Have you ever seen photos of those lie-flat seats in the front of the plane? Or those mega-luxurious overwater bungalows in the Maldives that are double the size of your house? It all sounds lovely – except for the price tag is somewhere along the lines of several months’ salary.
One simple solution that the not-so-rich use to enjoy unique travel experiences, along with simply flying economy and staying anywhere with a bed, is to earn frequent flyer miles and get it all for free. Almost all major airlines, hotel groups, and other travel companies offer loyalty programs, allowing you to earn points or miles over time and cash in for free flights, stays, and other stuff.
It can be depressing to realize just how many miles are necessary to even fly in the back of the plane for free. But you don’t have to be a business traveler on the road every day to earn those kinds of miles. Earning miles and points is totally free with some simple strategizing.
As someone who has an addiction to getting these things for free, I am happy to share my tips on earning and redeeming frequent flyer miles. By the way, loyalty program currencies have all different kinds of names (miles, points, etc.), and I am just going to use them interchangeably. Read on for some of my favorite ways to earn airline and hotel rewards.
How to Get Frequent Flyer Miles for Free
Spoiler alert: the majority of methods to earn hotel points and airline miles involve credit cards. This is the secret weapon of the travelers who get stuff for free!
1. Join Any & All Loyalty Programs, But Try to Stay Loyal
The most basic way to earn airline miles is to have a frequent flyer number for all the airlines you fly on. You should never be on an airplane without an account earning miles for that travel. Remember, every mile flown (or, in many cases, dollar spent) with an airline is a mile earned.
That being said, you should try to stay loyal to a carrier if you intend to build up miles. I get it – in many cases, it makes the most sense to simply fly with the airline offering the cheapest ticket. But when the difference is small, flying with your favorite can have big benefits; along with accumulating miles, you’ll also build up status for extra perks.
Don’t forget that there are airline alliances and partnerships that can allow you to earn miles for your favorite carrier, even when flying on another. For example, if you’re a United person who wants to go to Europe, you can fly Lufthansa, Austrian, Swiss, Brussels Airlines, and several others, all while earning United miles.
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2. Stay Away from OTAs
You should undoubtedly use search engines like Momondo and Skyscanner to find cheap flights and definitely subscribe to Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) and Thrifty Traveler to receive deals in your inbox. But when you find one that you’re ready to book, stay away from the online travel agencies that stick their fares in your face. Go straight to the airline’s website for booking.
For one, it’s almost always the same price. For two, if something goes wrong with your ticket at any point, you will be thankful to be dealing with your airline’s help desk rather than an unreachable third party across the world. And for three, most of the time, you can’t earn airline miles when you don’t book direct.
The same goes for hotel loyalty programs. Don’t rob yourself of points or miles. Plus, booking direct with the right credit card, as we’ll see below, is where exponential earnings really start to take off.
3. Get a Credit Card with a Sign-Up Bonus
This is how you can earn mega miles just by living your life and buying things as you normally would. There are a whole bunch of travel rewards credit cards out there that constantly offer giant sign-up bonuses – large amounts of points and miles that you get for meeting a minimum spending threshold on eligible purchases.
Almost all airlines offer co-branded credit cards. Co-branded means that a carrier, such as United Airlines, teams up with a bank, such as Chase, to offer a miles-earning credit card. The miles that you earn go straight to your airline’s loyalty program – in our example, United.
Alternatively, you can also go for a more general travel rewards card from a bank, like the American Express Platinum Card. They still offer a welcome bonus and earn points on each purchase, but rather than being airline points, they will be bank program specific – in our example, Amex. Bank programs can be very lucrative on their own, but as we’ll see later, they are also valuable for specific airlines.
Keep in mind that many of these bank and airline credit cards do have an annual fee, so only apply if you can afford it. Furthermore, try to look out for enhanced sign-up bonuses rather than the standard offering, as this is how you can get the most value from your minimum spend. Top Credit Card Finder can help you stay on top of details like this.
4. Make Your Credit Card Purchases Wisely
Hopefully, you can accumulate a few different travel credit card options – more credit does not hurt your credit score, contrary to popular belief. As long as you pay your bills and are responsible with them, it actually signals better trustworthiness. And if you have options to choose from when making a purchase, it’s worth getting familiar with the earning rates of each of them.
Certain purchases can earn more miles than others, depending on the card. Usually, co-branded cards earn the most miles from purchases on their own airline or hotel group.
Dining, gas, and groceries are common high-earning categories on most cards, while general travel purchases can be the top tier for bank rewards programs. If you’re familiar with this, you can make sure to use the card that’s going to earn you the most on each purchase.
For example, let’s say I have both the United Quest Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve, and I’m very loyal to United Airlines. When I book my flights, I definitely use the United card, as it earns me 3 miles per dollar spent with the airline. But when I’m at a restaurant, I’ll use the Chase Sapphire Reserve – although I want United miles, I’ll get 3 Chase points per dollar as opposed to 2 United miles, and as we’ll see next, bank points are still very valuable to airline-loyal people.
Therefore, knowing your earnings is an excellent way to rack up exponentially more miles for free. When shopping online, don’t forget to install tools like Honey to get promo codes and discounts without any searching, and check sites like Swagbucks for cash-back deals.
See Related: Best Credit Cards With Lounge Access (Ranked!)
5. Transfer Points and Miles Between Programs
One great way to get free airline miles is to move them into your account from somewhere else! This is another major secret weapon of points and miles fanatics. By doing it at the right time, you can even earn extra out of thin air.
Bank programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Travel offer fixed-rate redemptions directly on their platforms. And while the value can be great, you can also transfer miles directly into your favorite partner airline or hotel loyalty program account. You should find all of your favorite ones in there.
What’s more, every so often, the banks will offer transfer-out bonuses for specific partner airlines and hotels. For example, Chase points convert to Marriott Bonvoy points at a 1:1 value normally, but certain promotion periods can add a 50% bonus to that. That’s a major sweet spot for getting free points out of nowhere.
You can log onto your credit card’s travel portal to see the various transferable points programs and bonuses available. Many airlines and hotels will let you do this as well, without any bank points needed – Avios, the currency of British Airways, Iberia, and Aer Lingus, is a great example. Marriott Bonvoy points can be transformed into the miles of dozens of airline partners.
6. Refer Your Friends & Family for Cards
Credit card issuers will often give you a nice chunk of bonus miles for referring someone else to their product. If this is your spouse or travel partner, the benefits of referring them are even better.
On the one hand, getting credit card points just for passing along your sign-up code to someone else is pretty great, as it’s a one-hundred percent free way to earn rewards. I find these referral bonuses to be quite high. My IHG Rewards Mastercard has offered me up to 10,000 bonus points for each friend that gets the card – that’s worth a free hotel night if used correctly.
Plus, if you have a spouse, significant other, or friend that you travel with, you may as well help each other and lower the overall cost of your trip. My wife and I double up on credit cards all the time, getting double the welcome bonuses on top of a referral bonus. That’s a ton of extra free miles that lower the cost of our vacations.
7. Use Airline Shopping Portals
One of the lesser-known ways to earn airline miles is to make your purchases via the online shopping portals that some carriers offer. These are airline-specific landing pages on which you’ll log into your loyalty account before browsing bonus mile deals from popular brands.
From the airline’s shopping portal, you can see the bonuses of the day or month and click on your favorites to be redirected to the brand’s site. You then make your online purchases just as you normally would, but since you used the link from the portal, you’ll earn extra miles. It’s that easy!
United, Delta, Southwest, Alaska, and American Airlines all have online portals that actually run on the same back-end technology. You can even install a Chrome browser extension to automatically find miles-earning deals as you visit websites.
Tips for Redeeming Points & Miles
With all the above ideas, you should be on your way to being very miles-rich! Now, it’s time to decide when and how to use them. There is definitely a right way to do this and a number of wrong ways to watch out for. Here are my top three tips:
Redeem Miles for High Values
It’s tempting to have that big welcome bonus hit your account and head straight to the checkout page to book your dream trip. But not all redemptions are created equal. Compare different mileage values for different cash values, and see what makes sense.
For example, I had a hoard of 60,000 HawaiianMiles after signing up for the Hawaiian Airlines Mastercard. One of my first instincts was to redeem them for a round-trip ticket from Honolulu to California, but that route is served by a ton of airlines and is usually not very expensive with cash.
Alternatively, the same amount of miles could get me a round-trip ticket from Honolulu to Tahiti – a route that Hawaiian has a monopoly on and which costs in the thousands when paying with cash. I could then some other points for a free hopper flight to Bora Bora. Which do you think I went with?
Don’t Hoard Your Miles
Airline miles and hotel points are depreciating assets. The big bosses can decide to devalue your hard-earned rewards at any time – that means a mile is suddenly worth less when redeeming, by no fault of your own. You can’t do anything about that, so use them when you have them.
There are far too many examples for me to draw on because devaluations are sadly very common these days. It seems that even airline miles haven’t escaped inflation. One that really upset me was the no-notice devaluation of Emirates Skywards in late 2022, which decimated the ability to enjoy their luxurious first and business class products for free.
Purchase Points and Miles with Caution and Strategically
It’s common to see an airline or hotel group selling miles at a discount. You should not buy them speculatively, with no specific use in mind, but you should buy them strategically when you have an idea. Using those sales to top up your account or obtain an outsized redemption value is awesome.
Buying points has led to some of my best success stories. A few months ago, I had just under 200,000 Marriott Bonvoy points in the bank.
I know that when redeeming those for four nights, you get the fifth night free. My goal was to redeem them at the Domes Miramare, A Luxury Collection Resort in Corfu, Greece, where I’d need around 220,000 points for five nights (including the free one).
Therefore, I could have sucked it up and just done three nights with what I had or chosen to strategically top up my account by buying the points that I needed. I waited for a 60% bonus points promotion and got an even better deal on them. And, thanks to my Titanium Elite status, I got upgraded to a huge suite with a private jacuzzi!
How can I get frequent flyer miles for free?
The single most important tool to getting free airline miles and hotel points is to use the right credit card. Seek out special welcome bonuses, use co-branded cards on flight purchases, use specific cards for specific purchase categories, and look out for promotions that earn more miles. Every dollar spent should be at least a mile earned toward a free flight, even for simple everyday spending.
Which airlines offer the best frequent flyer programs?
Some favorites in the US include Alaska Airlines, United Airlines, American Airlines, and Southwest Airlines. I’ve also had great success with Hawaiian’s program.
For quite some time now, Delta’s loyalty program has been terribly uncompetitive when it comes to redemption value. Foreign airlines with decent programs include Air Canada, Avianca, and the Avios group (British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, etc.)
What are the best credit cards for earning frequent flyer miles?
If you want to earn miles directly towards a specific airline loyalty program, go for a co-branded credit card. These are the cards linked directly to the airline listed on the card, like the United Gateway card or the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Amex, that earn airline miles on those carriers for each swipe. Alternatively, you can go with a general travel rewards credit card, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, that will earn you Chase points; these can be used to book things directly on Chase Ultimate Rewards or transferred out to your favorite program.