Smart spending can yield travel perks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Airlines boast about them. Credit card companies tempt you with them. People hoard them. Collectors trade them.

Frequent flier miles have become a currency. And now, with the 25th anniversary of this wildly successful program coming tomorrow, the miles game is more heated than ever.

Miles no longer are used just to get free flights. You can use them to buy digital cameras, magazine subscriptions, hotel stays, dining certificates and a whole host of other products. Four airlines have created online auctions where frequent fliers can bid on such items as vacations, spa treatments or a ticket to a Broadway play.

And you may not even have to make a single flight to earn those miles. Credit card purchases, not airline flights, have become the No. 1 way to acquire miles, according to Randy Petersen, founder of webflyer.com. and FrequentFliermagazine.com. "In the time since it was started by American Airlines 25 years ago, the program has changed from frequent flier to frequent buyer," Petersen says.

In fact, acquiring miles has become such a passion that it has given birth to a whole new activity, called mileage running. "These days, about a million trips are taken per year just to add miles to one's account," Petersen says.

Mileage runners look for promotional fares, scan airline Web sites for bonus-miles deals, and deliberately embark on circuitous routes to get maximum miles for a relative song. In his Business Traveler column in USA Today, David Grossman refers to the case of a mileage runner who flew from California to Singapore via New York, Texas, Hawaii and Guam to rack up 34,000 miles.

Mileage running is just one strategy for getting more miles for the buck. There are many ways to earn miles and many ways to use them. Below are some strategies that will help travelers get the most benefit from the miles they accumulate.

Getting started

Weigh the pros and cons of various programs before you sign up; each is different. While most free-trip awards start at 25,000 miles for a domestic flight, for instance, Frontier and Spirit assess 15,000 for a free trip; Continental charges 20,000 miles for trips less than 1,500 miles. Balance such pluses against whether the airline travels to where you want to go and the ease of earning miles on its program. Some airlines will give you 15,000 or more miles just for joining their program; that puts you more than halfway to a free trip.

How to earn miles

Flights--Earning miles the old-fashioned way - by flying - is still one of the best ways to build your mileage account. Try to accumulate miles on the airline that best suits your needs.

Credit cards--There are dozens of them out there, most tied to generating miles. Check whether the credit-card "miles" can be transferred to your airline mileage program or whether they are redeemable only through the credit card company. Be aware that certain cards, among them Diners Club, impose a fee to convert points to miles.

Car rentals--Agency programs vary considerably, depending on the airline. Rental companies usually award a certain amount of miles per rental day and charge a fee for doing so. Hertz and National, for example, award 50 miles per rental day on many airline programs (American program members get miles per dollar). Weekly rentals usually carry a 500-mile award.

Hotel stays--Some hotel chains award points that can be converted to miles. Some are good only for hotel stays. Hilton Honors program offers "double-dipping," giving both hotel points and airline miles.

Dining--All the larger airline programs allow members to earn miles when dining at participating restaurants. Once you register one or more cards with Rewards Network, you will get as many as 10 miles per dollar spent.

Cruises--Many airlines sell cruises through their Web sites, awarding some miles depending on length of cruise and cost of booking. Most will award miles only once per stateroom and to only one person per booking.

Other--If you need a few more miles to get an award, you can buy miles from many programs.

Maximizing miles

Choose the right card--Not all credit cards are created equal. Pick one or two that best fit your frequent-flier focus, whether it is free flights, upgrades, hotel stays, dining out, car rentals or merchandise. Credit cards affiliated with a particular airline (affinity cards) award miles that can be converted directly into free flights at the prevailing mileage rate.

Credit card purchases--Charge the most basic household expenses - groceries, gasoline, home improvement goods, etc. Instead of paying utility and other bills by check or direct to the company, see if you can have your bills automatically charged to your mileage credit card.

Promotions--Watch for and take advantage of bonuses frequently offered by airline and credit card programs. Smartertra vel.com recently listed 40 such airline deals.

Elite status--Once you attain an elite level in a frequent flier program - such as Medallion on Delta, Gold on American - you may be rewarded at a higher mileage level every time you fly.

How to use miles

Flights--Together with certain upgrades, free flights are the best use of your miles, according to travel industry experts Randy Petersen and Tim Winship. To maximize their value, use them for longer trips, not short ones.

Flexible itineraries--Frequent-flier awards usually allow open-jaw flights (fly into one city, return from another) and, unlike regular flights, may permit a stopover, particularly on international routings.

Upgrades--Best value is to exchange miles for upgrades on international flights, where the length of the flight makes comfort a valued perk. Never spend miles for upgrades on flights less than three to four hours. Some passengers buy economy tickets, then use miles to upgrade them.

Cruises--Only one company, United Cruises (a United Airlines subsidiary), will let you pay for your cruise with miles, according to Smartertravel.com. Payment can be a mix of miles and cash, but must involve at least 10,000 miles.

Dining--You can exchange miles for dining certificates on some programs. Typically, 2,000 points translate to a $20 credit.

Auctions--Continental, Alaska, Frontier and United airlines program members can bid on a variety of nonflight items. Choices may be limited, and value under par. To determine what kind of value you are getting, figure that one frequent flier mile is worth 1 cent.

Leaping the hurdles

Timing--With airlines reducing the number of free seats, try to book your free flight close to 330 days out (when the first seats become available), or book late (within two weeks) because airlines at that time may put unsold seats back into the free-trip inventory.

Buck the trends--Plan your trips for times when others are less likely to go. Fly at off-peak times, days and seasons and go to less-busy destinations.

A grain of salt--If you search online, don't believe the Web site answer is the final word. Airlines want you to book online, but their Web sites don't search seat availability on partner airlines, Petersen says. Try online first, then talk to a live person.

BEST PROGRAMS

The Freddie Awards, given annually for best frequent-guest and frequent-flier programs, are a good measure of a program's worth to the consumer. Here are the top American programs as voted by 350,000 frequent travelers last year:

FREQUENT FLIER PROGRAM OF THE YEAR

1. Alaska Mileage Plan 2. Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards 3. America West FlightFund

FREQUENT GUEST PROGRAM OF THE YEAR

1. Starwood Preferred Guest American Express 2. IHG Priority Club 3. Marriott Rewards

BEST AFFINITY CREDIT CARD

1. Diners Club Club Rewards 2. Starwood Preferred Guest American Express 3. Alaska Mileage Plus Visa

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