Part I: A Beginner’s Guide to Airline Miles – Earning and Collecting

InFlight Alpen

Strangers to this topic might feel that getting a good understanding of earning airline miles compares to rocket science. There are dozens of different program. Miles are not always merely called miles. Depending on the frequent flyer program they are calculated differently, and there are numerous ways to earn miles even without flying. And if this wasn’t enough already, there is a second universe within the universe of airlines miles: Elite Status. Again, how to achieve it and what benefits come with it differs from one frequent flyer program to another.

This guide will consist of two parts. The first part is all about earning and collecting miles. Consequently, the second part will show, how miles and points can be redeemed.

After reading both parts of our beginner’s guide, you should know the answer to (at least some) of the following questions:

  • How can I calculate the distance between two airports?
  • How does a booking class impact my mileage earnings?
  • Why am I credited with award and tier miles?
  • Are there ways to earn miles without ever flying?
  • What option do I have if I want to redeem miles for free flights or upgrades?
  • How can I reach elite status and benefit from it?
  • Why do airlines form alliances? And how can I benefit from those?


With few exceptions, the amount of award miles you can earn on flights is based on the distance between the departure and arrival airports. Of course, not all aircraft fly on a direct route between two points and will sometime change their route due to weather or other circumstances. But for the purpose of constant calculation, miles for all flights are still credited based on the direct distance between two airports.

The earth is known to be a sphere (at least that’s what most people believe) and the shortest connection between two points on a surface of a sphere is called the geodesic line. That’s the basis for calculating miles. In aviation, nautical miles are used as a unit to define length. And since frequent flyer programs origin from the USA, miles are the currency in almost all programs.

Now that we clarified some basic terms, we can go on. But before we get into serious math to find out how many miles lie between the origin and the destination of your flight, we will instead refer you to another useful site: You can enter the IATA code of various airports and as a result, will receive the exact amount of miles that a plane has to travel to connect these places on the shortest route:

MileCalc example
How to calculate miles for a flight from Barcelona to New York

However, the distance between the two airports is only one factor that is taken into account. As a result, the number of miles you traveled will not always match the number of award miles you’ll see in your account.

Booking class

A crucial factor for whether you can earn many, few or no miles at all is the so-called booking class. Depending on the fare you booked and if you’re traveling in Economy, Business or even First Class, you will be assigned a particular booking class. To help the airlines distinguish between all the different fares and categories, there are letters assigned to each and every one of them, typically ranging between A and Z.

Depending on the booking class is a certain percentage, also called multiplier or earning rate. This number can be as low as 0% – meaning you won’t be credited with any miles at all. But it can also reach highs of 300% – meaning… Exactly, you’ll get three times the miles you actually traveled.

In general, we could say that in Economy Class, you usually earn between 25% and 150% of the mileage. In Business Class it’s between 100% – 200%, and in First Class, you’ll get up to 300% of the distance miles. Rule of thumb, of course.

Below you can see an example of the mileage accrual with British Airways:

Avios Chart BA
Get all the information you need from a chart that most airlines provide

Some booking classes (e.g., on award flights) are excluded from most collection charts. Accordningly you won’t collect any miles at all. Besides, there is often a minimum number of miles. If ‘distance x booking class factor’ is below that number, the minimum miles will still be credited.

Award & Tier Miles

Once your first miles roll in, you’ll probably realize that you’re credited with two different sorts of miles. This is the case for almost all frequent flyer programs. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean that you’re earning double the miles. There is a fundamental difference between the two.

Award miles

Award miles are the kind of miles that most people will know. Generally speaking, this is the currency that frequent flyer programs use. Depending on the airline and the program you’ve signed up for, there are many different ways to redeem those miles. Obviously one of them is to use your miles for free flights. These are also called award flights or award seats. Hence the name.

Tier Miles

With tier miles – the second category – everything is about the so-called elite status. As a traveler, you can obtain various tier of elite status that will grant you a list of benefits when flying with an airline.

In contrast to award miles, tier miles are basically worthless in terms of redeemability. In other words, you can’t book award flights with them. On the other hand, if you collect enough tier miles within a specific time period, you’ll be awarded differently. You’ll obtain elite status with your frequent flyer program. And this can be as valuable as award miles to some travelers.

But that’s not the only difference between the two types of miles. While there are often several ways to collect award miles (e.g., Rental cars, Credit Cards,…), you’ll generally get tier miles only when flying.


One thing that tier and award miles have in common is an expiry date. And you should always keep an eye on that point in time.

Even tough tier miles don’t really expire, your account will be reset after your qualification period (commonly one year). For this reason, you should always be aware of your personal ‘deadline’. Some programs carry on your miles in some sort of lifetime account. But this normally won’t affect your current elite status.

Unlike with tier miles, airlines often offer a more generous period for award miles. Even though the one-year timeframe is also common with award miles, there are examples of programs that will let you keep your miles as long as you want. Or it is enough to keep your account active by earning or spending one mile every two years. Accordingly, even people who don’t fly that often can fill up their account on the long run.

Avios, Kilometers, Points

If an airline doesn’t use miles as the currency for its frequent flyer program, they sometimes use other creative names instead of tier and award miles. But not to worry: in the end, they all serve the same purpose, regardless of their official name.

British Airways‘ frequent flyer program named ‘Executive Club‘ has two different expressions for the miles you can collect. Award miles are called Avios while tier miles are called Tier Points.

And not all programs use miles as a unit for distance. The South American airline LATAM, for example, uses kilometers as a measure. Hence, you also collect kilometers as a member of their frequent flyer program LATAM Pass.

Especially at the beginning, it may be a bit confusing that the same terms aren’t used everywhere. But you should not be intimidated by that. As a beginner, it is only essential to understand the frequent flyer program that you’re a member of. By all means, you’ll know most common names for tier and award miles sooner than you’d think.

Mileage Calculator

Sometimes you might want to know how many miles you’ll be credit with before even planning a trip. Or you’re trying to find out the mileage cost of an award flight. To make this task easier, some frequent flyer programs offer their very own tools. These are commonly called mileage calculators.

As already mentioned, the calculation of the miles – tier as well as award – is usually based on the distance traveled. However, not all programs work with distance miles, and you may not want to do the calculation by yourself in the first place. So it’s always worth checking the airline’s website for their mileage calculator.

On the other hand: it is not exactly a scientific process to find out how many miles you’ll earn. You can multiply the distance flown by the factor that your booking class gets you. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic have a look our article:

Your frequent flyer number

To collect award miles or obtain elite status, the airline has to know that you are a frequent flyer. And to be sure that your hard earned miles won’t end up in the account of someone else, there is a unique identifier: your frequent flyer number.

As long as you book your flights through the airline’s website, it shouldn’t be a problem to enter your frequent flyer number. Usually, you’ll find the designated field somewhere on the way to your ticket. Entering your number will often populate other fields, such as name, address or birthday since this information can be pulled from your frequent flyer account.

United frequent flyer number example
United offers a field to enter your frequent flyer program as well as your number

When booking through a third party (e.g., an online travel agency) it could be more complicated to add your number to your booking. Sometimes it is as easy as the process most airlines offer. But there are cases in which you either can’t enter a number at all, or you can only select the airlines that you are booking your flight with.

Opodo Frequent Flyer numer example
The OTA Opodo won’t let you change the frequent flyer program

If you should encounter this problem, it is wise to point out your participation in an airline’s loyalty program at some point before boarding the aircraft. The last chance is usually during check-in at the airport. If you have received a card from your frequent flyer program, show it at the desk. It should also be sufficient to show a screenshot or a printout of your virtual card or give the service attendant your frequent flyer number.

Get some more information on this topic right here:

Claim missing miles

If you couldn’t add your number on time, the miles shouldn’t be lost, though. You can always claim the missing miles afterward. To do so, contact the airline or your frequent flyer program and prove that you’ve actually been on board of the flight you’re claiming the miles for. Your boarding pass should do the job.

Getting your miles at a later point in time usually works pretty smoothly with most airlines. But it can take weeks until you’ll see them in your account. Therefore it is always better to connect your booking to your number as soon as possible.

Earn award miles without flying

Earning award miles through flights is, of course, the obvious way to fill up your account. But award miles can also be obtained through other means. Depending on the program, the list of additional options may be prolonged.

For example, hotel bookings are often rewarded with miles. So are car rentals. The use of a particular credit card can also lead to your mileage account filling up. Another exciting option for earning additional award miles is a subscription to a newspaper or magazine.

Some frequent flyer programs also allow points from partner programs to be converted into award miles. And many programs also sell award miles directly to their members. There are regular campaigns to boost the purchase of miles with a bonus or discount.

So there are some ways to earn award miles without ever seeing an aircraft from the inside. That said, the situation is different from tier miles. Typically, airlines do not offer the opportunity to earn these miles without taking a flight. But there is no rule without exception: sometimes you’ll be credited with tier miles when using an airline-branded credit card.

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Comment (1)

  1. Eva Allison says:

    I have traveled Southwest Airline Miles and for that i have earned 25,000 airline miles on purchasing promotional products(promo pens). In my opinion this was the best way to earn free miles. Same plan is offered by American Airlines partners.

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