Buy almost anything these days -- from a new mattress to a computer -- and chances are you'll be offered either a chunk of airline mileage upfront or the promise of a mile for each dollar spent down the line.
Randy Petersen, the self-described "world's authority about miles and points," expects that in another year and a half we might see up to 5,000 ways to earn miles without setting foot on a plane. At the moment he counts about 2,500 affiliated products. "Not just frivolous, high-priced items," he writes in the October issue of his magazine, Inside Flyer, "but products and services that you need, and can put you closer to a free award."
Many businesses are taking a cue from the airline industry and attaching themselves to its established loyalty programs, Mr. Petersen notes. Some airline frequent-flier programs also have established plans in which companies can purchase miles to use as incentives to employees as well as customers.
There are some advantages to earning points toward a ticket from a bank or other business instead of dealing directly with an airline, Mr. Petersen says -- especially if you're an infrequent flier who might otherwise never be able to amass enough points to get a freebie.
First of all, according to Mr. Petersen's article, award levels offered by bank cards can be lower than the airlines' -- sometimes as few as 12,000 points can get you a free regional flight. If you fly often, he says, nonflight miles give you a better shot at getting upgrades more frequently and collecting high-end awards -- such as a freebie first-class flight to Europe. And because the plane ticket you get from a bank is not a true award ticket in the airlines' definition of the term, you can earn miles when you take your free flight. Most blackout dates and capacity-control restrictions don't apply, either, Mr. Petersen says.
Naturally, there are drawbacks to some nonairline programs, too. Mr. Petersen says most independent bank card programs cap the value of the ticket they will purchase. If a $500 ticket won't get you where you want to go, for example, you'll have to pay the difference.
You may also have to carry a balance on your bill, he says, if you're going to earn one mile for every dollar spent. Points also have expiration dates.
So how do you find out about all this good stuff?
Mr. Petersen's publishing conglomerate is planning a new pocket directory, "The Miles Guide," listing businesses that offer frequent-flier promotions. The first issue is due in January and will be updated quarterly. It will cost $14.95 for four issues. Web-browsers can preview it now on the Internet at http://www.insideflyer.com. For more information, call (800) 209-2870.
The guide does not list banks that issue cards offering air-miles programs, but here are several: Chase Manhattan Bank/Chase Flight Rewards, (800) 581-7770; Huntington Bank/Frequent Buyer, (800) 237-7400; Bank One/Travel Plus, (800) 945-2023; MBNA America/TravelMax, (800) 847-7378; First of America Bank/FirstAir and Sea Ray Gold, (800) U-FLY-FREE; Old Kent Bank/CardMiles, (800) 245-5353.
One of the newest retail air-miles deals starts Nov. 1 at Computer City stores nationwide. Customers can get one American Airlines AAdvantage mile for each qualifying pretax dollar spent. What qualifies? Product purchases, software training classes and certain repairs and installations.