How Do Airline Frequent Flyer Programs Work?

airplane taking offing_frequent flyer programsIt sometimes feels like you need a Ph.D. in economics, or at least a passing grade in high school calculus, to figure out the confusing world of airline miles. Choosing the right program for you, making sure you’re earning points, using those points before they expire, and keeping track of all the perks and bonuses you get is not for the faint of heart.

Every program is different and there’s no one-size-fits-all, but we’ve outlined the basics of airline frequent flyer programs to help you on your way to becoming a flight-booking expert. By the end of this article, you should be able to choose the right airline reward program for you and make the most of it every time you travel. For a more detailed look at frequent flyer programs and how to maximize your rewards, we like this article by The Points Guy.

Making the Most of Your Membership

Before you go about choosing an airline program, there are two basic tips to making the most out of your membership. The first is to get a travel credit card. Unless you fly so often that the baristas at the airport Starbucks know your order, it’s going to be almost impossible to earn enough points to amount to anything just by booking flights alone. Getting a credit card that pairs well with your frequent flyer program will help you quickly rack up enough points to actually use.

Second, pick one airline and stick to it (this goes for hotel loyalty memberships, too, by the way). If you’re committing to a frequent flyer program, it’s in your best interest to fly only with that airline from now on to rack up the most points. Sure, you could sign up for frequent flyer memberships with a few different airlines, but you’re likely to have nothing to show for it. Loyalty is rewarded in this game.

Which Program Is Right for Me?

If you’ve been flying for a few years, chances are you’ve flown once or twice with most of the major airlines. You’ve probably developed preferences or biases, and now’s the time to take stock of those. If you’ve had nothing but bad experiences with say, American, then they’re not the best choice for your membership (even if they check all the other boxes), because you might end up getting frustrated more often than it’s worth.

You should also take stock of what kind of traveler you are. Do you fly only domestically, or do you take lots of overseas trips? Do you tend to stick to a particular part of the country, or fly to the same place to visit family a few times a year?

Southwest has a great loyalty program, but if you’re a sucker for a nonstop flight or you’re based in the Northeast, it’s probably not a good fit. Are you near a major hub that makes it much easier and cheaper to travel with a specific airline? If you’re close to Atlanta, it would make sense to choose Delta. Based on your travel type and your personal preferences, the right program might be obvious. If you’re a flexible traveler and you’re just looking for the program that gives you the most for your miles, check this roundup of mile valuations.

Points? Miles? What’s the Difference?

The best and most efficient way to get rewards is to earn miles with a frequent flyer program and earn points with a travel credit card. With a frequent flyer program, you earn miles for every flight you take and for some additional purchases like in-flight food and drinks. With a travel credit card, you earn points on any purchase you make with the credit card. With some cards, these can be converted to miles and used to buy flights.

When you’re signing up for a credit card, pay attention to the bonus offer which can give you extra points if you spend a certain amount of money in the first few months. That’s not something you want to miss!

There are a few sneakier ways to earn points through your frequent flyer program and on your airline credit card. The first is online shopping portals. Your frequent flyer program likely gives you access to a mileage mall, where you can earn miles for spending money with different brands and retailers. The second is dining programs—airlines often partner with restaurants in the airport, and you can earn extra miles when you spend money there. Be on the lookout for rental car partnerships, too. You can often earn more miles when you book with your airline’s partners.

As you start to collect points and miles, it can get confusing quickly. The best way to keep track of everything is with an online tracker. This will help you keep track of what points and miles you have, when everything expires, and if there are any bonuses you’re eligible for. There are plenty of options when it comes to online trackers, but is one that we like.

What Other Perks Should I Pay Attention to?

It can be tempting to ignore frequent flyer programs and stick with earning points on your travel credit card, but frequent flyer programs tend to carry more perks that kick in more quickly. If you start to earn status in the frequent flyer program, you get access to seat upgrades, earlier boarding, free flights, and lounge access. If you become an elite member, you have access to even more perks, and you begin to earn miles more quickly.

How Should I Spend My Miles?

The most obvious way to spend miles and points is on free flights, but that’s not your only option. If you have an excess of miles and points or you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum and don’t have enough for an entire flight, you can use your points and miles on seat upgrades or travel expenses like rental cars.

What to Do Once You’ve Booked Your Flight

After you’ve chosen a frequent flyer program, filled out the application for your brand-new travel credit card, and got a great deal on your next flight, it’s time to start looking for a hotel room. Lucky for you, we make it easy to search hotels around the world by allowing you to compare loyalty member rates across multiple brands all in one place.

Head to, enter your desired destination and travel dates, and we’ll take it from there by showing you all of our partner hotels in the area without confusing marketing lingo that you see on other travel sites. Once you find the perfect hotel, we’ll automatically transfer you to that hotel’s website to complete your booking. It’s search without the gimmicks; hotel booking without the runaround. That’s Roomkey.