How to Choose Which Airline Miles to Earn From Your Flights

Consider factors like airline partnerships, flight distance and booking class when deciding which miles to earn.

JT GenterJune 29, 2020
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If you’re flying on American Airlines, you might assume that you can only earn AAdvantage miles from those flights. However, American Airlines partners with dozens of other airlines — many of which will let you credit American flights to their mileage programs. And the best place to credit your American flight may not be the AAdvantage program.

The options may be confusing and overwhelming, but there’s a shortcut to figuring out where to credit your flights — and it’s worth the time and effort. The prize for your research may be earning a free flight sooner or scoring elite status from a partner airline faster than a U.S.-based airline.

Here are some of the tools you can use to figure this out, and some examples of how this works in practice. While this guide looks at American Airlines examples, the same process applies to any airline that participates in partnerships, alliances or code-sharing.

There’s one tool that’s incredibly valuable in your quest to maximize mileage earnings from flights. And it has a very fitting name: Where To Credit.

This straightforward website lets you put in the airline and booking class of a flight to find out how a flight would credit to different airline mileage programs. However, there are two critical pieces of information that you need before you can use this tool:

  • The airline.

  • The booking class.

Identify the airline

This might seem straightforward at first, but airline partnerships can complicate things. For example, American and Alaska Airlines have recently signed a code-share agreement. Soon, you might be flying on an American airplane, but for the sake of mileage credit the airline could be Alaska — or vice versa. On international flights (thanks to alliances and partnerships), it can be even more complicated. The simple rule is to look at which airline is shown with the flight number.

For example, for visiting Bangkok in July, two of the return flights would be operated by Japan Airlines, but they can be bought with an American Airlines flight number (routing through Chicago and on to Atlanta). That means that for flight credit purposes, the airline is American Airlines.

Identify the booking class

Finding the booking class can be more complicated. This is something that’s easiest to find when you’re initially booking a flight. Each airline shows it a bit differently, but there’s usually some way to check flight details. For example, American has a “Details” link that you can click during booking to see details like the booking code.

However, you’re not out of luck if you didn’t note this during booking. Sometimes you can find the booking class in your confirmation email, or you can use a tool like AwardWallet to import your reservations and store that information.

In this case, this flight is booking class Q:

Find your credit chart

You can now use the "Airline" and "Booking Class" filters on the Where To Credit site to get the appropriate chart. Keep this chart handy for later.

Nerd tip: While it’s rare, note that the booking class may be different from flight to flight in the same reservation. It’s worth checking the booking class for each individual flight leg.

Figure out flight distance

Now that you've found the airline, booking class and credit rate chart, it’s time to figure out how many miles you’ll earn from a flight. To do so, you need to know the flight distance.

In addition to being able to simply generate impressive maps, the website Great Circle Mapper is one of the easiest ways to figure out the distance of a flight. For example, the flight leg from Tokyo Haneda Airport (HND) to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) is 6,305 miles.

Know your earning rate

Most legacy airlines in the U.S. and Europe have switched to a revenue-based mileage program that rewards dollars spent rather than miles flown.

American Airlines’ AAdvantage is no exception. In the case of AAdvantage, general members earn 5 miles per qualifying dollar spent. Elite members get bonuses on top of this, so make sure you know your rate.

To figure out the qualifying spending amount, you can’t just check your credit card statement. That’s because government taxes and fees are excluded from this eligible spending for earning award miles and elite-qualifying activity. So you’ll need to look at your ticket to calculate the qualifying spending amount.

The amount allocated to each individual flight of a multi-leg trip is based on the total distance of this trip compared to the total cost. Meaning if you had a 10,000-mile trip that cost $500, that equates to 5 cents per mile. This enables you to now look at each leg individually. For simplicity in this calculation, let’s assume $200 in spending is allocated to this leg between Tokyo and Chicago.

Put the pieces together

For the flight from Tokyo to Chicago, we now know the following pieces:

  • Airline: American Airlines (even though Japan Airlines is operating the flight).

  • Booking class: Q.

  • Cost: $200.

  • Distance: 6,305 miles.

Now it’s time to figure out where to credit this flight.

For the AAdvantage program, just multiply the cost ($200) by the applicable earning rate for the flyer. General members earn 1,000 miles (5x), so we will use this number to compare to our other options.

Checking the Where to Credit chart from Step 1, we find that American Airlines' Q-class flights credit to most partner programs at a rate of 25%. The only exceptions are Korean Air's Skypass for flights between Dallas and Seoul Incheon (ICN), Japan Airlines' Mileage Bank (30%) and Qantas’ zone-based award chart.

The flight we are considering isn’t between Dallas and Seoul, so we can ignore that option. That means that there isn’t much math left to do. Crediting this flight to Japan Airlines would earn 1,892 Mileage Bank miles (30% of 6,305 miles). Almost all other programs would earn 1,261 miles (25%).

That’s better than the 1,000 miles a general AAdvantage member would earn from this flight, but it’s not that significant. So what’s the point of doing all of this? Here's a more meaningful example to show where this can really matter.

A big difference example: Flying Japan Airlines premium economy

One great way to fly to Singapore is in Japan Airlines premium economy. Depending on how you book this trip, you can earn a wide range of miles and elite-qualifying activity.

Option 1: Booking through American Airlines

It’s possible to book Japan Airlines flights through American Airlines, and travelers hoping to accumulate AAdvantage miles and elite status might assume this is the best way to do so.

Take, for example, this round-trip flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Singapore Changi (SIN), going through Tokyo Haneda (HND) in Japan Airlines premium economy via American Airlines for $1,081.

Looking at the earnings breakdown, American assigns a total of $1,002 in eligible spend (this is also known as Elite Qualifying Dollars, or EQDs). That means general members would earn a total of 5,010 AAdvantage miles (5x per $1 spent) from this round trip.

American Airlines premium economy tickets earn Elite Qualifying Miles, or EQMs, at a rate of 1.5x per flight mile, and this route is 17,550 miles long. So those hoping to earn AAdvantage elite status would earn 26,325 EQMs and $1,002 EQDs.

Option 2: Booking through Japan Airlines

Now let’s take a look at how many miles and elite-qualifying activity (EQMs and EQDs) you can earn on the same flight by booking flights with Japan Airlines flight numbers and crediting miles earned to the AAdvantage program.

You can book these flights directly from Japan Airlines for $1,094. However, eligible American Express cardholders can book through American Express’ International Airline Program for just $924 round-trip.

These flights booked into Japan Airlines booking class E. As shown on Where To Credit, there are a lot of potential programs to which these flights can be credited — including Alaska’s Mileage Plan, American Airlines' AAdvantage and British Airways' Executive Club:

If you’re trying to earn elite status on another airline, it could make sense to credit to another program. This example sticks with American Airlines.

On Where To Credit, clicking on American Airlines pulls up the AAdvantage earning chart for Japan Airlines flights. All premium economy tickets on international Japan Airlines flights earn 100% of flight miles as award miles, 150% of flight miles as EQMs and 20% of flight miles as EQDs.

So, for this 17,550-mile routing, a general AAdvantage member would earn:

  • 17,550 award miles vs. 5,010 when booked through American.

  • 26,325 Elite Qualifying Miles, the same as when booked through American.

  • $3,510 Elite Qualifying Dollars vs. $1,002 when booked through American.

In this case, there’s a huge upside to booking this flight with Japan Airlines flight numbers instead of with American flight numbers, while still crediting the flights to American Airlines' AAdvantage. You earn over 3.5 times more award miles and EQDs along with the same number of EQMs. Plus, by booking through AmEx’s International Airline Program, you can save over $157 on the round trip.

The bottom line

If you want to maximize the miles you earn from flights, it’s important to be intentional about where you credit your flights. By using tools like Where To Credit, it’s easy to find earning rates for crediting a flight without having to search each partner airline’s website. And as you can see from the Japan Airlines premium economy example, the earnings difference can be huge.

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