Earning Miles From Actually Flying: The Basics

I feel like I jumped ahead a bit. Before I got into the game of applying for credit cards to get miles,  I earned miles from flying. I still earn miles from flying. What a concept right? Earning miles from actually getting on a plane and going somewhere!

Recently, I have been helping some friends get into the miles game. I learned quickly that they did not know how to credit their miles, or where they should credit them to. I overstepped this small fact of the easiest way to earn miles. This post is to help you understand how to credit miles to a few of the main frequent flyer programs, and will show you how to ensure that your ticket earns miles (not all tickets do!). This post will serve as a general overview. I can not provide an analysis of every airline and how to earn miles with them, but will give you an idea of how to figure out how to earn miles with your specific airline choice.

There are two different types of mileage programs: revenue based, and mileage based. Revenue based allots a certain number of miles to you based off of how much money you spend on your ticket. The mileage based program alots miles based off of how far you have traveled and which fare class you booked. We will talk about fare classes a bit later on.

In general, mileage based earning programs are better, which we will show later on.

Revenue Based Frequent Flier Programs:

  • Southwest
  • Jetblue
  • United (Starting March 1st, 2015)
  • Delta (Starting January 1st, 2015)

Mileage Based Earning Programs (and pretty much everything else):

  • American
  • Alaska
  • Frontier
  • Spirit (ish)

Of course there are tons of mileage programs out there, but chances are you are not going to go straight to earning miles with a foreign carrier, so we are sticking with domestic options.

Step #1: Sign Up for a Frequent Flier Program

This seems like a no brainer, but it is not. If you are flying on a certain alliance a lot or with a specific carrier you have to sign up for a frequent flier program. I just had a friend that has flown 19.6k miles this year, and did not credit a single one of them. He was unable to credit the miles now because he did not have an account open for long enough prior to his flights (which were from this summer).

Open an account, it takes 5 minutes, and makes it really easy to earn miles, since they ask you for your info at check out whenever you buy a new plane ticket. Some people open every possible account they can, just in case. I have more of the “let’s open an account when we will earn points or miles with that program.” You do you.

You can sign up for United’s Mileage Plus here, American AAdvantage here, Alaska’s Mileage Plan here and Southwest’s Rapid Rewards here. These are the main programs that you should be interested in, you’ll see why in a bit.

How do you know which program to join based off the tickets that you are going to purchase? It depends on the alliance. If you are flying on any of these carriers, join United’s program:


If you are flying on these carriers, join American’s Program:

  • Air Berlin
  • American
  • British Airways
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Finnair
  • Iberia
  • Japan Airlines
  • Lan
  • Tam
  • Malaysia
  • Qantas
  • Qatar
  • Royal Jordanian
  • S7
  • Sri Lankan
  • Other Partners Listed Below:

Screenshot 2014-12-20 at 17.40.37


If you are flying on these carriers, join Alaska’s Program:


If you are flying on any of these carriers, join Delta’s program (probably, I am skeptical of Delta, and would look into other partners before crediting ANY miles to them):

Screenshot 2014-12-20 at 17.43.06

NOTE: I have a specific post about Alaska Airlines and why it is one of the better programs to join (coming soon). In short, it allows you to fly Alaska, American and Delta while earning miles under one program. This means miles from 2 alliances under one program…so screw Delta and join Alaska.

Step #2: Figure Out Which Program Your Miles Should Go To And If You Will Earn Miles

Each airline earns differently, so we will split into the major ones here: American, Alaska, Southwest and United. I am excluding Delta because their program sucks, and I don’t know why some people like it so much. I credit all of my Delta flights to Alaska.

Before we dissect earnings for individual programs, we need to discuss fare classes. A fare class is the rules of the ticket that you purchased, and allows you certain things. What kinds of things? Change fees, upgradability, restrictions and more. No ticket is the same, and no fare class is the same. Each fare class earns miles differently. In general, you can say that Economy earns a certain amount, Business earns a bit more, and First earns even more.

Fare codes can be tricky to find. Each website is different. One of the easiest ways to find fare codes is from ITA Matrix (the greatest airline searching software), where it is just found on the right for each flight you click on:


Expedia is also pretty easy, as it is found under “Show More Details” on the flight search page:


Orbitz is a bit trickier, as is Cheapo Air (they are the same company). You have to click all the way through to the details page, where you enter your details. Enter all your details, then  click “Continue.” Go to the “Confirm” page, where they ask for your CC info, but then you click “ticket terms and conditions,” towards the bottom of the page, before the “Confirm” button. Once you click this, a screen pops up with a fare code. The first letter of this code is the fare class. The pop up screen looks like this for the same flight as above:


These are the big booking engines, all of them are different. I try to stick with the ones that are easier to find codes, because it saves time. Fare Rules provide some juicy information, which I should probably talk about in another post.

One thing to note, is airlines and booking engines in the US have to give you a 24 hour grace period after you book a ticket, most of the time. What I mean by grace period is you have to let you cancel a ticket for free within 24 hours of when you purchased it. Not many people know about this (I cancel 10+ tickets a year). Sometimes, it is easier to buy a ticket to find the fare code. Be careful with this, some airlines have different policies, some are hold policies or something else, so read the rules before purchasing.


United has some amazing award chart sweet spots. They allow 2 open jaws and 1 stopover on every international award ticket. The best way to show this is to show an example. Next summer I have a ticket to Thailand. The exact route is: Denver to Chiang Mai, Singapore to Poznan, PL, and the from Poznan, PL to Boston. This cost the same as a regular ticket from the US to SE Asia, except I got a stopover for free, and flying back to a different city so I can see Grandma. Travel Is Free is where I learned about all of this. See how United miles are valuable?

Earning miles with United is pretty simple. Every single one of their flights earns miles with their program. Until March 1st, 2015, miles are earned by how far you fly.

Let’s look at an example. I am going to look for a direct flight from Denver to LaGuardia on March 2nd. Because it is March 2nd, I can show you one example to show you how the program is changing. This is the flight I found, per the United website:


For these flights, you will earn 1,619 miles, as you can see.

Now we need to take into account fare classes. United has one of the easiest ways to figure out airline ticket fare classes. If you look in the example above, in the 3rd line on the right, it says “Fare Class: United Economy (G).”  G is your fare class. The current fare class earnings are found in this screenshot:


As you can see, the higher fare class, the more miles you earn. Award miles are the miles you can earn for spending in the future, while Premier miles are what you earn to obtain status, these return to zero every year.

Next year, United made paying for flights with them absolute shit. On March 1st, 2015, they are switching to revenue based system. In order to understand what this means, we need to explain airfare components briefly.

Airline tickets are broken into a few different parts. United breaks their tickets into the fare amount and “additional fees/taxes.” From the example above, I snipped this bit after choosing one of the $129 flights.


We can see that the fare costs $114, while taxes/fees cost $14.10.

Now back to explaining the revenue based system. For all flights on or after March 1st, 2015, United will award miles based off how much you spend. General members will earn 5x miles per dollar spent, while elite members will earn a bit more, depending on their status.


This flight is on March 2nd, 2015. We figured out that the fare costs $114 from above. If I were a general member, I will earn 570 award miles. Before, we would earn 1,619 miles. See the difference, and see why it is shit? And yes, I say shit, because it is shit.

To put it in perspective, I would have to pay a base fare of $323.80 to earn the same amount of miles as before the system went to revenue based.

There is a work around of this, though. The only reason why it is a work around, is because of United’s partner airlines. The new revenue system does not apply to tickets issued by United. Each airline has a ticketing system which shows which airline sold the ticket. This is important within an alliance, because Lufthansa, a German airline, can sell a ticket on United, but Lufthansa is the one that sold the ticket. United’s tickets start with 016 as the ticket number. You can still earn 100% miles on Lufthansa if you have the correct fare class and if you bought your ticket through Lufthansa.  (Side Note: Instead of miles, since they are not miles anymore, they should call them “How Much Money You Spend With us Points,” just a suggestion).

Basically the above paragraph says to never fly United, and don’t buy tickets on their website. Instead, use their program to spend miles while earning with say, Air Canada, who beats them out most of the time for international flights.

This 016 ticket thing is important, but I don’t know much about it yet, so, I am not going to talk about it anymore until I know more on the topic.

Onwards: You can earn miles on all of United’s partners, which is Star Alliance airlines. This si where fare classes are really important. NOT ALL FARE CLASSES ON FOREIGN CARRIERS EARN MILES ON UNITED. Take what you learned above about fare classes and apply it here:

Example: I am flying to Copenhagen on SAS. SAS is an airline in Scandinavia, and is a Star Alliance member. This is what my reservation looks like:


You can see that I am flying in “K” class on SAS. United awards miles based off of the operation carrier, which is SAS in this case. My second flight is operated by Aerocaribe…whoever that is. It is probably some SAS regional partner.

To determine if I will earn miles for this trip, I need to go to this page. This page shows all of the United partners. From here, i click on the respective airline that I am curious about, which is SAS, which leads me here:

SAS Chart

From here, I match up my fare basis code, which was “K.” I can see that I will earn 100% for my miles flown.

Now, you can do this for any airline, on any ticket. I personally do it before purchasing a ticket so I know I will earn miles for sure with the carrier that I want to earn miles with.

You do have to be careful here. Sometimes flights earn miles differently on specific routes. An example of this is from part of the Air Canada earning table:


At the bottom of the page, it says:

** Flights within Canada and between Canada and the U.S., Central America, Mexico or the Caribbean. Premier members earn a minimum of 125 base miles in S, T, L, A and K purchased fare classes on these flights.

So, just look out for this.

Wow, that was a lot more than I thought. But hopefully that was helpful.


It is similar to what we have already described. I am not going to go into mega detail, partially because I do not know as much about it. I credit my AA flights to Alaska Airlines (which you will see in a minute), and all the “leftovers” to American. The reason why I included American on this post is because it has a pretty great award chart for certain things, and is not revenue based, which is huge in my mind.


Alaska airlines is awesome, and I will write a post soon about why it is awesome. In short, they have partners from several different alliances.

All flights on Alaska earn 100% of the miles that you fly. If you are flying Alaska, and going to credit these miles to them, you will earn every mile that you fly. Similar to with United, if you book first class or full fare economy, then you will earn more than 100% miles. Here is the earning chart:


Note that in a few days, there will be more bonus points earning opportunities in some Economy classes as well as First Class.


Earning miles on partner airlines is very similar to United above. You earn miles based off the fare class purchased. The only difference with partner airlines (aside from the different partner airlines) is you need to check the flight numbers.

Looking at the British Airways earning chart, you can see that you need the fare class AND the correct flight numbers.


You can do this for each partner airline. It is tricky finding booking codes, but you can find them eventually. Remember to check that the flights are operated by one of Alaska’s partners. I am not sure how codeshare flight numbers work, yet, but I did look into it once. More research to come.


Southwest might be the easiest program to explain, because they have no partners, no fare classes and no other BS going on. Southwest is revenue based. For every dollar you spend, you earn 6 Rapid Rewards points if you buy their “Wanna Get Away” fare. Each level up from that earns more points, but I am too lazy to figure out how many points because I don’t buy those tickets.

Example: I am looking at flights for a random day in February for a flight from Denver to Los Angeles. Prices are coming out to $73.



For this $73 flight, I will earn 324 Rapid Rewards points. 73*6 does not equal 324. This is because the $73 includes taxes and fees, which are excluded from the point earning calculation.

For the $131 flight, you would earn 647 points.

All of these point earning numbers are provided by Southwest by simply hovering your mouse over the price on the flight selection page.

Yes, these do not include all airlines, but the other ones are simple. Spirit, for a nobody (you don’t have their credit card or spend $1200 every 6 months on Spirit), then you will earn 50% of the miles that you fly. Frontier, you earn 100% of the miles that you fly.

Step #3: Include Your Frequent Flier Number in Your Reservation

This is pretty simple, depending on the company that you bought your ticket with. Just add your FF# to your reservation, then your miles will automatically credit provided the requirements from Step #2 are fulfilled.

If you cannot figure out how to add your FF# before your flight, ask a gate agent to add it. You can credit points after a flight, but it takes longer, and you need to keep all of your ticket stubs. Most of the time, you will need your ticket number, and any information you can provide, like where you sat. This usually takes 2-4 weeks, instead of the 1-3 days that you

Step #4: Check After Your Trip To See If Your Miles Posted

It usually takes 1-3 days for a flight to post to your account. Check to see if your miles have posted, otherwise you might need to follow up with the mileage program that you are using.


One thought on “Earning Miles From Actually Flying: The Basics

  1. Pingback: Why Alaska Airlines is the Best Frequent Flyer Program for College Students | Naked 'Round The World

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