Learn how to get more boarding passes for your buck.
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Miles from each airline are redeemed differently, so get to know your preferred airline's system.
Do enough research to know what your miles are worth, and what the most efficient ways are to use them. Here's a basic overview:
American Airlines miles are especially good for travel to South America and Asia, because of their route network and partner airlines. They use a zone-based awards chart, meaning you'll need to use a set amount of miles for a ticket based on which areas of the world you're flying from and to.
Delta uses dynamic award pricing, meaning the number of miles you'll need can fluctuate based on demand, price of the ticket, day of the week, and other factors. You'll often get a good value on domestic flights and flights to western Europe and Australia.
United miles are useful for getting to most of Europe, and to far-flung destinations like South Africa and the South Pacific. They use a zone-based chart, but there is one caveat: they charge more for award flights on partner airlines, which are usually the ones flying to those far-flung destinations.
Southwest miles are fixed-value (1.67 cents per mile) and redeemed based directly on the price of the ticket. Southwest is a domestic airline, but they've recently been adding some flights to the Caribbean and a few other nearby international destinations. Aruba or Cancun, anyone?
Beyond the big American carriers, you can branch out to international airlines, which can be surprisingly useful for domestic travel. For example, British Airways has one of the best programs for short-distance flights in the US. As you start to learn more, the sweet spots of each program will begin to reveal themselves, and you can match your own travel goals to the program that's best for them.
Miles are worth about two cents each (or should be).
To maximize your value, always try to get at least two cents of value out of each mile when you redeem them in exchange for a plane ticket. Check out this blog post for a more detailed explanation of how to calculate mileage value.
You can actually redeem your miles from the airlines or banks that issue them for a value of one cent each, but it's not a good idea. You'll get a lot more value out of your miles by redeeming them for travel.
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Credit cards are one of the best ways to earn miles.
It's true. Co-branded airline credit cards offer huge sign-on miles bonuses which are often good for a free flight — or two! The best cards do have an annual fee, but, depending on how often you travel, you'll often find that the value of the flights you'll get to take can outweigh that fee.
Most of the credit cards also offer perks like trip insurance, baggage delay reimbursement, and free checked luggage. Keep in mind that you'll need a good credit score to get approved and qualify for even better bonuses with these cards.