Signing up for credit cards through partner links earns us a commission. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. Here’s our full Advertising Policy.
Update: One or more card offers in this post are no longer available. Check our Hot Deals for the latest offers.
When I first entered the miles & points hobby, I had a bucket list the length of the Sefer Torah.
The first airline card I opened was the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®. I earned tens of thousands of American Airlines miles from that card’s valuable welcome bonus. Not having entirely comprehended the value of airline “miles” as a newbie, I naturally assumed each airline mile permitted me to travel 5,280 feet aboard the airline. With 60,000 miles, I thought I could circumnavigate the Earth multiple times.
Not so! Airline miles do not correlate to imperial miles in any way. Here’s what you need to know before you start collecting airline miles.
Airline Miles Aren’t “Miles” at All (American Airlines)
When you purchase a ticket with some airlines (fewer and fewer these days), you’ll earn 1 airline mile for every mile you actually fly (or more or less depending on the type of fare you buy). So if you fly one-way from Chicago to Paris, you’ll earn ~4,150 airline miles because the distance you flew was 4,150 actual miles.
Beyond that, there is no reason for airlines to call the rewards you earn with them “miles.” It’s just a marketing thing. And besides, nowadays with many of the major airlines you earn miles based on the price of your ticket not based on the distance you fly.
Each airline has a unique way of calculating the exact value of an airline mile and they usually publish it in an “award chart.”
Case Study: American Airlines
Several airlines charge a firm amount of miles based on the “region” to which you’re traveling.
For example, American Airlines charges 30,000 miles to travel in coach one-way to anywhere in Europe from anywhere in the US. That means you can book a flight from New York to Dublin for the same price as a flight from Los Angeles to Istanbul.
That’s more than twice the distance! But the American Airlines prices are based on the geographical region.
If you’re interested, we’ll show you how to exploit their method of pricing flights so you can get the most from your American Airlines miles! Check out these posts:
Case Study: Iberia
Many airlines charge you based on the distance you fly (though it’s still not proportionate to actual “miles”). I’ll give you an example.
I love Iberia (the airline of Spain). You can use Iberia points to book flights on lots of different airlines, because it’s a member of a gigantic airline alliance called oneworld. When you book on a partner airline, you’ll pay the following amounts:
- 11,000 Iberia Avios points for round-trip flights under 600 miles
- 12,000 Iberia Avios points for round-trip flights between 601 and 1,000 miles
- 17,000 Iberia Avios points for round-trip flights between 1,001 and 2,000 miles
- 23,000 Iberia Avios points for round-trip flights between 2,001 and 4,000 miles
As you can see, the farther you fly, the more you’ll pay. I booked a round-trip flight from Cincinnati to Oklahoma City over the holidays and paid 17,000 Iberia points. That’s because I flew just 1,973 miles, including connections.
Case Study: Southwest
Other airlines completely ignore award charts and simply charge a number of miles or points based on the cash price of the ticket.
Southwest is one of these airlines. When cash prices are high, award prices are high. When Southwest has a sale, you can book an award flight for very few points. But you can almost always bank on receiving a value of 1.5+ cents per point.
Here are some posts to help you better understand Southwest:
Case Study: Delta
Several airlines have completely eliminated an award chart and have given themselves license to charge whatever they want whenever they want. This is the direction airlines are migrating, in fact United Airlines just announced they are getting rid of their award chart.
Delta binned its award chart a couple years ago, but they regularly publish fantastic sales to random destinations (we keep you updated on all the Delta sales here). You’ll have to check your specific route to see how much you’ll need to pay, but there are plenty of opportunities to receive great deals.
Unfortunately, there’s still no correlation between actual miles and Delta miles. You can check out these posts to better understand Delta miles:
I hate that airlines call their rewards “miles” (to be fair, some call them points, which is much more accurate). One airline mile will NOT grant you 5,280 feet of travel.
That’s super basic for miles and points enthusiasts. But I remember just starting out and becoming VERY disappointed upon learning my airline mile will only take me a fraction of the distance I had presupposed.
If this is you, don’t be discouraged! It’s really easy to save THOUSANDS of dollars with airline miles and points. You can head over to our guides page to expedite your learning process. You’ll find literally everything you need to know in a very readable format with NO jargon.
And subscribe to our newsletter to become a free travel expert in no time!