We’ve all done it. You board an overnight flight, and as you shuffle through the pointy end of the plane, you glare at all of the people sitting in their comfortable First and Business Class seats. You wonder, “who are these jerks?” Why do they deserve to ride in comfort while you get flanked by an overweight couple who’ve just requested seatbelt extensions?

Perhaps you silently curse the one percent, dreaming of bloody guillotine deaths for the fat cats in the front of the plane, freeing up their skybeds letting you for once get to Tokyo well rested.

I have news for you young Robespierres, most of the people in the front of the plane aren’t paying full freight. In fact, many of them aren’t paying at all.

Airline and credit card miles are often thought of as throwaway currency, sort of virtual funny money. A shockingly high percentage of people don’t even bother to set up frequent flier accounts, and they let all of their accrued miles flit away in the wind. Those people are stupid.

There are three primary ways for you to build up your mileage balance:

  1. Actually fly: Depending on the airline, fare bucket and program rules you will generally earn 100% of the mileage you fly in coach, and a multiple of that for paid flights in business and first class. On top of that, if you reach elite status with the airline, you will have the miles you fly multiplied by a percentage. Airline elite tiers are generally delineated at 25,000, 50,000,75,000 and 100,000 miles flown. Achieving top tier status on some airlines will offer you a 100% bonus on all miles flown which will allow you to quickly build you mileage balance higher and higher, the more you fly.
  2. Sign Up For Credit Cards: Most major carriers offer branded credit cards. These cards often come with large signup bonuses. For example, the United Airlines Explorer Card offered through Chase has been offering bonuses of between 40-60,000 miles for new signups (a roundtrip coach ticket to Europe is 60,000 miles). A recent British Airways branded Chase card offered 50,000 British Airways Avios at signup, and another 50,000 at the one-year anniversary. That’s enough for a roundtrip business class ticket on British Airways from New York to London. In addition, cards like the AMEX Gold, Platinum & Centurion allow you to accrue AMEX MR points which can then be transferred to the sixteen frequent flier programs AMEX partners with, including Singapore Airlines and JetBlue. Chase cards like the Sapphire Preferred or the elite J.P. Morgan Palladium Card, allow Chase Ultimate Rewards points to be earned and moved to a host of airlines including British Airways, United and Korean.
  3. Spend: Once you have these cards, you can earn miles just by making your normal purchases. In general, you will earn 1 mile per dollar spent. Some cards offer even more favorable rates. All food & beverage purchases made on the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card earn 2 miles for every $1 spent. All United Airlines purchases made on the United Explorer card earn 2 miles per $1 spent. Some cards, like the J.P. Morgan Palladium card have bonuses that can be triggered at certain spending thresholds. In the case of the Palladium card, 30,000 UR points are awarded after $100,000 spending each year.

Once you sign up for cards and stop using cash like an 19th century coal miner, you’ll be well on your way to building a formidable mileage balance even if you don’t actually fly all that often. You need to make sure you maximize the use of your miles.

There are two ways you are going to be interested in using miles: upgrades and award redemptions.

Upgrades: Rates vary by airline and route, but in general, you can apply a certain amount of miles to upgrade one cabin class above what you have purchased. For example, on United 20,000 miles each way can turn your row 42 middle seat into a row 1 bed on a United Boeing 757-200 bound for Paris. This is also a great way to turn a discounted business class fare into a first class ticket.

Award Tickets: To go into all of the nuances of stopovers, destination, what is a connection vs. a stopover and what an “open jaw” is would take pages. On top of that, every program has different award charts and routing rules. There are three main things you need to know. 1. You can go EVERYWHERE (or almost everywhere…you can’t get to Bhutan, but you can get to Pyongyang) for free with miles. 2. You can do it in style. 3. When you cash in miles for an award ticket, you are not limited just to the airline you have miles with, you can redeem for seats on ALL of their partner airlines. For example if I want to cash in American Airlines miles, I can fly to Asia on Cathay Pacific and return on JAL without ever setting foot on an AA aircraft. Just a few redemptions to think about: anywhere in the United States to anywhere in Asia (including India) in first class can be had for 120,000 US Airways miles. Europe to Anywhere in Central or Southern Africa in business class is just 90,000 United miles, and New York to Rio in coach can be had for as few at 20,000 AA miles each way.

So, get applying, get flying, and get spending. In no time you’ll be downing caviar at 36,000 feet and raising a glass of Dom to toast your fellow frequent fliers before closing the doors of your suite to get some well deserved sleep in your comfortable airline pajamas…that’s right, they even give you pajamas when you fly in the front. Let the uninitiated eat airplane cake.

You can find more travel tips, witty observations, and brutally honest hotel reviews at Jared S. Baumeister’s blog: The Wandering Sybarite