Lonely Planet Writer

How to play the miles game: top tips for beginning frequent flyers

So, you’re travelling and you want to earn frequent flyer miles, or you see your friends upgrading themselves to a luxurious premium cabin and want to know how to do it yourself? As an aviation journalist and frequent flyer, I’m often asked “how do I get started?” in the points and miles game. So here’s a brief intro.

Want to know how to get a better cabin while flying?Photo by: Artur Debat/Getty Images
Image by Artur Debat/Getty Images

For the vast majority of folks, that airline frequent flyer card tier status is not something that’s feasible to chase for a once or twice a year vacation. If you want the perks like extra bags or speedy boarding, get your airline’s credit card, or simply pay for it: lots of airlines are now raising what they call “ancillary revenue” by selling you the benefits without having to earn them.

To get started, choose a main and alternate airline, which will largely be dictated by where you live. London is pretty much British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, but elsewhere in the UK a KLM connection is often more convenient. Frankfurt is Lufthansa, Dublin is Aer Lingus, Atlanta and Detroit are Delta, and so on. Picking an airline that has a household pooling programme can be a game changer for families, although these aren’t very widespread.

Sign up for those programmes and research how the earning works: how much do you get for flying in economy? Probably not much, especially since most programmes are moving from distance flown to ticket price paid. But understand how codeshares – where an airline puts its own code and flight number on a partner airline flight — change that. Booking the same American Airlines plane with a British Airways BA flight number can change the amount of miles you earn.

Rear View Of People Sitting In Airplane
Aviation expert gives handy hints for upgrading. Photo by: Franziska Uhlman/EyeEm/Getty Images

Figure out what you want to get out of the deal. Do you want a business class return flight? Do you want to upgrade yourself and your sweetheart into premium economy? How many points will you need to get there? Those are both reasonable aims for most frequent flyers, and knowing your goal helps you figure out how to get there. The value in most programmes comes from redeeming for premium cabins — whether outright paying with points or whether upgrading from economy. But if upgrading, make sure you’re booking one of the fares that let you upgrade. Call the airline to check you’re on the right track.

Read up on who your airline’s partners are, especially other airlines, hotels and rental cars, and choose them if there’s no pricing difference. Hotels are another layer of complexity, and most beginners will want to minimise the number of different point currencies they earn, but sometimes supermarket, petrol/gas station and other partnerships can be very lucrative, and the range of partners can be astounding.

Everyone has to start somewhere. Photo by Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

If your financial situation allows it, sign up for at least your primary airline’s credit card. Signup bonuses — where you get X thousand miles after spending a certain amount within a certain time slot — are probably the best way to earn miles, but make sure that you track it and that you can pay the card off each month. Spending money on interest is a bad deal for pretty much everyone who isn’t a bank.

Figure out where to put any miles you want to fly. Is work sending you to a conference? Signing up for an account with close-to-home members of the three major airline alliances (oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance) is a good plan in advance so that you never lose out on earning those miles.

Lastly, be realistic. If you fly economy once a year and don’t play the rest of the game then it’ll be a while until you earn enough points for anything useful, but keep an eye out and be patient. Even an infrequent flyer can earn those big rewards!

Need more help? Hit me up on Twitter or Instagram: I’m @thatjohn.