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Travel 2006    

Air travel


Some 658 million passengers took more than 10.5 million domestic flights in the past year.

15 ways to boost the use of your frequent-flier miles

Who doesn't dream about a free vacation?

Frequent-flier miles -- and the prospect of free travel -- are one of the hottest consumer incentives. The implied promise: Collect enough, and save them long enough, and that magical trip can be yours.

OK, now come back to reality. Miles are great, and they can definitely offset the cost of travel, but if you really want to get the most for them, it pays to be practical.

What's a frequent-flier mile really worth? That depends on where you're going, when and how many other people want to fly there.

Most travel experts agree that the intrinsic value of frequent-flier miles is dropping. "Rule No. 1: Don't hoard points, spend them," says Edward Hasbrouck, author of "The Practical Nomad" travel series. "They are going to be less valuable."

At the same time, some airlines are giving consumers new options for their miles, including merchandise, tickets for shorter trips, discount specials and vacation-related tours. "Airlines are becoming more aware and more accommodating," says Amy Farley, associate editor of Travel + Leisure magazine.

Boost your miles
Here's how to make the most of your miles:
1. Examine your alternatives. 9. Use the phone.
2. Be realistic. 10. Look at miles for short flights.
3. Look at partner airlines. 11. Check the expiration date.
4. Be flexible. 12. Realize that rules change.
5. Book early. 13. Buy other merchandise.
6. Use those miles often. 14. Check the math.
7. Look for the deals. 15. Seek alternatives.
8. Explore new routes.    

1. Examine your alternatives.
Where will those miles give you the most bang for the buck? Sure, you could use them to cover a complete flight to Chicago or maybe give you an upgrade for that trip to Europe with the kids.

"If you spend 40,000 points for a ticket that would cost you $800, you're getting 2 cents for every point," says Hasbrouck. "If you use the same 40,000 points for a place you could get for $400, you're getting only 1 cent each for your points."

2. Be realistic.
Chances are, you can use those miles to offset the cost of travel, but you might not be able to use them for that dream vacation. Many times, the more popular a destination or flight, the less likely you'll be able to use your miles. Ditto for those high-traffic travel times, such as the holidays.

"If I want to go to Des Moines at 3 in the morning, I can probably redeem my miles," says Peter Greenberg, author of "The Travel Detective." "But if I want to go to Hawaii in my lifetime, I probably can't." As a result, he says, "mileage redemption levels are abysmally low."

3. Look at partner airlines.
This especially applies if you're worried about a carrier's financial health, says Greenberg.
"Every airline has a strategic alliance. Pick a partner airline and redeem miles for that trip 11 months away." If the carrier changes routes or goes under, "you can always redeposit the miles," he says.

-- Posted: May 15, 2006
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