When you will (and won’t) earn miles on your flight
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While many of us earn airline miles from credit card purchases, online shopping, and other activities, flying is the most basic way to earn them. However, you won't earn miles on every flight you take, including some paid flights.
Readers frequently ask us about the best ways to earn the most miles on their flights, but before we can maximize our mileage, we need to make sure that we'll earn them first. So without further ado, here are a few of the most common scenarios where you will (or won't) earn miles on your flight.
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The basics of earning airline miles while flying
To earn airline miles for your flight, the first thing you must do is sign up for your favorite airline's loyalty program. Doing this creates a member number that you can use to earn miles and a profile that expedites booking flights through the airline's website. You must sign up for each airline's loyalty program to earn miles from that airline.
Here are links to the major U.S. airlines loyalty program signup pages:
- Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
- American Airlines AAdvantage
- Delta Air Lines SkyMiles
- JetBlue TrueBlue
- Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
- United Airlines MileagePlus
Once you've created your account, be sure to use your member number every time you book a flight with the airline. This tells the airline which loyalty account to credit the miles for your flight. If you have elite status, TSA PreCheck, or Global Entry, it also alerts the airlines of the benefits that you're eligible to receive.
You can also add your frequent flyer number to a ticket operated by one of the airline's partners. For example, Delta has partnerships with all airlines in the SkyTeam alliance and a handful of other airlines like LATAM and Virgin Atlantic. You can add your SkyMiles number to a ticket operated by one of these partners and earn SkyMiles instead of the operating carrier's miles. Just make sure to read the program's earning chart for each fare class as it varies by carrier.
If you can't remember your member number at the time of booking, you can add it before your flight. Many airlines also let you retroactively claim miles after completing a flight, but the rules vary by airline.
Related: TPG beginner's guide: Everything you need to know about points, miles, airlines and credit cards
When you do earn miles
There are many different ways to earn airline miles for your flight. That said, it's not as simple as whether or not you paid cash for your ticket or booked an award flight. These are some of the most common ways to earn miles.
Remember that you may also earn additional miles by booking a higher fare class or if you have elite status with the airline.
Buying tickets directly from the airline
The most direct way to earn miles for your flight is by booking an eligible fare directly from the airline. Most of us use a rewards credit card to earn additional miles or points on the purchase, but you can also pay cash at the airport ticket counter.
Using a travel voucher or gift card
Buying an eligible fare with an airline travel voucher or gift card will also yield airline miles for your flight. Travel vouchers are often issued as compensation when something goes wrong on a previous flight.
Booking tickets with flexible points
Most people focus on transfer partners when thinking about flexible points from Chase, American Express, Capital One, and Citibank. However, these points can also be used to book flights as if they were cash. In reality, the banks accept your points and then pay your ticket cash to the airline.
In some cases, you get extra perks when booking flights with your points. For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards Points are worth more if you have the right card (e.g: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card 25% more and Chase Sapphire Reserve® 50% more). And those who hold The Business Platinum Card® from American Express receive 35% points back when booking business or first class flights with any airline or economy tickets with an airline of choice (on up to 1 million points back per calendar year).
Using a credit card travel portal
While you can use your points to book your flight as if it was cash, you can also pay with your credit card. Many credit cards offer lucrative bonuses when you purchase flights through their portals as an incentive to book with them. These are a few of the credit cards that offer bonuses when booking through the bank travel portals:
- American Express: The Platinum Card® from American Express (5x), The Business Platinum Card (5x) American Express® Gold Card (3x), American Express® Green Card (3x)
- Capital One: Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card (5x)
- Chase: Chase Freedom Flex and Chase Freedom Unlimited® (5%), Chase Sapphire Preferred (5x), Chase Sapphire Reserve (5x)
The information for the Amex Green card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Online travel agencies (OTAs)
Online travel agencies like Expedia make it simple for travelers to compare flights among carriers easily. You can quickly find the lowest price or best itineraries among multiple airlines to match your travel needs. In most cases, you will earn airline miles for your flight when you book through an OTA. Just note that it might be harder to change or cancel your flight if you book through an OTA instead of directly with the airline.
Related: Why this reader says he'll avoid booking through OTAs from now on
Partner airline flights credited to this program
As mentioned, you can earn miles with your favorite airline loyalty program when flying their partner airlines.
To do so, you'll credit your flight to your favorite airline when booking your ticket or when checking in. This strategy helps you accumulate miles faster for future redemptions and prevents you from having small amounts of miles in multiple programs that aren't enough to redeem for a flight.
For example, if you are flying on Air France, you can credit your flight to your Delta SkyMiles account. Again, every airline has different rules to calculate the number of miles earned on partner flights. These calculations generally include the distance flown, class of service, and elite status.
For example, an Air France flight booked in "D" fare business class earns 100% miles flown plus a 100% class of service bonus, for a total of 200% miles flown. A flight from New York-JFK to Paris (CDG) clocks in at 3,635 miles, meaning you'd earn 7,270 SkyMiles if you credited to Delta and don't have elite status.
Related: 6 Delta SkyMiles sweet spots worth saving up for
When you don't earn miles
While there are numerous ways to earn miles when flying, not every flight offers these benefits. Here are a few of the situations where you won't earn miles on your ticket.
When you redeem miles to buy your ticket, you will not earn redeemable miles for the flight. In general, if the airline is not receiving revenue for your flight, you won't receive credit.
Employee travel pass flights
If you know someone that works for an airline, you may be lucky enough to travel on their employee travel pass. These flights are also considered "non-rev" flights and will not earn miles.
Basic economy tickets
Airlines continue to devalue the "savings" of booking a basic economy ticket. Some travelers are ok with the lack of an assigned seat, luggage limitations, and inability to change flights to save a few dollars. However, some airlines eliminated mileage-earning from basic economy tickets.
- American Airlines. Earn miles, but does not count towards elite status.
- Delta Air Lines. Tickets do not earn miles or elite status credit.
- United Airlines. Earn miles and elite status credit.
Deeply discounted tickets and fare classes
Certain booking classes of tickets are not eligible to receive miles, even when you're paying cash for the ticket. These ticket classes vary by airline and are generally the most discounted tickets offered by the airline.
Partner flights operated by another airline
Crediting partner flights to your favorite airline can be a good way to accumulate miles. However, if that partner flight is operated by an airline outside of the alliance, you may not receive miles for the flight.
For example, if you're flying Air France from New York-JFK to Paris (CDG) and connecting to Belgrade (BEG) with Air Serbia — one of Air France's codeshare partners — you won't earn miles on the Paris to Belgrade segment. This is because Air Serbia is not a Delta partner.
Missed or canceled flights
If you miss your flight or cancel it, you will not receive miles for the ticket. To receive miles from your flight, you must fly the flight you've booked. If you cancel a flight and rebook with flight credit, you will earn miles based on the new itinerary.
Related: How to earn thousands of miles per month without taking a single flight
Many airlines offer companion tickets that allow an additional passenger to fly with the primary traveler for free or a nominal charge. Some credit cards provide single-use certificates when you renew the card or meet required spending levels each year. The Southwest Companion Pass is earned based on segments flown or points earned and offers unlimited use on paid or award flights.
Each airline treats its companion tickets differently regarding earning miles or not for these flights. Here's the breakdown for several of the most popular companion tickets:
- Alaska Airlines: Both the primary traveler and the companion earn mileage credit in their respective accounts. Companion fares are eligible for upgrades.
- American Airlines: The primary traveler earns miles, but the companion does not. You may use systemwide and mileage award upgrades on the companion ticket.
- Delta Air Lines: The primary traveler earns miles, but the companion does not. Companion fares are eligible for upgrades based on the primary traveler's elite status.
- Southwest Airlines: The primary traveler earns points if they're flying on a cash ticket, but not if they redeemed points for the flight. The companion does not earn points for their flight.
Related: Your guide to airline credit card companion tickets
Earning airline miles from flights is an excellent way to build your balance while seeing the world. There are numerous ways to earn miles while flying, but you have to watch out for unique situations where you won't earn credit for the flight.
In general, if you're buying your ticket with your credit card from the airline or booking using points through your bank's travel portal, you should receive credit. Conversely, when you redeem your miles for an award flight, you will not earn miles for that trip.