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How and when to use airline mile rewards

Travel is one of the most popular benefits people opt for when it comes to redeeming their credit card reward points. So with that in mind, here's a guide on how to get the most out of your airline mile rewards.

Depending on how you earned your miles and what type of reward or loyalty program you're enrolled in, there may be different redemption and value options available for you.

What can my miles be redeemed for?

Your credit card miles may be used to redeem:

  • Reward flights
  • Upgrades to first-class seats
  • Hotel stays or room upgrades
  • Priority check-in and free checked bags
  • Credit towards in-flight meals or drinks
  • Access to airport lounges

How many miles do I need for a flight?

The value of your miles could vary due to many factors, including membership status, types of awards, availability, and more. Take an example where your miles are worth $1 for every $100 in the cost of a flight. So 50,000 miles equates to roughly $500 you can use toward travel, hotel and other incentives such as seat upgrades. When it comes to flights, you'll also have to consider the airline's conversion rate and minimum requirements for redemption. Some airline companies may require a minimum of 50,000 miles, for example, before you can redeem your miles toward a round-trip airline voucher. Be sure to read your cardmember agreement and mile redemption policies to learn more about fees, rules and restrictions for redeeming flights with your miles as this will vary depending on the airline.

How do I redeem my miles?

You can log into your credit card company's reward platform (which often allows you to use your points on select travel booking sites) or the airline-specific credit card's website to see your award and redemption options. On these platforms, you may be able to see reward rates for specific flights, rules about blackout dates and information about conversion rates for flights, priority boarding passes, seat or hotel room upgrades, and more.

  • Partner travel sites: Your credit card reward program may have affiliations with travel sites through which you can redeem your miles. Check your reward program offerings to see if you can transfer your rewards to partner travel sites. This will allow you to use your miles as a payment option during the booking process.
  • Reward points platform: Your credit issuer may offer you a higher per-mile value if you book travel directly on their own rewards platform. You may, for instance, be able to redeem rewards for 1.25 cent per mile versus 1 cent per mile directly on your card's reward portal than an affiliate travel site.
  • Frequent travel programs: Your travel, airline or hotel credit card may have loyalty programs that also have a platform for redeeming your mile rewards. Your loyalty account may also keep track of the miles you've earned and provide a clear selection of available redemption options, details about availability, restrictions, and more.

When should I redeem credit card miles?

You may want to redeem your miles when you need to:

  • Flights: You can redeem credit card miles towards the cost of flights and airplane seat upgrades. Miles can be used fully or partially towards the overall cost of your flight.
  • Book in advance: Redeem your miles for a flight well in advance of the travel date, when flights are generally cheaper than if you booked just a month or a few weeks ahead. For example, a flight booked within one month may be available for 34,000 miles but if you book three months in advance, this same flight may only cost you 18,000 miles.
  • Upgrade: Want to travel in style? See if you can redeem your mile rewards for an upgrade to business or first class, when you pay for your flight with your travel or loyalty credit card.
  • Emergency travel: Last-minute flights may cost more miles than flights booked in advance, but sometimes redeeming miles toward your flight could help your overall expenses.

Which type of credit card earns the most miles?

If you are a frequent traveler looking to accumulate as many miles as possible for airline and hotel redemption, you may want to look toward a travel credit card. Travelers who are loyal to a specific airline or hotel chain may find it more rewarding to apply for a partner-specific credit card where you can earn generous mile redemption value. These loyalty programs may also offer exclusive perks to their guests, including free in-flight meals in addition to your mile redemption offerings. Those who travel occasionally may find that their general credit card allows them to earn miles at a slower and steady rate through their everyday spending. By focusing on your travel needs and spending habits, you can narrow down the best redemption options for you.