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If you’re booking an upcoming flight and you want to save money, your first thought is probably “I wonder if I have enough miles.” Then you sign into your frequent flyer account only to see the balance is just a few thousand miles short for that ideal flight.
“Guess I’ll pay cash and save my miles for the next flight,” right? Well, you might not have to wait. Because airline miles and credit card points lose value frequently and award space can disappear quickly, it is better to spend your miles sooner, rather than later.
So what do you do if you just need a top-off?
Here are some of your options to get airline miles fast so that you don’t have to wait months or years to book an award flight.
How to get more airline miles quickly
Transfer your credit card points to the airline
The best option to get more airline miles is to transfer credit card rewards that you’ve already earned from flexible points programs to the airline loyalty program.
Credit cards with transferable rewards points — like Chase Ultimate Rewards®, AmEx Membership Rewards, Capital One Miles or Citi ThankYou points — can be a great resource for a miles top-up. Cross check which cards are in your wallet with your airline of choice to see if the two businesses are transfer partners.
Buying airline miles
This might seem like the easiest option since airlines frequently push you to buy miles during the booking process. But not so fast.
While buying miles is an immediate solution, you’re likely overpaying for them.
Consider the baseline value per mile you should be getting and compare that figure to how much a stack of points will cost you out of pocket. For example, let’s say you want to book a flight that costs $470, or 42,000 United MileagePlus miles, but you only have 39,000 miles in your account.
United Airlines will ask if you want to buy 3,000 miles for $105 to top off your account and book the award flight. But if you buy the miles, that means you’re paying 3.5 cents for each mile, when they’re only worth 1 cent in value for that flight ($470 / 42,000 miles = 1.1 cents).
There may be limited-time promotions in play for buying airline miles that might get you closer to the baseline value. But again, exhaust all of your other options first, and only buy miles if you simply need a top-off and have to book an award flight immediately.
Open a travel credit card
By and away, if you need thousands of miles for a dream trip or to pay for multiple award tickets for your family, the fastest way to get a huge chunk of miles is by opening a travel credit card. It will usually take you about three months to earn the sign-up bonus, but if you meet the spending requirements, you can get from 40,000 to 100,000 points or miles (depending on the card).
There are virtually no other ways to get thousands of miles at once like that. The only downside of this strategy is that you need to plan ahead; it won’t help you if you want to book that award ticket right now.
Other options if you don’t have enough miles today
Consider paying with a combination of cash and miles. United recently launched a Money + Miles payment option and Delta Air Lines offers a Pay With Miles option to Delta cardholders. You’ll still want to make sure you’re getting close to the baseline redemption value for your points, which you can figure out with this handy calculator.
Use your credit card points instead of airline miles. If you have plenty of credit card points and it’ll cost fewer points to reserve your flight through your bank’s travel booking portal, you might opt to do this and save your airline miles for a different trip.
Book with one of the airline’s partners. Airline alliances and partnerships have created lots of opportunities to book the same flight with different travel rewards currencies. You can book Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways flights with American Airlines miles, for example. If you don’t have enough airline miles with one airline, check what the rates are with its partner loyalty programs.
Pool your points. If you’ve got family members or friends with miles or points, you might be able to top off your account by pooling your rewards. This really only works if you’re flying certain airlines like JetBlue or Air Canada, or your spouse and you both collect Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
How to earn miles without flying
If you need to earn airline miles “fast” but you don’t have any upcoming trips, try out these quick and easy ways to earn miles without flying.
Most U.S. airlines (with the exception of Delta) will reward you with miles if you take surveys through their affiliated program. The mileage-earning potential is pretty low; a few hours of survey-taking will probably only get you a few hundred miles.
Participate in the dining program
Most U.S. airlines offer a dining program. Simply link your credit card to your dining account, and when you dine at participating restaurants, you’ll earn miles.
You might even get a few thousand bonus miles just for signing up and making your first purchase.
This is a good set-it-and-forget-it way to earn miles when you’re not flying — just by eating out. The earning potential here really varies depending on the availability of participating restaurants and how often you spend money there.
» Learn more: Dining out? Don’t leave credit card rewards on the table
This can be a surprisingly lucrative way to earn more miles because you don’t have to change your current habits much, and the bonuses can really stack up. Sign up for an airline’s shopping program, and then you can earn miles when you make online purchases at participating retailers.
Sometimes you’ll earn even more miles per dollar than you would if you used the airline’s credit card, which might only earn 1x miles on purchases outside of travel. Meanwhile, certain retailers might offer 3x, 5x or even 10x miles for airline shopping program participants.
Participate in promotions
Sometimes airlines run promotions outside of their shopping and dining programs. Check our running list of monthly airline promotions, which may include options like buying a product from a partner or taking a flight within a certain time period.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2022, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card