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Getting the Best Travel Rewards

How to get the maximum benefits from your airline travel rewards program

When I went online recently to book a trip to Japan with my daughters, I reeled from sticker shock: The cost of three round-trip business-class tickets to Tokyo on Continental was $18,000.

I called Continental to see if I could use frequent flyer miles but was told I didn't have enough to qualify. Then I called American Express, figuring that as a Platinum card member, I'd qualify for a free companion ticket if I bought a full-fare business-class ticket--only to discover that the price was twice as much as Continental charged.

After several hours, I found the most cost-effective solution: I bought three round-trip coach tickets on Continental and used frequent flyer miles and American Express rewards points to upgrade.

The trouble with travel rewards is that few of us have the time or the patience to navigate the labyrinth of rules, regulations and offers to find the best deals available. Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer magazine, has racked up more than 17 million frequent flyer miles by traveling the globe speaking to corporations, travel managers and conventions about maximizing frequent flyer miles. Here are his top rules:

Target one airline. If you don't fly often, it might be time to switch to a different airline program if you want to take your family on vacation this year. "There are some programs that still have travel awards at 20,000 miles, and some programs even have some awards at 17,500 miles if you have a credit card associated with the frequent flyer program," Petersen says.

Plan ahead. You can get the best deals if your travel dates are flexible. According to Petersen, the days that offer the best opportunities for award travel are Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday within the U.S.; Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for trips to Asia and Europe; and Tuesday and Wednesday for the Caribbean. Weekends tend to be the most restrictive.

Earn more miles. You don't have to get on a plane to rack up frequent flyer miles. Thirty percent to 60 percent of frequent flyer members' total miles and points come from program partners such as credit cards, hotels and rental car companies, Petersen says. "The secret to frequent flyer programs is to make each action you take earn you miles," he says. "For those who pay attention to the details, the next trip could be free."

Reward yourself. With many airlines putting expiration dates on their miles and changing the rules of their programs, you can no longer be sure those miles will be there when you decide to use them. Petersen suggests redeeming rewards often, keeping just enough miles on hand to use as upgrades on your next paid vacation flight. "Never put off redeeming tomorrow what you can redeem today," he says.

One final note: As business owners, all the miles and points we rack up go directly to us, not to a corporate employer. It's nice to know that every dollar we spend to grow our business can also be a point or a mile we can use to celebrate our independence.

Rosalind Resnick is a New York-based freelance writer, entrepreneur, investor and author of The Vest Pocket Consultant's Secrets of Small Business Success.

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This article was originally published in the September 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Fly Higher.

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