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Frequent flier programs are a great way to get something for nothing, and you should never book a flight without a frequent-flier number attached.

But face it: unless you're a road warrior, it'll take you years to build up enough miles just by flying to get a free ticket. Frequent-flier programs require you to take eight or more roundtrips to hit the magic number which lets you nab a free domestic flight.

Fortunately, there are two ways to even the score. You can focus on one frequent-flier program and earn miles through all sorts of various, non-flying ways. Then you'll get your free ticket much more quickly.

Or you can just collect small numbers of miles and use them for restaurant gift certificates, concert and sports tickets, magazines and newspapers, or even jewelry.

The one thing you shouldn't do is let miles sit for a long time. Miles expire, often if you don't do anything with your account in 18 months. (There's a guide to expiration dates on Wikipedia) And miles become less valuable with time. Delta, for instance, recently raised the cost of many of their "free" domestic flights from 25,000 to 40,000 miles.

So here are the top tips for infrequent fliers to make the most of those couple o' thousand miles you may accumulate with your two or three annual trips.

First of all, don't sign up for every frequent flier program. Some airlines cooperate, so it only makes sense to sign up for one of the following programs. Alaska flights can earn miles on either Delta or American, so it doesn't make sense to work hard earning miles on all three. And United, US Airways and Continental all earn miles on each other, so it only makes sense to focus on one of those three.

For a basic overview of frequent flier programs, WebFlyer (www.webflyer.com) is the place to go. Click on "Program Guide" to find in-depth descriptions and ratings for almost every frequent-flier program on earth, from a site that has been a hub for mileage hounds since 1995.

Planes, Hotels, and Automobiles

If you're taking a trip of any kind, every element of that trip should earn you miles. Hotel chains have partnerships with airlines to deliver miles. Car rental companies have partnerships to give you miles. When you book either a hotel or car rental, call the vendor and ask them if you can attach a frequent flier number to the account.

Some crazed mileage hounds, such as David Phillips, take their search for synergistic bonus miles to extremes. In an interview with our columnist Johnny Jet, Phillips (otherwise known as "the pudding guy" for banking a million miles on a pudding-related promotion in 1999) says he never stays more than one night in a single hotel to maximize his number of "stays," which give you elite status in hotel frequent-stay programs and potentially increase the miles you earn.

Building Your Miles

The number-one, absolute top way to gather frequent flier miles without flying is through using a branded credit card. Every airline has a branded credit card. Most have annual fees, but they'll give you a massive hit of miles when you sign up. Continental's OnePass Plus Rewards card, for instance, gives you 25,000 miles to start; Delta's SkyMiles Gold card gives you 20,000. After that, you get miles for every dollar spent.

Beyond charging miles to your credit card, airlines have some surprising partnerships which won't cost you extra to earn miles.

Dining. The major airlines plus Southwest all let you sign up, for free, for a program that gives you miles every time you eat out at a specific list of restaurants. This is a no-brainer because it's no cost and no effort; you just have to pay at the restaurant using the credit card you told the airline about. (It doesn't even have to be the airline's credit card.)

Shopping. Do you shop online at Barnes & Noble, Newegg, Target.com, Apple, Gap.com or other big names? You can get miles for everything you buy. All the major airlines have affiliate "shopping mall" programs that give you multiple miles per dollar just for clicking through from their Web site when you want to make a purchase in various online stores. There's no cost and no catch, though the number of miles you get per dollar varies from airline to airline. For instance, Delta only offers two miles per dollar at Target, but Continental gives you up to eight.

Lots of Other Stuff. Cell phone subscriptions! Netflix! Changing your home electricity supplier! Heck, getting Lasik! Opening bank accounts! I wouldn't recommend doing any of these things to get the miles, but it makes sense to get the miles if you're doing these things anyway. Just joining Netflix gives you several thousand miles, for instance.

Let me note that the crazy non-travel partners are, by and large, attached to the big airlines' frequent flier programs. The smaller programs, like Southwest's and JetBlue's, have their pluses -- they're simpler and you can get a flight after about eight round-trips -- but they don't have as many non-travel partners.

Keeping an eye out for bonus mile promotions is also key. The site MileMaven.com (www.milemaven.com) tracks bonus miles on all the major airlines. Many promotions require you to sign up in advance, so it's good to check MileMaven periodically as well as every time you're about to book a flight.

Tracking Your Miles

So. OK. You have 5,000 miles in each of five different mileage programs. How can you keep track of all of these accounts, and make sure you spend the miles you've earned?

There are a bunch of good services on the web to help you track multiple mileage accounts. MilePort (www.mileport.com) is a free, good-looking Web site that tracks all of your accounts in one place. Traxo (www.traxo.com), another free service, combines mileage tracking with an itinerary-management site that lets you keep details on your flights and hotels in one place. MileageManager (www.mileagemanager.com) costs $14.95, but they say they're worth it because they send you emails when your miles are about to expire.

If you spend more time on your phone than on your computer, PageOnce Personal Assistant (www.pageonce.com) is available for the iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry smartphones. PageOnce doesn't just track frequent-flier mile accounts -- it tracks your whole life, including your finances, bills, bank balances, and cell phone minutes.

Of course, these services aren't just for infrequent fliers. Road warriors will probably get even more use out of them (although road warriors have probably heard of them already.)

Spending Those Miles

A flight costs at least 25,000 miles. But visiting Grandma in Florida only garnered you 3,000. How do you use those miles so you don't lose them?

The five major airlines, plus AirTran, all offer low-mileage awards which use down to only a few hundred miles. And often, these awards can give you more dollars per mile of value than buying airline tickets.

Assume on average that you can redeem your miles for tickets at around a penny per mile -- in other words, a $250 airline ticket costs 25,000 miles. A year's worth of Sports Illustrated, on the other hand, costs 1,400 miles on most airlines, or $39 through SI.com. That makes each mile worth 2.7 cents.

Magazines and newspapers. For miles per dollar, these can be the best value awards. All five major airlines plus Frontier and AirTran offer magazines and newspapers for between 100 (Successful Promotions) and 3,200 (The Economist) miles. The airlines' lists vary, though, so if you have a few miles on a few different airlines, shop around. American and Delta offer 17 magazines and papers, while United offers 20 -- and I've seen the listings change with time.

Dining out. United lets you use Mileage Plus miles for Restaurant.com and Lettuce Entertain You restaurant gift certificates. The restaurant selection is quite limited, but the value in dollars per mile is pretty great. You get $100 in Restaurant.com gift certificates for 2,000 miles, which makes for an awesome 5 cents per mile.

Sports tickets. Continental, Delta and AirTran all have "auction" Web sites which seem to auction off a lot of sports tickets for local teams. On Continental's site, two Houston Astros tickets in Section 124 were going for 10,500 miles; the same two tickets through Ticketmaster cost $106, making that deal worth about a penny per mile.

Shopping for nearly anything. Continental, Delta and United have online shopping malls where you can redeem miles for goods. Plenty of items cost under 10,000 miles, but you don't generally get much value per mile. For instance, on Delta's SkyMiles Marketplace, a pair of Sony wireless stereo headphones costs 7,600 miles -- but that set of headphones retails for $40 on Amazon, making your miles worth a pathetic half cent each. You can also get $35 worth of Omaha Steaks burgers for 6,600 miles, which once again works out to a half cent each.

Shopping or dining via points.com. Points.com is a clearinghouse site which has deals with AirTran, Alaska, American, Continental, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian and US Airways to access mileage balances and use them for various purchases. The best value is to use your miles for gift certificates at retailers like Amazon.com; the 'exchange rates' to transfer points between airlines are never favorable. Points.com is going through a transition leading to a major relaunch within the next few months, so I'd hold off and see what they're changing.

Giving your miles to someone else. This sounds like a great idea until you notice that the airlines take extortionate fees to do mileage transfers. For instance, to transfer between 5 and 10 thousand miles on American Airlines costs you $130. That can devalue your miles by up to 2.6 cents each, making it really hard to get any profit out of them.

Giving your miles to charity. If you really can't find anything to do with your miles, you can donate them to charity. It's free! Continental lets you choose from 14 charities. United offers 32. US Airways has four.

Sascha Segan has been writing for Frommer's since 2001, authoring the books Fly Safe, Fly Smart and Priceline.com for Dummies and collecting Lowell Thomas awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation for his Frommers.com columns in 2007 and 2009. He's also the managing editor for mobile at PCMag.com. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife and daughter, who frequently accompany him on his trips.

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