This is the Basic Course for learning about airline frequent flyer miles and the various programs out there. Read it and refer back to it as it does take time to absorb all of the various program rules, tricks, and tips. Master these basics and we can move on the the Advanced Course.
The first step is understanding how you earn a “mile”. An airline calculates a number of miles for a given route based upon its typical route using Great Circle mapping. This is the amount of miles you will earn regardless of the actual number of miles flown. So if the pilot announces that you will be circling the airport for an hour, do not clench your fist and yell “Yesss!” One weird thing about FF miles is that normally you will be awarded the amount of miles between the pair of cities where you take off and land. This is true excpet when you remain on the same flight number for a multiple city flight. So if you fly IAD-IAH-SFO and you have two different flight numbers, you will earn 1190+1635=2,825 miles, but if you fly the same and it has one flight number you will only get the miles for the distance between IAD-SFO or 2,419 miles. I never said frequent flyer programs made sense.
There are also several ways to earn bonus miles when flying. Most commonly this will come from gaining higher levels of status which result in percentage increases to the miles earned ranging from 25-125%. You will also earn bonus miles for paying to fly in business or first class (lucky you!) but note that I said paid tickets. Getting a bump up for free earns you only the same amount as what you would normally earn in coach. Finally, there are often promotional bonuses that you can take advantage of. These are not usually worth taking a special trip for, but if it suits your plans anyway, then take advantage of them. Note that promotional bonuses usually require you to sign up beforehand at the airline’s website. Always sign up for these even if you are not sure, that way you are already covered in case unusual circumstances cause you to take a qualifying flight even if you didn’t intend to.
Next step is to sign up for various airline programs that interest you. A lot of times this will be dictated by where you live as many airlines have “hubs” where they conduct their maintanence and therefore have more flights than most other airlines there. So if you live near Atlanta, you probably need to use Delta as your main FF program since most of the flights you will take will be on Delta just due to the far larger opportunity to fly them from that airport. Plan on having a main program and one or two secondary ones. However, always sign up for a program and never let a mile go to waste as even a small number of miles can be used for some things. Fortunately, most airlines are part of an alliance which you can find more about on this page.
Now to clear up a confusing point on miles. The term “miles” is used to mean two things. There are Redeemable Miles (RDM) that you can earn from credit cards, bonuses, promotions, etc. that are added to the miles you actually travel in a plane and these miles are used to “cash in” and get freebies. The amount of RDM doesn’t matter when determining your status. Status miles are generally called Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM). These miles come almost exclusively from butt-in-seat (BIS) traveling, although there are rare promotions that can give you more for certain flights or a set period. Therefore, on each flight you will earn an amount of RDM and an amount of EQM which may not be the same. For example, as a United 1K, I get a 100% bonus on RDM, but not EQM. so on a recent flight where I flew 2900 miles, I recieved 2900 EQM and 5800 RDM. Sorry if it is confusing, but I didn’t make the rules!
More importantly, these EQM miles are all calculated for a calendar year and so each year you have to start over on 1 January to try to gain status again although you will carry over your status to the year after you earn them. Thus, the earlier in a year you get status, the longer you get to use it since you will have it for the remaining months in that year plus the 12 months of the following year.
For many flyers, obtaining status is the most important reason to fly. Free upgrades to First Class, free drinks, seating with more legroom, no baggage fees are among many benefits that airlines give to their best customers. As discussed on the alliances page, all the miles from different airlines in the alliance can count to raising your status in your main FFP.
Status is generally in three steps, let’s call them Silver, Gold, and Platinum although each airline has their own name for their levels. In general, Silver is awarded after you have flown 25,000 miles, Gold after 50,000 miles and Platinum after an exhausting 100,000 miles. Some airlines will have a fourth tier at 75,000 or even 125,000. I know this seems like a ridiculous amount of miles that no one could possibly achieve, but I flew 173,000 miles last year gaining United 1K and Alaska MVP Gold status. The miles can add up pretty fast, especially with some of the travel we take as military members to far away places like Qatar and Thailand. One round trip to Thailand could net you 20,000 EQM!
It is useful to examine what each level of status grants you on your airline and understand the benefits. It may be worthwhile to find a reason to take a special trip just to gain enough miles for the next level if you are already close. You can also make a logical argument in some cases for the cost of an extra flight. For example, if you are 3000 miles short of the first elite level and know that you will get free bags on all your flights for the next year, you can rationalize spending a couple of hundred dollars on a flight to save a couple of hundred dollars in baggage fees in the future AND gain all the other benefits such as increased RDM and using the elite lines at check in. It is usually best to find a reason to take a vacation using a certain airline to get these miles, but some people actually will just fly to a far away location and return never having left the airport. This is know as a mileage run. I detail how to do this in a recent post.
One rule is to never let a mile go unclaimed. I know you are probably saying that you fly five different airlines depending on what the Defense Travel Service (DTS) allows you to choose from. Thankfully with alliances, explained in the next lesson, you can probably narrow down your mileage programs to two, maybe three. Alliances allow you to fly one airline, but have the miles credited to your preferred airline FF program. Stick with the rule, since you never know what the future will bring. I once got stuck flying Vietnam Airlines from Paris to Dubai and went ahead and signed up for thier mileage program. I never ended up using them, but I would rather have them, than get in a position later where I could have used them for something because of changes in assignment or other opportunities. You never know what the future will bring. I will also show you a method for changing those orphaned miles into useful ones through Points.com in the Advanced Course.