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Reaping rewards from unused loyalty programs

You've racked up 50,000 frequent-traveler points, but you're going nowhere because they are in 10 different programs.

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Worldwide, members of frequent-traveler programs with airlines, hotels, car rental companies and credit card providers earn more than 650 billion miles and points per year, according to stats on FrequentFlier.com. About 75 percent of the accumulated travel rewards, notes the Web site, are never redeemed.

That's easy to believe because companies don't make it simple to cash out.

To claim a free flight, you need at least 25,000 miles. Free nights in hotels and free rental car days are less, but you accrue those points more slowly. The obvious answer for a frustrated traveler is to merge or exchange points with somebody else. But this kind of horse trading is a sticky subject with the airlines, hotels and other companies that bestow the points. And when it appears possible, easy even, there are rules against it.

But rules are made to be broken. Faced with that reality, the travel industry is bowing to the inevitable and cooperating, grudgingly, with people who want to stack their points until they have enough to earn a reward for their troubles, er, travels.

If you have lots of points and no reward, here are some ways to go about claiming one.

Find a partner
Airlines, hotels, rental cars, phone and credit card companies all buddy up with one another to offer member rewards. You may have accumulated more points than you think when you merge partner points. And partners at least can make it easy to earn more points with a minimum of effort and expense.

There's no central marriage bureau for travel partners, but FrequentFlier.com lists all the U.S., Canadian, Latin American, European and Asia-Pacific Airline frequent flier programs, as well as hotel, rental car and credit-card plans. These sites list their partners, and the more you study the partnerships, the clearer the possibilities for converting unwanted points to more useful ones.

For instance, American Airlines partners with Hilton Hotels and will allow you to convert a minimum of 5,000 air miles to 10,000 Hilton HHonors points; that will get you within 2,000 points of a free night at the hotel chain. You can pick up the additional points by collecting 2,000 MyPoints, another Hilton partner. Earning MyPoints requires little more than reading emails and taking online surveys.

Go with a middleman
Check out Amtrak Guest Rewards. It's the most flexible plan around. The program allows you to move around miles among Midwest, Continental and United Airlines, which partners with USAir. You also can combine a host of frequent guest miles from hotel partners Hilton, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton and Starwood Hotels, which includes Sheratons and Westins, as well as rental car partner Hertz. There are some restrictions, but generally you can merge miles and points from these programs one-for-one to accumulate a nice little points pile.

If you still don't have enough to travel anywhere, you can trade lesser accumulations for gift certificates at a diverse array of retail partners, including Home Depot, Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority and Olive Garden. Joining Amtrak Guest Rewards is free and you'll get 500 initial miles for your trouble.

Diners Club Rewards, Starwood and Hilton reward programs also let you do some merging, but the exchange rates are not as good. Plus, joining Diners Club costs $95 per year. Still, it's worth taking a look because each of these plans have different partners; you may discover that you can use some orphaned miles or points that you were ready to write off.

The middleman of last resort is Points.com, which works with an array of frequent customer programs, as well as more than 3,000 retailers. You can merge miles or points or turn what you have into gift certificates. It's the only independent company offering this service, says Christine Vandaele, vice president of consumer marketing.

 

 
 
Next: "The exchanges are pretty clandestine."
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