Editorial Policy

All Airline Rewards Miles are Not Created Equal

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

September 10, 2012

ADear Eva,

I just started a business, and I fly a lot. So I'm looking at some rewards cards. One thing that's confusing me is that a lot of these cards have different kinds of miles. From what I can tell, there are regular miles and then there are “elite” miles (which go by different names depending on the card). What's the difference? – Jim

QHi Jim,

Indeed, you are right. The good news is that there are more ways than ever to accumulate frequent flier miles, including via credit cards, through an airline's partner airlines, as well as through hotels and other vendors and services partnering with the airline.Ask Eva

The bad news is that not all miles are equal. Most airlines consider miles earned through partner offers, such as airline credit cards, as bonus miles.

What exactly does that mean? Well, you can still use the miles accumulated to book free trips, but bonus miles don't count toward elite status with the airline. For that you need to earn so-called Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs), which are awarded the good, old-fashioned way — via the flights you take. The term for EQMs varies slightly from airline to airline. Delta Airlines, for example, refers to them as SkyMiles Medallion Qualifying Miles, but it's the same basic idea.

So, if all miles, EQMs or not, will earn you free trips, why should you care about miles that qualify you for elite status with an airline? Well, since you're now a road warrior, you will appreciate the importance of traveling in comfort and style. And that's exactly what you get with elite status. Elite status will give you access to all sorts of travel perks that make your trip more enjoyable and less taxing. The higher your elite status (usually named in terms of “Silver,” “Gold,” or “Platinum” status), the more perks you get access to.

What exactly are those perks? For starters, free checked baggage, priority check-in and priority boarding. But there's more. Ever been stuck in a long security line fretting about whether you'll make your flight? With a certain level of elite status, with many airlines, you can now breeze through priority security check-in lines available in some airports.

Other perks include preferred seating, complimentary first-class upgrades when seats are available, discounts on access to the airline's airport lounges, as well as discounts on economy comfort seats on overseas flights, which also become complimentary at higher elite levels.

The list is long. There are numerous perks, and the rules for the different elite levels and how to reach them can get somewhat complicated. Still, it's well worth the effort to educate yourself on the elite status terms offered by the airline you use the most. For details of benefits and elite status requirements, check out the terms for the main airlines:

Delta Airlines SkyMiles Medallion Benefits.

United Airlines: Mileage Plus Premier Benefits

American Airlines Aadvantage Elite Benefits

US Airways Preferred Benefits

The concept of elite status is a clever marketing and branding strategy, which can be a win-win for both consumers and airlines. Airlines get dedicated customers, while consumers get perks that can make a difference for frequent travelers like you.

Once you reach a certain level and log a certain number of miles each year, it is fairly easy to continue to qualify for Elite status. And, if you really get hooked, check out online forums like flyertalk.com or InsideFlyer.com, which contain plenty of tips for how to make the most out of your miles and how to earn both EQMs and regular miles faster.

Got a question for Eva? Send her an email.