you’ll have to go on the airlines website to request retroactive credit for the miles you traveled.  You’ll need all of the information on the boarding pass, and some of that information isn’t easily available without it.  SO KEEP THE BOARDING PASS!  Then wait until you get the credit…all this time still KEEPING THE BOARDING PASS!

5.  Consider an airline-sponsored credit card.  Aside from the benefits that are usually offered with the card itself, such as free checked baggage and the ability to earn double or triple miles when paying for a flight using the card, they usually give you a boatload of free miles for signing up.  This is a one-time bonus, and usually these cards charge fees every year, but it could still be worth it.  I flew to Vietnam and Australia on United, then got the credit card, and that was enough for a free round-trip business class ticket to Dubai for my honeymoon a few years later.

You may also have another credit card where you earn points, such as an American Express.  Often times you can link your credit card to a frequent flier program and transfer credit card points into miles.

6.  Take advantage of everything.  Every service nowadays seems to have a loyalty program.  Many of these link to the airline’s loyalty programs.  This means that you can earn airline miles while renting a car, staying in a hotel, shopping online…everything!  Pimp out your frequent flier number and consider using it at every purchasing decision.  Buying a new computer?  If you use United’s Milage Plus mall online, you can earn double or triple miles on your Apple or Dell purchases.  Sending someone flowers?  Shop through your airline and you’ll get a better price on flowers AND earn miles at the same time.  All of this adds up and means free travel for you!

Have you had success navigating the airline alliance structure?  Score any amazing deals with your miles?  I’d love to hear about it below!  Happy flying 🙂

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2 Responses to “How to Earn Miles and Fly for Free”

  1. Matt Critelli
    November 16, 2011 at 10:36 am #

    I’m a big fan of this program: …Tons of restaurants give you delta skymiles if you use your registered card there. All you need to do is login and register any card (visa, amex, mc) and use it to get miles at participating restaurants. There’s a bunch and a lot of times I get miles from restaurants I didn’t even no participated.

    • Anonymous
      November 16, 2011 at 11:11 am #

      Yes! Great program. That’s also a really good way to keep your miles from expiring. Earning miles at a restaurant will extend the expiration date for all of your Delta miles.