Scorching-hot flight deals abound and summer is just around the corner, so there’s never been a better time to plot out some solid vacation time and hit up top travel destinations. Wherever your perfect itinerary takes you, it can save you big bucks if you make sure you’re earning your share of airline miles along the way. If you’ve never quite mastered the whole award miles thing, keep reading for tips from frequent flyer Ellie Day, who recently schooled us on exactly how to earn upgrades and free flights with each adventure you take.

Why Do Points and Miles Matter?

You probably know that everyone can earn miles and points through airline programs, but if you’ve wondered why these matter so much, you’re not alone. It’s not always super obvious that you can redeem everything you accumulate for airline upgrades and free flights. “While it can seem like a hassle to set everything up, you’ll be surprised how easy it can be to earn enough miles for a free flight across the country, or even around the world!” Day reveals. Keep in mind that you should earn something whenever you fly, stay in a hotel, or even use your credit card to pay for groceries, Day suggests. “If you can train yourself to remember that every purchase can help contribute to a free trip, you’ll definitely see why loyalty programs are valuable and so worth it.”

Day tells us to pay special attention to airline alliances, explaining that being loyal to a network of airlines is the ticket to making magic happen. “The biggest three airline alliances are Star Alliance, One World, and SkyTeam, in that order,” she says. “Not every airline is a part of one of these networks, but most larger ones are. For example, in the US, United is member of Star Alliance, American of One World, and Delta of SkyTeam.” Research each one to see which partners you fly with most often and double down on the other airlines in their network by booking all future flights within the alliance.

How to Earn Upgrades and Free Flights

Day explains that there are two main ways to earn points and miles: by actually flying and by spending with credit cards. Combine ‘em and you’ll be well on your way to earning some serious perks.

1. Earn when you fly. “Any time that you fly on a full-service airline, you’re likely eligible to earn miles or points at a rate that’s outlined by an airline’s loyalty program,” Day points out. Most US-based frequent flyer programs calculate how many miles you earn by a multiple of how much you paid for your fare. “This can be especially good if you fly on a lot of expensive, shorter distance flights, but can be unhelpful if you take cheaper, longer flights,” she says. But not all rewards programs are based on cost. To get the most miles for each trip, Day suggests staying loyal to a distance-based frequent flyer program like Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan. Do your research to see what will give you the most bang for your buck based on your typical travel habits.

2. Earn when you buy. Though flying across the world a bunch of times each year will help you score lots of miles, it’s probably not a practical approach to earning free airfare and upgrades. “Luckily, using a credit card that earns miles or points in your preferred airline loyalty program can be a great way to rack up miles or points with money that you’d already be spending,” Day shares. Look for a co-branded credit card that offers miles or points instead of cash back. “Miles and points can end up being worth a lot more than the cash back you’d otherwise receive,” she notes. Not sure where to start? Scope out the Chase Sapphire Preferred or United Explorer card.

Using Points and Miles

“One of the unique aspects of points and miles is that they don’t have a fixed dollar value,” Day shares. “This means that you can actually redeem points for a lot more than other available options.” Day spills a few tricks to getting the most bang for your buck.

1. Look for last-minute and first-class flights. “Often, when you are redeeming your miles or points, last-minute or first class flights will give you the best value,” Day spills. “However, each frequent flyer program has redemption ‘sweet spots’ where you can get the best deal.” She tells us that, for example, it takes the same number of miles to fly in economy from New York to Chicago as it does to fly from New York to San Francisco on American Airlines. “Make sure that you know the best value that your travel plans and frequent flyer program will allow and you’ll be redeeming points or miles like a travel pro!”

2. Indulge in allll the perks. You can earn some pretty sweet perks with your frequent flyer program, like elite status. “With American Airline’s AAdvantage program, Executive Platinum elite members get benefits like complimentary upgrades, three free checked bags, international lounge access, and much more,” Day says. “All of this comes in addition to the points you’d earn normally!” Check your preferred partner airlines for the deets and plan accordingly. Then enjoy all of those hard-earned perks!

Are you a frequent flyer? Tell us about your fave airline alliance, perks, and more on Twitter @BritandCo!

(Photos via Getty)