Clark Howard

Are Airline Miles Worth It?

If you’ve booked any travel recently, you’ve likely been bombarded with offers to earn airline miles.

And if you’re a novice traveler, the whole concept may seem overwhelming.

Even travel veterans who have multiple rewards accounts are sometimes left scratching their heads pondering the viability and usability of their accumulated miles.

How do you optimize their value? How do you make sure they don’t go to waste?

Money expert Clark Howard is an avid traveler who logs many flights per year. Given that, you might think he would be a huge proponent of the airline miles lifestyle.

However, Clark says that most people are probably only going to find miles as a source of frustration in their lives.

“Airline miles are not worth it for most people,” Clark says. “Because in order to make them work, you have to either charge a lot to earn miles or fly a lot to earn miles. And then not sit on a pile of miles because the airlines can repeatedly devalue the miles at any time.”

Clark says there are some travelers who are exceptions to this, though.

In this article, we’ll help you decide in which category you belong by walking you through everything you need to know about airline miles. And we’ll get Clark’s advice on handling them along the way.

Table of Contents

What Are Airline Miles and How Do They Work?

Airline miles are brand-specific loyalty rewards programs designed to shape consumer’s travel spending habits.

These loyalty rewards programs are usually free to sign up. And most airlines will even automatically bank your miles in your customer account as you complete flights.

For example, if you complete an 800-mile roundtrip flight with an airline you can expect to earn 800 “airline miles” for your loyalty account. These miles can be “spent” for things like complimentary tickets or seat upgrades on future trips.

But, unless you’re a very frequent traveler, you’re not likely to accrue enough miles to claim your desired perks based on your personal travel alone.

And that’s the first catch.

Many airlines will offer customers a chance to grow their mileage totals through spending multipliers that are attached to their co-branded airline credit cards.

These rewards credit cards, which usually have an annual fee, entice customers to dive further into the airline's ecosystem by promising things like free checked bags, seat upgrades and lounge access.

The next catch? Even if you jump through these hoops, you have little control of the value of your benefits.

Clark calls on an old-school reference to explain this process.

“Airline points are the modern equivalent of people collecting the old green stamps to redeem for prizes or gifts,” Clark says. “The problem is: In that era they would publish a price list for how many stamps you needed to claim an item. And you knew you could take as long or short as you wanted to get to the number of stamps and then you got the item.”

The major difference between that bygone process and modern airlines? The airlines can reduce the value of your accrued miles or change the requirements for your rewards program status at any time. No permission required.

“This is the problem,” Clark explains. “You can earn a lot of points, but then how you can redeem them is a big question mark that you have no control over at all. Because what you consider to be your points or miles are legally the property of the airline.”

Who Is a Good Candidate for Airline Miles Programs?

If you read some of the content from popular travel blogs, you're likely to find that they recommend anyone and everyone sign up for these airline miles programs. They recommend it even if you have no intention of getting their co-branded credit card.

After all, the airlines give the miles to you for free.

But due to some of the frustrating issues we called out above, Clark says infrequent travelers are likely wasting their time. Unfortunately, you’re just not likely to accrue enough miles to amount to anything meaningful.

That being said, Clark agrees that regular and frequent travelers can benefit from airline miles programs.

“If you live in what’s called a ‘hub city’ of one of the major airlines, odds are most of your flying is going to be on that airline,” Clark says. “And if you travel regularly, which I consider to be at least one round trip per month, then it’s worth it.”

So, for example, a regular traveler who lives in Atlanta may see the benefit of signing up for a Delta SkyMiles account because it’s a hub city. While a Denver resident may be better suited for a United MileagePlus account.

And to really make the most of it, you’d benefit from signing up for one of the airline co-branded credit cards.

But even at this frequency of travel, Clark says that probably shouldn’t have extravagant and exotic trips from your miles at the top of mind.

“You don’t think so much about the miles you’ll redeem for free trips,” Clark says. “You think about what being loyal to that airline with their credit card and flying with them often will generate for you.”

With many airlines, this includes benefits such as:

  • Free checked bags
  • Priority boarding
  • Seating upgrades
  • In-flight perks like WiFi, TV, meals and more
  • Airport lounge access

The trips that you could earn with the miles should be the “cherry on top” of the everyday benefits you receive on your frequent flights.

Which Airline Miles Programs are Best?

If you’ve determined that you fly frequently enough to benefit from an airline miles rewards program, you’re likely wondering which is the best choice for you.

The truth is: It likely depends on your location and travel patterns.

Clark, for example, prefers the Southwest Rapid Rewards program. He says it is the best in the industry because it allows frequent travelers to earn a Companion Pass®. The Companion Pass allows one named traveler to accompany you on any flight you book without any airfare fees (you will owe some small taxes and fees for their ticket.)

He carries both the card_name and a corporate Southwest credit card in his wallet. His spending with these cards has allowed him to earn the Companion Pass for his wife every year since 2006!

But he has regular access to Southwest flights and uses them often, so that makes sense for him. If you’re not a Southwest traveler, you may find that plugging into the rewards program for an airline that has a prominent presence in your local airport is going to provide you the best opportunity to capitalize on status perks while also securing the best prices on your flights.

I suggest that you pick a miles rewards program based on your location and travel requirements. Not the other way around.

An assessment of your travel patterns (your frequent destinations, airlines available at your home airport, costs of airline’s flights out of your airport, etc.) is likely to pair you with an airline that works best for you.

From there, you can investigate the viability of its miles program and any associated credit cards.

You can learn more about some of the most popular U.S. domestic airlines and their rewards programs here:

How To Efficiently Spend Your Airline Miles

You may already be sitting on a pile of airline miles. What should you do?

While you may be tempted to save them up for years in hopes of cashing them in on an elaborate vacation, you may get more value out of your miles if you act with more urgency.

Clark says the long-term pattern is for airlines to devalue miles within their rewards structure. This means that the longer you hold them the bigger risk that they’ll be worth less in the future than they are in the present.

That’s especially true in the post-COVID era travel industry. Airlines like Delta and American have made changes to their mileage and credit card rewards programs that devalued existing mileage balances and, in some cases, removed status tiers for existing customers.

“During COVID the airlines tied in with the credit cards so much more than they had before and they ended up with too many ‘special’ people,” Clark says. “So the airlines have started devaluing the perks, as well as the points, because they were just trying to survive. And in the process, the programs kind of got out of whack.”

How Can You Find the Best Value for Your Miles?

So you know the time is now to take that miles-backed vacation. But how do you make the most of the miles?

Clark has long held a travel philosophy: Find the best deal and then figure out what you want to do at that destination. This is a scenario where that philosophy could come in handy.

Rather than holding out hope that the next trip to paradise will be a cheap miles investment, you may be better off looking for deals to get multiple trips out of your miles.

Airlines will oftentimes solicit the usage of miles by offering deals to rewards club members through email, social media or website offers.

“The airlines will look and see where their bookings are soft,” Clark says. “And they’ll find flights where they know the planes aren’t going to be full. They’ll use them to offer what’s perceived enhanced value to cardholders.”

These “discount miles” offers are usually a good place to get fair value on your miles because the airlines are motivated to fill what was likely to otherwise be an empty seat.

Alternative Rewards for Travel

Clark says that many travelers may be better served by worrying less about airline miles and focusing more on generic travel rewards through their credit cards.

This approach will allow you to remain a “travel free agent” who isn’t tied to a specific airline for a flight. This allows you to price shop and potentially save more money on airfare than you would earn in airline miles over the long haul.

Clark says there are two lines of "generic" travel credit cards that are best for this: Capital One's Venture cards and Chase's Sapphire cards.

Each card issuer has a $95 annual fee card (Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card) that offers a good "entry level" rewards program, and also a higher annual fee card (Capital One Venture X Rewards Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve®) that offers more expansive perks.

Clark carries the Capital One Venture X Rewards Card in his wallet. It has a very "un-Clark like" $395 annual fee, but he says that even modest travelers can recoup that each year thanks to a $300 annual travel credit and 10,000 yearly anniversary miles.

This card allows him to accrue at least 2x miles on every purchase he makes, covers the cost of TSA PreCheck® or Global Entry and also gives unlimited access to Capital One lounges for the cardholder and up to two guests.

Do you have a favorite airline miles program? Or do you have some tips to share with your fellow travelers? We’d love to hear your opinion in the Clark.com community.

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