Get the Most Bang for Your Frequent Flyer Miles

Posted by Amanda on May 5, 2010

My husband and I are avid travelers. Paul and I met in Japan and carried on a long distance relationship 7,000 frequent flyer miles away, and then just 1,000 frequent flyer miles away, until eventually there were no miles between us!

There are about 600 frequent flyer miles between my family and I, and so we are still racking up the points on holidays and mid-year trips.   

Even if you are not a regular traveler, frequent flyer programs are a great tool, and generally the memberships are free. You can even trade in your frequent flyer miles for magazines, gift cards, etc. in case you do not earn enough miles to take a free flight before they expire.

However, not all frequent flyer programs, or airlines, are created equal. Below is a comparison between the major frequent flyer mile programs, listing the pros and cons to each, as well as how many frequent flyer miles you must earn before receiving a free flight.

How Many Frequent Flyer Miles to Fly

Program Free Ticket Redemption Point Pros Cons
Delta SkyMiles 25,000 miles 25,000 free miles with the Delta credit card. You can pay with any denomination of miles that you have (don’t have to meet a certain threshold to redeem) Has baggage fees
American AAdvantage 25,000 miles Has a share program where you can give your friends/family/etc. your miles Has baggage fees
Continental OnePass 20,000 miles   Has baggage fees
US Airways Dividend Miles 25,000 miles   Charges a $30 minimum fee just to use your free reward ticket; has baggage fees
Southwest Rapid Rewards 16 credits (from 8 roundtrip tickets purchased) Short flights earn you the same amount of credits as long flights; credits are good for 24 months after earning them; no baggage fees (for first two check-in bags) Reward tickets are only good to use in the US (Southwest currently does not offer international travel)


Which is the Best Frequent Flyer Program?

Determining which program is the best will be based off of your own traveling habits and needs. For instance, if you do a lot of short trips, using Southwest Rapid Rewards is great because you receive the same amount of credit for short trips as you do long trips. When you receive your reward ticket, book a flight across the U.S. to take the most advantage of this!

Delta SkyMiles may make sense for you if you do not plan on earning enough miles for a reward ticket because you can use the miles you have accumulated to partially pay for a ticket.

Also, be sure to check out the best airline credit card to see if you can earn free miles towards your next flight or consider the best day to buy airline tickets.

As for Paul and I, we enjoy Southwest Rapid Rewards the most. I earned a free ticket that I used last March for a mini-weekend vacation to the Northeast, and am working my way towards a second free ticket probably mid-year 2010. I have also earned free tickets on American Airlines through AAdvantage, as well as US Airways through Dividend Miles.

Which frequent flyer program works best for you?

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Comments to Get the Most Bang for Your Frequent Flyer Miles

  1. That chart is very lacking.

    For example, the “24 months” for Southwest is listed as a pro. That is a con. On Southwest, credits expire individually after 24 months no matter what. With many other programs, miles expire after 18-24 months only if you have no activity. If you have some activity, then all miles get refreshed for another 18-24 months.

    You also didn’t mention that changing the date or time of an award ticket costs $150 on US Airways and some others, but American and Southwest allow this at no cost.


  2. I prefer United — not because I like the airline best, but because the credit card offers the best options.

    The best thing? You don’t have to have enough miles for a whole flight.

    For example, my husband attended a wedding this winter. We had only 15,000 miles, not nearly enough for a free trip.

    Instead, I booked him a $300 ticket and then applied the miles as a credit against the cost. (We had a couple of big expenses, so we ended up with about 17,500 miles — or a $175.00 credit.)


    • Abigail: That certainly sets United apart from others. What do you think is going to happen with the United and Continental merger? I am here in Houston, and people are getting a little antsy about it.

      Amanda L. Grossman

  3. I’m confused on the 35,000 miles quoted for Continental – can you provide the source on that?

    I was under the impression that 20k would get you a ticket anywhere within the continenal US, while 30k was required for travel to Hawaii, and 40k was needed for an international ticket.


  4. When I recently wanted to take a spur of the moment vacation with my family of 5 to the beaches of South Carolina, I had about 48,000 United miles. Certainly not enough to fly all of us there. Also, our automobiles are older…and I was leary about trusting them to make to trip from Ohio and back. So, I was able to turn over 30,000 miles toward a one-week rental on a loaded minivan through Dollar Rent a Car. Everyone was comfortable, we had transportation while there, and I didn’t fear a breakdown. Other than fuel, my out-of-pocket expense for the van was zero. Beats turning miles into magazines.

    Mr. Mike

  5. Hello Mr. Mike!

    What a great way to spend your frequent flyer miles. I hope your trip was fantastic–thanks for the comment!

    Amanda L. Grossman

  6. How many United Frequent Flyer miles do I need to fly from Tucson to Dulles and is the same during December?


  7. I am wondering two things. How do you go about combining United and Delta miles? Also, how many miles do you need for an international flight on United?

    Ashley Harris

    • Hello Ashley,

      There are sites out there, such as, where you can register many different rewards cards and frequent flyer mile programs to aggregate them all together and get a better prize. I am not sure if this includes airfare though, so check them out.

      Here is the page on United to show you about using your miles there:,,3831,00.html?navSource=Dropdown07&linkTitle=usemiles

      Amanda L Grossman

  8. your chart in regard to Southwest is totally out of date and does not apply to the current program, which changed about a year ago.

    John Kiesendahl

    • The new plan is based on miles flown just as the other plans mentioned, but their website doesn’t say what it takes for a free flight.

      John Kiesendahl

  9. Help, I don’t understand. Does 28000 miles with AA’s reward program translate to one or two round trip tickets in continental US?

    Michael Albert

  10. Michael, AA will give you one free ticket, and the other miles will be left over or you can purchase additional miles to get it up to 28k


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