Smart spending can yield travel perks



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 and "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 recently listed 40 such airline deals.

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