Avoid High Airfare Prices: How to Use Airline Miles

how to use airline miles

Learning how to use airline miles reward programs can be confusing.  Personally, I’ve used mileage programs several times to fly for cheap. This is a testimony article to introduce you to the art of airline reward programs.

Do you know how to buy only what you can afford, pay bills on time, and call  a support line? If not, then feel free to stop reading. Or read on and learn how, for a single trip, I flew Chicago to Hanoi for $53, then returned from Kuala Lumpur for $85 using airline miles.


First Steps: Research How to Use Airline Miles

Obsess! Take the time to read through some of the research out there, it is worth the hundreds of dollars that you’ll save on air travel. There are excellent bloggers who specialize in this topic. A few of my favorites:

The folks at the websites are extremely knowledgeable about cards, airline mergers, special deals, which flights go to which countries and all sorts of hidden tips. Not only that, but some offer free consultation to help you get started. These aren’t scammers, they’re real people with a really nerdy obsession for airline miles.

Second Step: Choose Your Cards

Be realistic as you choose your credit cards. Be sure that a) the airline flies to your preferred destinations and b) your everyday spending will meet the minimum requirements for the sign-up bonus.

Being the cheapskate that I am, my monthly spending hovers around $250-$600 in total. (Yes, total. Communal living is the greatest thing ever). Credit card bonuses typically require your successful spending of $1,000-$3,000 within 2-3 months. Choosing a card with a higher threshold would be a very bad idea for me. Learning how to use airline miles doesn’t mean being irresponsible with you card spending!

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Be aware of annual fees and how many cards you can realistically handle at a time. I had a year to plan for my first solo-backpacking trip, leaving plenty of time for completing two credit card applications and minimum-spending thresholds. Many cards delay the annual fee for the first year, so you can hypothetically reap the sign-up bonus benefits, travel, and then cancel the card before paying up.

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Using mileage points saved me money for seeing the karsts in Ha Long Bay

Cards That Worked For Me

Lucky gal that I am, US Airways and American Airlines were merging the same year I was  learning how to use airline miles. With the acquisition of both credit cards, I was able to rack up 50,000 points—which would fly me from KL to ORD with an $85 processing fee.

The minimum payment for the award bonus on US Airways was $1. Easy enough to accomplish. American Airlines required approximately $2,000 in 3 months. All it took was timing life’s “big fixes” for that those months—things like car repairs—and adding that to 3 months worth of average spending.

During the saving phase, I also acquired a United Airlines MileagePlus Card. Similar to the American Airlines card, I just had to reach a minimum spending threshold to earn 30,000 miles. With an inside tip from one of the blogs mentioned above, I snagged an extra 20,000 miles. Since a trip to Hanoi is just 35,000, I went abroad with miles leftover.

After coming home, I did cancel the American Airlines card before the next year’s annual fee. I only had a budget to afford one card’s annual fee and chose United Airlines because of their easy awards search function.

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Update: Two years late, I was able to reapply for American Airlines’ card to receive the bonus of 50,000 miles again. 

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Never thought I’d be in Times Square!

Above and Beyond

So far, I’ve been able to purchase 3 international tickets (oh, hey Borneo, Germany, and back home to Milwaukee) and 1 domestic ticket (for a trip to New York) within just three years’ time. All that on a very limited income and minimal monthly spending.

Paying attention to the credit card details and tips from the pros, you can find ways to get extra points (naming a secondary user, for example) and do such things as paying rent via credit card. Mileage programs also have Dining Point and Shopping kickbacks, though I find these pretty useless if you’re trying not to overfeed the capitalist machine.

Final Notes

What I’m trying to say about learning how to use airline miles, is that it takes a little patience but you don’t need to be an expert! If you’re already using credit cards and feel confident about handling those payments, it’s possible to arrange big perks around your annual budget.

Be smart with your spending. Never spend more than what’s in your bank account. Set up auto-pay plans to avoid late fees. Pack your bags and get ready to fly!

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