When You Will (and Won’t) Earn Miles on Your Flight

Aug 7, 2019

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The travel loyalty world has changed radically from its starting days, to the point that when we talk about the best ways to earn frequent flyer miles, we mention everything from credit card welcome bonuses and bonus categories to online shopping portals before we talk about actually flying. You’d think it would go without saying that you earn frequent flyer miles every time you fly, but depending on how you booked your ticket, this may or may not be the case. We constantly get questions from readers on whether using a particular booking method will earn them miles, so today, we’ll take a look at some common scenarios where you do (or don’t) earn miles for your plane tickets.

Of course, in all of these cases you’ll need to make sure to link your frequent flyer number to your reservation. Even if your ticket is “eligible” to earn miles, the airline needs to know which account to credit.

In This Post

The Basics

The first (and likely most important) distinction in determining whether you will earn miles for a flight is whether you paid for the ticket or got it for free. The major US airlines now award miles based on the cost of your ticket and not how far you’re flying — otherwise known as revenue-based earning — so it generally stands to reason that you’ll only get miles if you’re giving money to the airline. If you don’t, it won’t get you miles.

Once you’ve determined whether or not you paid for your ticket, things get a bit more confusing. Another consideration is the airline fare class that you’ve booked. In some cases, certain fares result in lower earning rates, while some result in no mileage accrual at all. These fare classes are generally one- or two-letter codes and are typically viewable during the booking process and on your receipt after ticketing.

Finally, be sure to pay careful attention to both the marketing carrier and the operating carrier of the flight. Simply put, the marketing carrier is the one whose flight number you see on your itinerary, while the operating carrier is generally the airline that’s actually flying the flight (i.e. has its name painted on the side of the plane). In certain cases, booking the exact same flight as a codeshare instead of directly will cancel out your ability to earn miles.

Confused? You’re not alone. Let’s dive into the details now and highlight some examples of when you will (and won’t) earn miles on your next trip.

When You Do Earn Miles

If you book a flight with your travel rewards credit card, you
Hands holding credit card and coffee to go. Photo by Popartic/Getty Images

As noted above, the majority of paid tickets will earn you miles. However, paying for your ticket can take a lot of forms. The simplest method involves going to an airline’s website, searching for paid tickets and booking your flight with your credit card. In this case, you’ll almost certainly earn miles for that flight. If you follow the same process but pay with a debit card, you’ll still earn miles for that flight — though you’ll also sacrifice some lucrative bonus categories and travel protections.

The same thing holds true if you pay with an airline gift card or a travel voucher — the airline sees it as a cash purchase and will award you miles.

Another interesting scenario comes up with transferable points currencies like Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards. In addition to offering you the ability to transfer these points to various airline and hotel partners, select cards from each of these issuers also offer you a bonus if you use your points to book flights directly through their travel portal. Your points are then worth more than the “standard” 1 cent apiece on many traditional cards:

Meanwhile, American Express offers a 25% rebate on the American Express® Business Gold Card when you redeem points directly for many flights, and you’d get a 35% rebate on The Business Platinum Card® from American Express. In all of these cases, using points in this fashion will result in the trip coding as a typical revenue flight and will thus earn you miles.

Let’s use Chase Ultimate Rewards as an example. The Ultimate Rewards travel portal is powered by Expedia, so when you redeem your points through the portal, Chase takes your points, turns around, and buys you a cash ticket through Expedia. The airline doesn’t know (or care) that you redeemed Ultimate Rewards points; all it sees is that you booked a revenue ticket. As a result, you will still earn miles by going this route.

When you add in these extra miles and any elite-qualifying metrics you earn, it’s easy to get much more than the published redemption value of 1.25-1.5 cents per point.

Since we mentioned Expedia above, let’s quickly turn our attention to Online Travel Agencies (OTAs). Generally speaking, booking through these sites will earn you miles for your flight. There are exceptions to this — like booking certain deeply-discounted fare classes or a codeshare flight that’s marketed by a carrier ineligible for mileage accrual (see below) — but for the most part, leveraging an OTA for a flight reservation should code as a standard revenue-ticket.

Airline-Specific Perks

A220 main cabin. Photo courtesy of Delta Airlines.
You’re eligible to earn miles on your Delta companion ticket, but your travel companion is not. (Photo courtesy of Delta Airlines)

Beyond these general principles, another unique scenario is companion tickets. Many of these are offered as perks on specific credit cards, while the famed Southwest Companion Pass is based on earning a set number of points or taking a certain number of flights with Southwest in a calendar year. Here are some popular perks and how they do (or don’t) result in mileage accrual:

  • The annual companion fare on the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card: Both the primary traveler and the companion are eligible to earn miles on these tickets.
  • The annual companion ticket on the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express: Only the primary traveler will earn miles on these tickets.
  • Southwest Companion Pass: The pass-holder will only earn points if he/she booked a paid ticket; the companion will not earn points.

When You Don’t Earn Miles

As most TPG readers hopefully know by now, you don’t accrue miles if you’re traveling on an award ticket. This means if you book an award with American Airlines AAdvantage miles (as opposed to using transferable points to book through a travel portal), you won’t earn additional miles on that flight. As noted above, you also won’t earn miles if you are the companion traveling with someone who holds a Southwest Companion Pass or a Delta companion certificate.

If you’re lucky enough to know someone who works for an airline, you may be able to get free flights by using an employee travel pass and flying as a non-revenue passenger on flights with open seats. In this case, you also wouldn’t earn miles.

Finally, even if you pay for a simple and straightforward ticket online, you still might not earn any miles. This is connected to the fare class and marketing/operating carrier distinctions noted at the top, and may ultimately depend on the airline program to which you try to credit the flight.

As an example, shown below is the American Airlines earning chart for flights operated by Cathay Pacific. If you fly a deeply-discounted economy fare (booked in K, M, L, V, Q, S, G or N) and try to credit the flight to your AAdvantage account, you won’t earn any elite or redeemable miles, no matter how you paid for your ticket.

You also may run into the same thing if you book the wrong marketing carrier. TPG Editorial Director Julian Kheel recently ran into this on a Virgin Atlantic-operated flight booked as an Air France flight number that he tried to credit to his Delta SkyMiles account. Unfortunately, Delta’s terms and conditions include the following:

“Unless otherwise notes, mileage credit is only applicable to SkyTeam-marketed flights operated by a SkyTeam member airline. Mileage credit is not applicable to a SkyTeam-marketed flight operated by another airline.”

Since his flight was marketed by a SkyTeam airline (Air France) but operated by another airline that doesn’t belong to SkyTeam (Virgin Atlantic), he didn’t earn any SkyMiles for his flight.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, the question of whether or not you’ll earn miles for a flight usually boils down to two things:

  1. Whether you paid for the ticket or got it for free
  2. Whether you booked a ticket eligible for mileage accrual in the program to which you’re crediting the flight (which involves both fare classes and the carriers marketing and operating the flight)

If the airline gets revenue, you get miles. If they don’t, neither do you. From there, things get much murkier when you start considering fare classes and how the flight is actually ticketed, so be sure to do your research ahead of time. After all, whether or not you’ll earn miles could sway your decision on how to book, so it’s critical to evaluate your different options before you confirm your purchase.

Featured image by Alberto Riva/TPG

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