Decades ago, it was green stamps. Customers got them with groceries, gasoline, sometimes from plumbers. Once pasted into books, green stamps could be redeemed for toasters, glassware, cigarette lighters and all the other stuff folks coveted in the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras.
Today, just about nobody collects green stamps, but most of us have piles of frequent flier miles, earned at airlines, hotels, rental car companies and sometimes for using certain credit cards. To maximize your mileage and get the biggest bang out of your accumulated totals, read on.
After hoarding points for years, Robert McGarvey (firstname.lastname@example.org) proudly boasts he's accumulated more than 75,000 American Express Membership Miles.
Rating the programs
They're not all created equal--and monogamy pays off. Have accounts with five airlines with 10,000 miles in each and you have squat. Have 50,000 miles in one airline account and you have a free ticket to Hawaii. How to choose your airline? Our advice: Check out the comparison of frequent flier programs at WebFlyer.com.
Putting `Em To Use
Approximately 25,000 miles can be redeemed for a free round-trip ticket in the continental United States--but to fly during peak periods (holidays and summer months), you may need as many as 50,000 miles to win a seat. Demand for frequent flier seats can be intense--calling six months before you intend to fly is shrewd policy, but do it a year in advance of travel to Europe.
Instead of free trips, many savvy travelers swear the better use of miles is to "buy" upgrades from cramped coach seating to more spacious business class. Most airlines will "sell" an upgrade for 5,000 to 10,000 miles.
And don't forget--most programs allow miles to be redeemed for other kinds of goodies, too. TWA (http://www.twa.com) will let you swap 30,000 miles for membership in its Ambassadors Club airport lounges. American Airlines' miles can be used for rental cars (12,000 miles buys a two-day rental at Alamo). For links to all the major airlines' Web sites, visit FrequentFlier (http://frequentflier.com/ffp-002.htm). Read all the details of your program; you'll be surprised what your miles can be spent on.
Get A Piece Of The Auction
Northwest, United and other airlines sometimes auction off spectacular awards--a flight simulator session with legendary pilot Chuck Yeager or a cooking class with a famed Parisian chef--for frequent flier miles. How to keep tabs on auctions? Read the mailings from your programs, or regularly log on to the Web sites. But know that great rewards aren't cheap. Northwest, for instance, sold off a private chat with blues great B.B. King for 270,000 points.
Give `Em Away
Have a heap of extra frequent flier miles? Donate them to charity. America West Airlines lets its FlightFund members give miles to several charities, including the Red Cross and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Get the details at: http://www.americawest.com/fltfund/hope.htm. Most frequent flier programs offer similar options. (Keep in mind, all airlines prohibit selling or buying miles or awards.)
Two of the best awards programs around aren't offered by airlines: American Express' Membership Rewards and Diner's Club Rewards). Both give one point for every dollar spent, there are frequent bonus periods (where points double), and, best of all, the points can be used to "top off" totals at various frequent flier mileage programs. If you're short 10,000 miles but really want to go to the Bahamas, just transfer points from one of these programs into your airline's account. (Read the fine print at the enrollment sites. Not all airlines cooperate with both programs.) Perhaps more tantalizing, points can be redeemed for real, useful stuff--like gift certificates at Saks Fifth Avenue or merchandise at The Sharper Image.