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Tips to manage frequent flier miles

Written by editor

Casino pit bosses will tell you the best way to make your table action pay dividends is to sign up for a players card to record points based on how much money you put down and how long you play.

Casino pit bosses will tell you the best way to make your table action pay dividends is to sign up for a players card to record points based on how much money you put down and how long you play. You often can get freebies on food, hotel rooms and merchandise.

The same holds true for flying. If you don’t have a frequent flier reward program number or card when you buy your next ticket, get one. Credits, miles or points you earn when you fly add up to discounted or free flights, upgrades and other rewards.

Not all airline programs are the same, so here are 10 tips to make frequent flier programs take off for you.

If you have 25,000 miles and want to fly Delta Air Lines, consider how much the ticket is before you use the miles.

Sales abound in today’s weak economy. If you can fly round-trip from Atlanta to Boston for $178, it’s worth it to buy the ticket and save the miles for a free transcontinental flight that might cost twice as much to buy, or use it for an upgrade on an international flight.

Book early

Make sure you get that free ticket for only 25,000 miles. Don’t pay 50,000 miles that took you two years to accumulate for that cramped coach seat unless you absolutely have to.

The best way to maximize miles is to book your reward ticket several months before your trip. That’s because the number of reward seats available at the lowest redemption level on many airlines are limited, particularly at peak hours of the day or peak days of the year.

“If someone tries to get an award on a high-demand specific flight at a specific time of day and they’re not flexible, they may be disappointed,” an American Airlines spokesman said.

If you must travel at a specific time on a specific day and your plans don’t come together until close to the day you want to leave, you still can get a free ticket, but it may cost you more miles. For 60,000 miles, Delta guarantees a free seat on a domestic flight, excluding travel to Hawaii, as long as a coach seat is available.


Sign up for several reward programs — it’s free. Rewards on AirTran Airways add up fast. You can get a free domestic coach ticket for 16 flight credits, which take just eight round-trip paid flights, regardless of distance, to accumulate.

But if you tend to take a lot of transcontinental flights, it may get you a faster free round-trip coach ticket on United Airlines or US Airways, which, like Delta, give reward miles based on the distance you travel. AirTran only flies in North America. But for 100 flight credits, AirTran will buy you a ticket anywhere in the world on another carrier.

Get the credit card

Some airline-branded credit cards award 2 miles or points for every dollar spent on the partner airline and 1 mile or point for a dollar spent everywhere else. Some of those cards carry annual fees of up to $85 or more.

AirTran and Delta, however, have partner credit cards that offer no-annual-fee options, but that comes with 1 point or mile for every dollar spent on the partner airline and one-half of 1 point or mile for every dollar spent everywhere else.

“For those people who charge very high dollar amounts annually to those cards but yet don’t carry a revolving balance, the mileage you generate is worthwhile. The annual fee is worthwhile,” said David Robertson, an expert on frequent flier credit card promotions and publisher of the Nilson Report, a credit card industry newsletter.

Watch promotions

Some airlines offer frequent flier members the ability to get extra miles, points or credits if they rent a car with a partner company, fly to certain places or buy a Netflix membership.

For travel through May 14, United has reduced the miles required for trips to Europe from 55,000 to 40,000, a spokeswoman said. Look for deals on airline Web sites and sign up with airlines for e-mail about promotions.

Double dip

Some hotel reward programs let you earn rewards as airline miles with partner carriers or to transfer reward points to a partner airline reward program.

Mind expiration datesFrequent flier miles, points or credits do not last forever on some carriers. With some pro- grams, miles or credits expire after a year or two.

But having the partner credit card can help. At AirTran, for instance, flight credits are generally valid for 12 months after the date on which they were posted to the member’s account. But for holders of the AirTran-branded Visa credit card and for Elite members, flight credits are valid for 24 months after the posting date.

Avoid some fees

Book your reward ticket online. Calling a customer service agent may cost you – AirTran charges a $15 direct booking fee. Try to fly the airline on which you are redeeming reward miles.

Using frequent flier miles within three weeks of travel may cost you a fee — $75 at Continental Airlines for basic OnePass members if you book a reward ticket less than 21 days from the day you travel.

Pack light

You’ll still pay to check bags even if you are traveling on a reward ticket. Limit yourself to one carry-on bag and one personal item per person. If you have to check a bag and are traveling with another person, merge your belongings into one bag and split the fee. But don’t pack bags too heavy.

There are fees for overweight bags; they vary by carrier. Delta charges $90 on a domestic flight for a checked bag that weighs 51 pounds to 70 pounds.

Not completely free

Reward redemptions generally cover the base fare of the ticket. Some airlines charge for certain taxes or fees. At American and other carriers, you will still pay the $2.50 per boarding security service fee instituted for all travelers since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

At American, international award tickets are subject to, and the passenger is responsible for, applicable departure taxes and/or federal inspection fees.