I’ve collected and redeemed millions of frequent flyer miles over the last three years. By the end of 2014, I will have visited over 50 countries, often flying in First Class. Without frequent flyer miles, I’d probably only have managed half the travel I’ve been able to enjoy.

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Where I’ve Been in Red

This is an extremely basic post designed to explain why airline miles are the key to traveling more, better, and cheaper, especially intended for anyone who caught me on Rudy Maxa’s World this morning.

If you’re a long time MileValue reader, this post really isn’t intended for you, but consider emailing it to friends who have expressed interest in copying your international, luxury travel.

Cheaper

I just booked myself a one way flight from Honolulu to Chicago for a conference for 20,000 miles and $2.50. The exact, direct flight I booked cost $1,205 when I booked it with miles.

I paid $2.50 for a $1,200 flight.

Without miles, I would have booked a less convenient route with layovers for about $500 and had $500 less in my bank account.

Better

Before I discovered frequent flyer miles, I only ever flew in economy class. I distinctly remember one 14 hour redeye on Turkish Airlines from Los Angeles to Istanbul when I couldn’t sleep at all in my tiny space and felt like a zombie for the next few days.

For the past two years, I’ve flown all my longhaul international flights in flat beds in Business and First Class.

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These flights are easy to book with miles. I paid only 67,500 American Airlines miles and $43 for a one way redemption in Cathay Pacific First Class (pictured above, trip report) from New York to Singapore. You can get that many miles from one credit card sign up bonus.

Or you could book the flights I flew with miles for a whopping $16,689 cash.

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International First Class makes the trip a whole lot better. It’s easy to book with miles and completely out of reach with cash for 99.9% of people.

More

When I can open a credit card and have enough miles to fly anywhere in the world in First Class for just a few dollars in taxes, I definitely travel a lot more. Everywhere seems within reach–because it is.

  • What are the absolute basics you need to know to get started right now toward your travel goals?
  • How do you get the miles you need for your travel goals?
  • How do you redeem the miles for your dream trip? This is the catch, right? (Wrong!)
  • How do you become a globetrotting miles expert?

How to Get Miles

You can earn miles dozens of ways, but the two most common are from flying paid tickets and opening credit cards.

If you already have mileage balances from flying paid tickets, make sure those balances don’t expire.

If you want to supercharge your mileage balances now, the easiest way is to open credit cards and meet their minimum spending requirements to unlock their huge sign up bonuses.

The key is to get the right miles for your goal trip.

The right miles for the trip depend on where you want to fly, when, in what cabin, with how many passengers, and how much flexibility you have.

For instance The US Airways® Premier World MasterCard® with its 40,000 bonus miles on first purchase is ideal for international premium cabin redemptions and for people who don’t do a lot of spending on credit cards.

An equally awesome card, but one on the opposite end of the spectrum, is the Barclaycard Arrival PlusTM World Elite MasterCard® with 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3k in the first 90 days. The Arrival Plus is ideal for people who need to get home for Christmas or who generally fly domestic economy.

It would be way beyond the scope of this post to list the best card for every situation. Regular readers surely pick this kind of thing up from my frequent reviews of the many cards and step-by-step posts on mileage redemptions that include a few paragraphs about the best miles to have for the trip.

If you have a goal trip in mind and don’t know what miles you should accrue, please fill out my Free Credit Card Consultation form. I personally answer each submission to help people start on the right path.

How to Redeem Miles

How to redeem miles could fill dozens of posts, so I’ll just touch on the very basics.

1. You can use an airline’s miles to book its flights or flights on any one of its partners.

American, Delta, United, and US Airways are part of huge alliances with dozens of partners across the globe. Here are the airline alliances.

If you want to know all the airlines you can fly with a certain airline’s miles, google “redeem miles partner airline” and then the name of the airline whose miles you’ll use.

2. You should not necessarily search the website of the airline whose miles you’re using.

Intuitively you’d think that if you’re using American Airlines miles, you should go to aa.com and search for award flights there.

Unfortunately aa.com only displays a handful on American Airlines partners. If you wanted to search Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Iberia, LAN, or Etihad award space, all of which are bookable with American Airlines miles, you can’t find them on aa.com.

Where to search for award space with every airline and every type of miles is beyond this post. You can look through the MileValue archives, google your specific situation, or simply hire my Award Booking Service.

For $125 per person per award, my Award Booking Service will search use your miles to book your dream trip. And if we don’t meet your goals, you don’t pay us a cent.

3. Some awards incur fuel surcharges.

If you use American Airlines miles to fly British Airways First Class to Europe, you’ll pay about $1,000 roundtrip out of pocket to cover British Airways’ fuel surcharges. Fly American Airlines First Class instead and pay zero fuel surcharges.

If you use United miles, you will never pay fuel surcharges.

The miles you use and the airline you fly determine whether you are on the hook for any fuel surcharges. Obviously, you should seek to pay zero fuel surcharges, which is possible on some or all awards with each type of miles.

Check the MileValue archives, or ask in the comments how to avoid fuel surcharges with the miles you have.

4. Know the routing rules.

Every type of miles has different rules for open jaws, stopovers, free one ways, and how you can route from point A to point B on award tickets.

Knowledge is power. If you know the rules, you can get a lot more out of your ticket than an inexperienced booker. Sometimes you can even get more than the airline wants you to get out of your ticket.

5. Know who has the incentive to help you.

Only a handful of people know all the routing rules for every major airline’s miles. Airline phone agents are rarely in that group.

When you give up on searching and booking for yourself, don’t just call the airline.

Many agents don’t know the rules and how to help you. Even if they know how to help, will they? They have no incentive to help other than pride, since they don’t get bonuses for booking more awards. They might not give full effort on tricky bookings that seem like a lot of extra work for them.

When you need help with an award booking, hire my Award Booking Service. We only get paid if we book what you want, so you know we’re on your side. And we love tricky bookings.

How to Become an Expert

I’ve tried to automate the basics. If you need help picking credit cards, I offer that service for free. If you need help booking an award, I do that for a fee.

I even have the most comprehensive series for beginners right here that I plan to update for 2014, starting Monday.

Once you have the basics down, continue your education by following MileValue on Twitter and Facebook. And sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts!

Beyond that, some of the best information, though not in an easy-to-digest format, is on flyertalk.com. You can also learn by doing. Practice with hundreds of award searches on your favorite airline website to see what space is available and what types of awards are bookable.

Bottom Line

I travel more, cheaper, and better because of frequent flyer miles. Opening credit cards for their huge sign up bonuses is your ticket to travel.

The total amount of knowledge you need to be a true miles expert is daunting, but I’ve taken the guess work out of earning and redeeming miles for your dream trip through my:

Miles are perfect for solo travelers and families, domestic flyers and international voyagers, cheapskates and wealthy folks, you and me.

Once you book your first free trip in First Class, you’ll be hooked. Get started today!

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