September 1, 2003 -- If you travel once or twice a year, you might think it's not worth signing up for those frequent-traveler programs offered by hotels, airlines and Amtrak. You'll never hit the 25,000 miles you'll need to get a free flight, so what's the point?
There's are ways for even infrequent travelers to turn their trips into something useful, especially if you live near a train station, read, drive or stay at hotels. Amtrak, MilePoint and hotel and car rental companies are all vying for the hand of the infrequent traveler. So sign up for those programs, and don't let your miles go to waste.
Amtrak Rewards Everyone
Amtrak's Guest Rewards program (www.amtrakguestrewards.com) sets amazingly low levels for redeeming points, and offers some easy ways to accumulate miles quickly.
The basic way to earn Guest Rewards points is by getting two points for every dollar spent on Amtrak. But at that rate, you'll probably have to wait until 2012 to have enough points to use. Amtrak also offers points for Hertz car rentals and stays at Hilton and Starwood hotels.
But the secret to Amtrak is their credit card. There's no annual fee, and you earn 500 points for just signing up, plus a point for every dollar you spend. That's the same as with many airline credit cards, but rewards come much faster on Amtrak than on airlines.
For instance, a mere 1,000 points will get you a one-way train trip on many routes in California and the Midwest. For 2,500 points, you get an unreserved ticket anywhere in the Northeast Corridor -- a value of up to $81. For 5,000 points, a trip from LA to Seattle or Chicago to New Orleans is yours. For 7,500 points, you can ride from Houston or Chicago to New York or LA. For 7,500 airline miles, you'd be lucky if you could get from JFK to Newark.
Points can also be converted to Hilton, United, Midwest Airlines or Continental miles, or converted into car rentals, hotel stays and gift certificates.
The big concern when signing up for Guest Rewards is that Amtrak (and the Guest Rewards program) will be shut down by the Bush administration. That's a serious concern, but we don't think it outweighs the power of these points. Use or transfer them as soon as you get them, to protect yourself.
If You Can Read This, You Can Use Miles
Even if you have only a few hundred miles in an airline account, you can still put them to good use by turning them into magazine subscriptions.
America West, Continental, Delta, Hawaiian, Northwest, Midwest, United and US Airways all let you buy magazines for miles, whether through the airline's own Web site or through MilePoint (www.milepoint.com.).
The magazines are high-quality, popular titles, and they're very cheap. A year's subscription to Wired costs only 500 miles. A year's worth of Time is 1800 miles. And a year of the Financial Times -- that's more than 300 issues -- will set you back only 3,100 miles, which you can earn with a one-way flight across the US.
You have to sign up at www.milepoint.com if you want to use America West, Delta, Hawaiian, US Airways or Midwest Airlines miles. Ignore their blandishments about their "cruise club" and instead click straight through to the magazines. For other airlines, you can order magazines directly through the frequent-flier sections of the airlines' Web sites.
Hotel stays and car rentals can also tap into unused mileage. Many airlines allow miles to be used for car rentals; a two or three-day rental usually costs 8,000-12,000 miles. Miles on American, Continental, Hawaiian and Midwest Airlines can also be converted into Hilton Hhonors points (www.hhonors.com); you can get hotel nights for the equivalent of as little as 5,000 miles.
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