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Earning Miles From Flying

In this section, you'll learn how airline award programs work, and how your flights earn miles.

First, The Basics

Every frequent-flyer program is a little different in the details, but they're all pretty similar at the core. The airline wants you to give all your business to them, or at least to their partner airlines and companies, and the incentive they give to encourage this is points you can redeem for free flights.

A few airlines, like Westjet, instead give you "reward dollars" you can spend on future travel, which is basically a 1-2% return on your spending, so there's not much to discuss there. It's a great program if you don't fly often enough to rack up very many miles, but the value of the rewards is pretty much fixed.

More and more programs, notably Air Canada and the "Big 3" US airlines (American, Delta and United) are moving to a model where the award miles you earn are directly determined by how much money you spent on your ticket.

Airlines will generally also give a host of extra perks to their most frequent flyers, but that's a whole different topic that we'll cover separately.

We're going to use Aeroplan as our example here, as their model still applies to the majority of airlines around the world.

Earning Miles By Flying Let's say I buy a ticket from Vancouver to Toronto. The flying distance is 2,081 miles. If I buy a full-fare, last-minute economy ticket, I'll earn 2,081 Aeroplan miles for that flight. Pretty simple. However, if I buy a business-class flight, they'll reward my extra spending by giving me 1.5x as many miles, so I'll get 3,122 miles instead.

Now, the bad news: as airfares get cheaper, and airlines start "un-bundling" fares so you can choose whether or not to pay for checked bags, assigned seats etc., airlines have also started to reduce the award miles earned by cheap fares. So, if I buy a cheap economy ticket on that same flight from Vancouver to Toronto, I might only earn 25% of the miles I would have got for a full-fare ticket.

This is the reality for most of us; flying 4,162 miles to and from Toronto is likely only going to earn 1,041 Aeroplan miles. Heck, I'll end up on over 50 Aeroplan-earning flights this year, and barely rack up 20,000 award miles.

In the last year or two, some airlines have introduced "basic economy" fares, which don't allow seat selection, don't include baggage and don't earn any miles at all.

The sad truth is, unless you're flying in premium seats, flying is one of the least-efficient ways to accumulate award miles.

Still, when you book flights, it's worth checking to see how your ticket earns miles. As the saying goes, watch the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves!

Unless you're flying  long-haul business every month, even a serious frequent flyer is going to be limited in the number of miles they can earn from flying each year.  When it comes to really earning miles, it's time to look at airline-branded credit cards and partner promos.


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