Frequent flier miles are a magical thing. If you collect them the right way, and spend them the right way, it opens up all sorts of travel possibilities. Free trips, free nights, free car rentals — they're all possible with frequent flier miles.
Here's how you can start working toward that free trip.
There are three big airlines alliances in the world — OneWorld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance — and as long as you have a frequent flier account with one airline in each alliance, you'll be able to earn miles almost anywhere you go.
Start by signing up for an account with these airlines:
American Airlines (Oneworld)
Delta Airlines (SkyTeam)
United Airlines (Star Alliance)
For instance, when you fly American, just input your frequent flier number when you book, and you'll earn miles. But if you fly another airline in Oneworld — like, British Airways or Qantas — you can also use your American number, and you'll earn American miles on that flight, too!
There are a handful of big airlines that don't fit into one of those alliances. You may want to sign up for an account with some of these airlines, too:
(And if there is another regional airline that you fly a lot — like Alaska, Frontier, or Hawaiian — sign up for a frequent flier number there, too.)
You can choose to earn airline miles with nearly every hotel stay or car rental. But it's also worth getting a frequent traveler number with these companies, too — hotels often run big promotions where it's easy to rack up free nights, and they're also more likely to give you status upgrades (bigger rooms, bigger cars) for frequent travelers.
Hotels (though there are dozens of programs, these four should be a good start)
Car Rentals (same here — lots of options, but start here)
Enterprise (if you're under 25, Enterprise is often the only one that will rent you a car)
If you ride Amtrak, you should also have a frequent traveler number with them, too.
AwardWallet is this amazing tool to help you keep track of all your points. You give it all your frequent flier information, and it keeps track of how many points you have — and most importantly, when your points are about to expire. AwardWallet makes it really easy to keep track of everything.
So how many miles does it take to fly somewhere?
The short answer: It totally depends.
For a domestic round-trip (in coach) within the United States, it will usually cost you at least 25,000 miles. For Europe or South America, expect to use 50,000 or 60,000 miles. Asia will require 70,000 to 90,000 miles.
But beware: If you're flying during peak travel times, it could cost more.
For hotels, a free room could cost anywhere from 7,000 to 50,000 points a night. Some hotels have a "cash + points" deal, where you spend a few thousand points and then pay a greatly reduced room rate. Those can be a really good deal.
The key here: Try to pick one airline and one hotel, and stick with them. It's nice to have 5,000 points here and 10,000 miles there, but that won't earn you free travel. Try to earn all your miles/points in just a few places.
Airlines miles expire — sometimes after only 18 months — if you don't keep earning additional miles. So it's possible that you flew with an airline a few years ago, earned a few thousand miles, but then they expired.
So this is my favorite secret airline trick: Call the airline and see if you've got expired miles. If you do, ask them what you can do to reactivate those miles.
Once, I managed to reactivate 45,000 miles on American just by making a call, paying a $30 fee, and then flying American a few weeks later on a trip home. You might be able to strike a similar deal.
How many miles can you earn? Probably nothing, but possibly thousands.
Your new favorite website is evreward.com. It's a search engine to show you which frequent flier accounts you can earn points on when you're shopping. (They also have a helpful bookmarklet.)
Before you shop, search on Evreward for the store you want to buy from. Then decide what airline you want to earn points through, and log in with your frequent traveler info. Then they'll send you to the online store to shop.
Whenever you buy, you'll also earn points/miles for every dollar spent.
For instance, if you're buying flowers for Valentine's Day, you should absolutely do it through Evreward. For every dollar you spend at FTD, you'll earn 30 points with either American or United.
How many miles can you earn? Depends on how much you spend! If you dropped $50 on flowers next week, that'd be 1,500 miles. All in all, if you spent $1,000 online this year, that could bring you anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 points — depending on where you shopped.
Plus: When you buy something through a shopping portal, it extends the life of your miles. Miles never really expire — just as long as you're earning miles every so often. That could mean taking a flight, or it could be as simple as buying something online once a year.
Many restaurants/bars near you have deals with an airline dining program, and will give you free points every time you eat/drink there — anywhere between 1 and 5 points per dollar spent, depending on the program.
You don't have to do anything extra — just use your credit card when you eat out, and you'll earn easy points.
Here's where you go to sign up for those programs (but FYI: you can only sign up for one):
You'll also earn 1,000+ bonus points after you spend $30 in the first month after signing up.
How many miles can you earn? 2,000—3,500 a year, including that sign-up bonus.
The absolute fastest way to earn a free trip somewhere is by getting a credit card tied to an airline or hotel. After signing up and spending a certain amount on the card — it varies depending on the card — you'll earn points and miles that you can apply to future trips. The cards also make it easier to rack up bonus points when you're traveling on that airline or staying with that hotel.
This is a good guide to some of the top frequent traveler credit cards. But a warning, as always: Credit cards aren't for everyone. Run a credit report before applying to any cards to make sure a credit card makes sense for you.
How many miles can you earn? Many airline credit cards offer between 15,000 and 50,000 miles for signing up. Hotel credit cards are usually similar in terms of bonuses, but sometimes go as high as 70,000 miles. (With all of these, you have to hit a minimum spend first.)
One other rule to remember: The bonuses change constantly — so always be on the lookout for the best deals.
Hotels especially love to offer promotions for frequent travelers. Before you book, search to see if the hotel you're staying at is offering any deals for free nights or bonuses.
A handful of blogs are great at staying on top of the latest promotions, including:
How many miles can you earn? Totally depends on the bonuses. Some flight promotions will offer double miles. At hotels, just staying for a weekend could get you a free night.