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.

4. Be flexible.

If you have your heart set on using your miles for a certain trip, be willing to give a little on arrival and departure dates and times. Also be flexible on destinations and stopovers. While that’s no guarantee you’ll get the tickets you want, it will increase your odds.

5. Book early.

Or at the last minute. Sounds contradictory, but it’s not. The two ends of the spectrum tend to be where you have the most chance of using your miles, says Ilyce Glink, author of ”
50 Simple Things You Can Do to Improve Your Personal Finances: How to Spend Less, Save More and Make the Most of What You Have.”

Like surfing, you have to time it just right.

“Try as far ahead as you can,” says Pauline Frommer, travel writer and author of an upcoming series of books on world travel. “Then call again, and call again. You want to give yourself enough time that, if you end up buying the ticket, it’s not more expensive because you bought it within the 21-day window,” she says.

6. Use those miles often.

With frequent-flier miles, it really doesn’t pay to stockpile them.

“Miles are being devalued because there are so many out there,” says Farley. “Don’t hoard your miles. If you’re planning on spending them, do it intelligently.” Right now, thanks to credit cards that offer flier miles, the market “is flooded with them,” says Farley. “The value is changing, so you should be spending.”

7. Look for the deals.

Airlines will run discount specials for mile club members the same way they offer deals on regular fares. What may have cost you 20,000 miles per ticket could be knocked down to 15,000, says Glink. “There are all kinds of deals on airline Web sites. You just have to want to go to those places.”

8. Explore new routes.

“People are finding it difficult, not just cashing in frequent-flier miles, but getting upgrades” with miles, says Farley. But on newer routes, there is less frequent-flier club competition, she says.

9. Use the phone.

If you’re having trouble getting dates and times online, call the airline reservations counter, says Farley. “They can access partner airline information — and they can think creatively.”

10. Look at miles for short flights.

When people think about using airline miles, “they think about flying to Europe,” says Farley. But some airlines are now giving passengers the option of using miles on shorter flights. So it might be worth “rethinking your relationship with your reward miles,” says Farley. “If you want to max it out, look at what your airline is offering you.”

11. Check the expiration date.

Some miles are good for the life the program; others expire annually.

It pays to know just how much time you have.

And if the rules are too inflexible, (for example, you find yourself buying merchandise just so you get something for your trouble), switch to a more flexible program.

12. Realize that rules change.

Frequent-flier program rules “keep changing,” says Farley. So keep track of the ones you join so that you can make the most of your miles. Two sites that can help:
FrequentFlier.com and
InsideFlyer.com. “You find lots of news and analysis of how the programs are changing,” she says.
MileageManager.com will help you keep track of how many miles you have and tell you when you’ve saved up enough.

13. Buy other merchandise.

Many of the airlines now sponsor stores and clubs where you can use your flier miles to buy luggage, travel gear and other goodies. You can also purchase special tours (ski packages or a tour of Italy by Vespa motorscooter) that you might not otherwise access, says Farley. “One caveat: Do the math,” she says. “If you’re going to buy anything with miles, do a quick calculation to find out what you’re really spending.”

14. Check the math.

Make sure a mile program is the best deal for you. Frequent-flier miles “are often overvalued,” says Hasbrouck. “Do the math, and figure out if they’re worth it,” he says. “Before you fork down a $50 or $75 annual fee for a credit card that gives you frequent-flier miles, figure out if you are going to get $50 or $75 for the points you earn.” One good alternative: Get a credit card that gives you cash rebates instead of airline points, says Hasbrouck.

15. Seek alternatives.

If you can’t use your miles the way you planned, try to find an alternative that will at least put some money in your pocket. For years, Glink used her miles to purchase an upgrade for an annual business flight to Europe. But that wasn’t an option this year. Instead, she’s going to use them to fly her family for free to their vacation destination. “It’s going to make the family vacation very affordable,” she says. “It will give us the cash to do a lot of other fun things.”

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Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.