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How do credit card airline miles work?

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    What are credit card airline miles?

    While some credit cards may offer points to use towards flights, others allow cardmembers to earn airline miles by making purchases on the card to later redeem for travel — or, depending on the card and rewards program, redeemed for cash back, goods or experiences.

    Which types of credit cards offer airline miles?

    There are two main types of credit cards that offer airline miles:

    • Travel credit cards offer miles the same way that other cards may offer points. The miles can be redeemed for travel with many different airlines, cruise operators and travel companies — as well as retailers and other merchants.
    • Co-branded airline credit cards offer miles for use with a specific airline. In some cases, the miles can be redeemed for non-travel items like gift cards or merchandise options.

    If your card offers airline miles as a reward, you earn miles by making purchases on the card. While you may be able to earn miles on all of your purchases, it's common for travel credit cards to accelerate your earnings specifically when making travel-related purchases.

    For co-branded airline credit cards, you usually earn extra or bonus miles by booking and making purchases directly with the partner airline, like booking a flight directly on their website.

    Airline miles' value can vary depending on the card, its airline partner and how the miles are redeemed. When shopping for a travel credit card, be sure to find out how the card's reward miles can be used and how much you'll get for them in different redemption options.

    How do I get credit card airline miles?

    Credit cards offering airline miles may provide mileage rewards when you:

    • Spend money on the card: Mileage rewards are tied to purchase categories — generally, you can accelerate your earning by making travel-related purchases. Some cardmembers may also earn rewards in some travel-related categories.
    • Sign up for a new card: New cardmember bonuses, often referred to as sign-up bonuses, are common with travel credit cards. For example, new cardmembers could receive 20,000 bonus miles. To receive this kind of bonus mileage award, you'll usually have to spend a certain amount on the card (in all spending categories) within a certain timeframe.
    • Refer a friend: Referral bonuses may be offered if you get friends or family to sign up for the same card you have. Typically, the other person will have to get approved for the card in order for you to receive bonus miles.

    How do I use credit card airline miles?

    Credit card airline miles, like the miles you earn in airline loyalty programs, are used primarily for airfare and other forms of travel. But many travel credit cards will allow you to redeem your airline miles in other areas, like gift cards or merchandise.

    Some common travel-related redemption options are:

    • Award travel: Accrue enough airline miles and you may be able to redeem for a flight. Airlines typically offer flexible award travel booking, so you can use miles for one leg of a trip and pay cash for the other leg — or use miles for both. For travel where you redeemed miles for a flight, you may have to pay cash or use your card for taxes, fees or carrier charges.
    • Upgrades to a higher service class: Today, most airlines let you buy service upgrades such as basic economy to premium economy, or standard economy to business class. You may be able to use credit card miles for these upgrades instead of paying cash.
    • In-flight purchases: With some airline credit cards, you can redeem your rewards miles for in-flight perks like meals, beverages, Wi-Fi or entertainment.
    • Priority boarding: Like service upgrades, priority boarding is generally offered as an air travel add-on. If your card allows it, you may be able to redeem miles for priority boarding.
    • On-the-ground purchases: Some airports may allow you to use your airline miles for in-airport purchases, such as food. These arrangements are most common at airports (or within airport terminals) that are served primarily by one airline.

    Common non-travel-related redemptions are:

    • Merchandise with specific retailers: If your travel credit card partners with retailers, you may be able to redeem your miles for purchases made directly with those brands.
    • Gift cards: Certain credit cards allow miles to be redeemed for gift cards.
    • Events: Card issuers or airlines may have event partners that accept airline miles for ticket purchases.

    Airline miles can have more (or less) value depending on how you use them. Some credit cards offer redemption bonuses in certain categories, helping your miles go further. With general travel cards, however, you must redeem your miles through the card issuer portal to get these kinds of bonuses. With airline co-branded cards, rewards can be redeemed through the airline's own rewards program. For travel where you redeemed miles for a flight, you may have to use cash or your card to pay for the taxes, fees or carrier charges.

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