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Top 10 mileage tips for 2006

In an era of bankrupt airlines, fewer award seats, and higher fees, it’s more important than ever to closely monitor your frequent flyer program activities and make adjustments as circumstances dictate.

Consider the following suggestions—based on tips included in Mileage Pro: The Insider’s Guide to Frequent Flyer Programs by Randy Petersen and myself—a checklist for mileage success in 2006.

1. Make elite status a priority

Qualify for elite membership. Nothing is as important as earning elite status in your primary loyalty programs. Verify the number of miles needed to qualify in both your airline and hotel programs. It’s well worth scheduling an extra flight or night in a hotel if that’s all that stands between you and the extensive benefits of elite membership.

2. Eat out often

One of the fastest ways to a free award is to skip airline food and go straight to a favorite restaurant. It could get you up to 10 miles for every dollar you spend there. But be careful: some require you to show your airline card, while others restrict visiting the same restaurant more than once a month to earn miles. The best advice is to join several airline dining programs such as the United Mileage Plus Dining or American AAdvantage Dining programs by Rewards Network to stay active in airline programs that have expiring miles. Use these types of miles to “top off” accounts in your less active programs.

3. Anticipate the competitive response

When one big program offers an unbeatable bonus opportunity, expect that other programs soon will match, and then make your travel plans accordingly. For example, in July 2005 when American introduced 750-mile distance awards for only 15,000 miles, United matched it just a few days later.

4. Know thy programs

While you might be collecting miles, we always advise choosing points over miles with Marriott and Priority Club. The reason is simple: Both allow you to convert to miles at any time. If you choose miles right away, you have forfeited your freedom of choice.

5. What’s in your wallet?

Be a mileage consumer, but look closely at your credit card choices. Flexibility is the name of the game and American Express and Diners Club are looking pretty good right now. Did you know you can earn American, United, and Northwest miles with the Starwood American Express card? (With the Starwood American Express card you earn Starwood points that can be converted into miles later on.) Did you know that the Diners Club card is now accepted wherever MasterCard is accepted, and that it also includes redemption with American, United, and Northwest? We realize that neither man nor woman will spend by one credit card alone. The best wallet has a Visa, a MasterCard, and either an American Express or Diners Club card. The reason is need. Many hotel and other programs run promotions that earn extra bonus miles/points when paying with a particular type of credit card, so do as the Boy Scouts do and always be prepared.

6. Withdraw miles only as needed

Need miles for an award this year? If so, move the exact number of miles from your Priority Club, American Express Membership Rewards, Diners Club Rewards, or Starwood programs into your primary airline program. Never ever turn more points into miles than you actually need.

7. Take a second look

OK, you are a hotel kind of person who stays at Brand X. But, Choice Hotels may be the sleeper program of the year. If you haven’t looked lately, you’ll find many new rewards (no blackout dates) and positive changes in their program. Our advice: Take a second look.

8. Rack up free nights

Once you’ve got enough miles for free air travel, start opting for points instead of miles in your hotel program. By booking enough stays you can get free lodging to use with your flight awards for an almost-free vacation.

9. Plan ahead

Many programs have raised the cost of certain fees associated with express service for an award. Plan ahead and your award will remain free.

10. Loyalty has its rewards

To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the death of loyalty’s rewards have been greatly exaggerated. Know your primary program’s partners (airline, hotel, car rental) and stick with them. The payoff in miles, awards, and recognition will be worth it.

For more information or to purchase Mileage Pro, visit the book’s website.

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