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Frequent flyer summer school: A refresher on mile-earning strategies

Whether you fly once a year or all the time, you can earn free flights by collecting frequent flyer miles. With travel fever on the rise this summer, it’s time for a refresher course in the basics of earning miles. If you take our advice, your summer vacation could put you well on the way to a free trip, even if you won’t travel again until next summer.

Sign up

You can’t earn miles toward free flights if you don’t join an airline’s frequent flyer program. Enrollment is free, and you can join online, over the phone, or at the airport. You can check for a list of phone numbers and websites for the loyalty programs of the major U.S. airlines.

Strategy: If you’re serious about earning free flights, your best bet is to choose one or two airlines and concentrate all of your mileage earning in those programs. However, even if you don’t have a preferred carrier and just book with whichever airline has the lowest fare, you should become a member of the frequent flyer program of every airline you fly. On most major carriers, miles do not expire if you complete one mile-earning activity every three years. Then, you can hold on to your miles until you have enough for a free flight.

Remember your member number

Joining a frequent flyer program won’t help you if you keep your membership a secret. You need to attach your member number to your reservation in order to earn the proper miles. The easiest thing to do is provide your frequent flyer number when you book your tickets, either online, over the phone, or through a travel agent. Then check your boarding pass to make sure your frequent flyer number is printed on the front.

If you forget, you can call back or tell the check-in agent to add your frequent flyer number to your itinerary. You can even earn miles retroactively for flights you’ve already taken, but you have a limited window of opportunity in which to collect the missing miles.

Strategy: Always save your flight itineraries, ticket stubs, and boarding passes until after you’ve made sure that your flight miles have posted. If you accidentally forget to provide your frequent flyer number, you’ll need to send the airline this documentation in order to prove you were on the flight and get the miles credited to your account.

Partner up

To make matters more confusing, airlines allow you to earn miles in their programs when you fly other airlines. For instance, if you’re a member of Delta’s SkyMiles program, you can earn Delta miles on Continental and Northwest flights. As you cannot easily combine miles from two airlines to purchase one award ticket, you’ll get the most value from concentrating your miles earning in your main program. Be sure to find out if the airline you’re flying partners with your preferred airline, and then give the appropriate frequent flyer number when you book. You can find a list of airline partners in’s Mile Finder.

Strategy: Once you’ve earned miles for a flight, you cannot trade them for miles in another program. Therefore, if you fly Continental and provide your Continental member number, you will receive Continental miles. If you realize afterward that you could have earned Delta miles on that flight, you cannot trade the Continental miles for Delta miles. Once you board the plane, you can no longer switch the program in which you wish to earn miles. Be sure to do your research on an airline’s partners and give the correct frequent flyer number before you step onto the plane.

Bonus pool

You normally earn one frequent flyer mile per mile flown, with a minimum of 500 miles per flight segment. If you want to earn free flights faster, you should always look for bonus offers from the airlines. Many offer an additional 500 or 1,000 miles for booking flights online and several offer bonuses for the first time you check in for your flight online or at a self-service kiosk.

Airlines also offer limited-time bonuses for flying specific routes, often to celebrate new service between two cities. Some bonuses are open to everyone, while others are only available on select fare classes. The more miles you can earn per flight, the quicker you’ll have enough miles for a free one.

Strategy: After you book your flight, check’s Frequent Flyer section for the current deals and register for all bonuses that apply to your flight. You can also check the frequent flyer section of your airline’s website.

Fly for free

Once you’ve collected enough miles, you can redeem them for a free flight. Most domestic award flights cost 25,000 miles for restricted awards, with overseas flights costing upwards of 35,000 miles. First- and business-class award flights also require more miles. If you want the flexibility of booking your award for any flight you want, you’ll have to pony up twice as many miles for an unrestricted award.

Don’t let these high prices get you down, even if you only fly once a year. You have many land-based ways to earn the extra miles, such as through airline-affiliated credit cards, retail partners, and financial services. If you’re a dedicated mile-earner, you may find that you’ll have enough miles to get your next summer flight for free. And that’s a great way to start a vacation.

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