How to Create a Better In-Flight Experience with Airline Loyalty

Strategies to use your miles for in-flight perks

When it comes to earning and redeeming points and miles, there’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy. Sometimes, I save up all my airline miles for a free flight or hotel points for a free stay. But there are a few cases where I find it more worth my while to spend miles on smaller, incremental upgrades and perks to make my in-flight experience better, rather than splurging them all on a free flight.

For example, if I can catch a low fare at the right time, I’d rather pay out of pocket and use my earned miles to make that flight more enjoyable, rather than spend them on the flight itself.  Especially with those international flights, which often last longer than four hours, extra legroom, free meals and in-flight entertainment are very much worth the loyalty spend.

From airport lounges to preferred boarding and check-in, here are a few of my favorite tactics for using frequent flyer miles and loyalty points for a more enjoyable flight.

Where to Earn Miles for Upgrades

Look for sign-up bonuses for travel credit cards
If you don’t already have one, consider signing up for a travel rewards credit card so you can earn miles and points on everyday purchases  – and pay close attention to sign-up bonuses. With sign-up bonuses, airlines make it easy for you to accrue miles before you ever even plan a trip or step foot on a plane.

For example, when you sign up for a United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card or an American Airlines AAdvantage credit card, you collect 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first three months of opening your account. With the miles earned, you can redeem them for perks such as free checked bags, upgrades, in-flight entertainment, more spacious seats, priority check-in, complimentary alcoholic beverages and more.

Similarly, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card hands over a 25,0000-point signing bonus and Gold Delta Skymiles Credit Card will give you 30,000 miles when you sign up. Delta’s signing bonus will even bump you up to elite status, which automatically makes you eligible for priority boarding and discounted Delta Sky Club access.

Earn bonus miles through airlines’ shopping malls
Just like travel rewards credit cards allow you to earn miles and points without ever stepping foot on a plane, airline earn malls allow you to earn additional miles and points by simply shopping online. Earn malls are online stores brought to you by a variety of loyalty programs that offer points and miles for every dollar you spend. Additionally, some airlines reward you with an extra package of miles if you spend more than a certain amount. And be sure you’re making those purchases with your travel rewards credit cards, as it will likely get you even more points and miles.

How to Redeem Miles for Upgrades

Apply toward international flights
Though it can be tempting to redeem all your saved miles for a quick weekend getaway, redeeming them for an international business-class ticket can be much more worth your while.

It may be exciting to get that entire trip for free, but instead of spending your hard-earned miles on a short flight (and short trip), use them for upgrades on international flights. That way, the extra leg room, better food, and access to Wi-Fi will make a long flight overseas more enjoyable and you’ll feel refreshed once you arrive at your final destination.

Be flexible
You’ll find the best upgrade and award-seat availability when business travelers are not flying, so redeem your miles for upgrades at off-peak times, such as for midweek and midday flights. You can also snag better deals when flying out of (or into) smaller airports, rather than major hubs. And, if you’re extra flexible, when a flight is overbooked, volunteer to take a later flight. You’ll likely be rewarded with a few upgrades or voucher worth several hundred dollars for your next trip, all without having to tap into your mileage bank.

From extra leg room to better food, consider ticket price, distance and flexibility when using your earned points and miles to decide between upgrades to better your in-flight experience, rather than always opting to use them for a free ticket.