How to Use Miles to Travel for Free: A Beginner’s Guide

Jessica Peterson

How to use miles to travel for free: a beginner's guide

I’m a budget traveler who relies heavily on flights redeemed with miles to get around the world. I’ve been beating the man since I was 21 starting with my first flight to Europe which cost just $300 (without miles). Once I learned the miles game, the world opened up for me.

Step one is signing up for mileage programs on every airline you fly. It’s free and you can do it online, so if you’re flying and not getting your miles credited, you’re throwing away opportunities for free travel.

Earning Miles

Read my 5 Ways to Earn Miles You Probably Haven’t Thought Of to learn the unobvious tips about the miles game. The fact is, with every purchase I consider how to maximize my mileage earn. The Points Guy is a great resource for finding current credit card offers and understanding airline mileage programs.

Of course, loyalty to an airline means you can consistently earn miles for flights on that airline.

You can also earn miles from shopping on an airline’s website. You can earn double miles at select stores and sometimes bonuses.

Credit Cards

chase sapphire card

Most of my mileage earnings comes from credit card sign-up bonuses rather than flights. That’s because you can earn tens of thousands of miles with these bonuses. (The only downside of booking with miles is that you can’t earn miles on those flights.) Most airlines have credit cards, but there are also non-airline specific credit cards where you can earn points that can easily be transferred to airlines or can be used to book travel directly on any airline. Bonuses range from 25,000 to 50,000 miles and 5,000 more miles to add another user to the account. The caveat is that you have to spend $2,000-$3,000 within the first few months to earn the bonus. I save big purchases (like photography equipment) for months where I have a new card.

I also earn double and triple miles/points on certain types of purchases such as food, dining, and travel so I use specific cards for specific purchases.

Booking travel through your travel points credit card means you can get a small discount on hotels, flights, and tours (though the credit cards exaggerate the percentage of savings).

I recently signed up for a Marriott credit card and earned 80,000 points, which allowed me to book three hotel stays completely free of charge.

Most credit cards only allow one bonus per person, so I bounce around to keep earning. I don’t worry about ruining my credit score by having too many cards, as I’ve been at it for about 15 years with no problems.

Booking in Advance

How to use miles to travel the world for free

The closer to your travel date that you book a flight, the more miles that are required so book as early as possible. Domestic flights are generally 12,500 miles per leg and international flights start at 25,000. The prices can double and triple depending on seat availability. Airlines budget a small amount of seats for mileage purchase, so they can go fast on popular routes. Some airlines also charge a booking fee if the flight is less than two weeks away. The fee increases at one week out.

Note that even flights redeemed for miles require you to pay taxes, which vary by destination.

Mileage Accelorator

When you check in, some airlines allow you to purchase a mileage accelerator/booster, which means you get bonus miles on that flight.

Upgrades

Don’t have enough miles for a flight or just want a better seat? Use your miles for seat upgrades, which can also be purchased with a combination of cash and miles. Airlines prioritize upgrades by status, so again, book early to beat the elite travelers.

Free Travel

So, now that you know how to earn miles, simply sign in to your credit card or mileage account and start booking flights and hotels. If you’ve booked a high mileage-earning flight, sometimes it’s better to not redeem miles, so check the mileage calculator on your airline website. In addition, it might be smarter to book a flight that costs slightly more on an airline where you are close to earning enough miles to redeem.

Further reading: 21 Ways to Earn Miles That You Might Not Know About from The Points Guy.

Do you have any other tips for using miles?

Jessica Peterson
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Jessica Peterson

Jessica Peterson is a travel filmmaker, photographer, and journalist. She released her first documentary film about indigenous culture on Guam in 2016, after having lived nearly 7 years on the Pacific island. Jessica is currently on the Great American Roadtrip in her Airstream trailer.
Jessica Peterson
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  • Kassie- The Fly Away Life

    I’ve recently started doing this and now I’m about to book my first vacation to Hawaii with points! Its hard to figure out at first but once you’ve got the hang of the system its pretty easy!

  • Peter

    Hawaii looks amazing!!

  • Neha Verma

    I have started doing it now and I hope to slowly get the mastery in near future. Your tips are going to be really very helpful

  • Lynne Sarao

    I haven’t actually tried any of these miles tricks yet but I’ve been hearing so much about them. I’ll have to take a closer look and see if I can’t earn myself a free flight! Thanks for the tips!

  • Sonja Thomson

    This is really helpful! I wish they had more programs like this for New Zealanders. It seems like most of them are in the US. But we travel so much I think everyone would use them haha.

  • Jennifer Morrow

    Yes, I am pretty loyal to a main airline and hotel, then book within those brands as much as possible. I definitely take advantage of the credit cards for additional points, and pay balances off every month so it is net beneficial. I am not a budget traveler, but the same strategies apply for Business and First class travel. The other benefit is the member’s only lounge access at the airports (Centurion lounge for American Express plus airline lounge access).

  • Neha Verma

    Wonderful tips. I never paid attention to my miles earlier, but now, I am going to keep a track and make the most of these miles as I travel more and more

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Unfortunately in Canada, credit cards don’t offer that many (air) miles but I can see how useful it can be. I admit I’m too lazy to start managing a bunch of credit cards but good for you for saving so much money on travel!

  • Crazy Dutch Abroad

    Awesome tips, wondering how many credit cards you have in total. 🙂 I am on it as well, and as my cards needs replacement like every quarter of a year it might be a great idea to change accounts for these benefits. Thanks!

  • Thank you so much for this insightful information 🙂 Yay to budget traveling, I need to check these options in Spain!

  • Louiela

    I never check my earned miles and actually I don’t care about them :(, Thanks for these tips, an eye-opener to maximize whatever we have. Plus the credit card, its a tool to generate more points…

  • Hmmm..I wonder why I never thought of seat upgrades. Now that is a useful tip. Maybe the next time I should just do that instead of waiting for more till the ones that I have expire.