If you want to get the most out of your dollar and your trip, Pauline Frommer's Travel Guides are for you. I put a fresh spin on budget travel, showing you how to experience the best for less and how to see it in a more authentic way -- the way the locals do. In this series of monthly tips, you'll find some terrific tips to help you get the most out of every trip. This time around, I share some insight about how to get the most out of frequent flyer miles.
Go with the more generous airlines.
If you're a frequent traveler -- say a business traveler -- and earning miles is important to you, you may want to patronize Continental Airlines, the only one of the bunch whose miles never expire. And while not quite as generous, American Airlines still gives its passengers a full three years before miles expire.
Avoid the miserly airlines if miles are more important to you than price.
US Airways changed their policy so that miles would expire in 18 months, if there is no activity on the account, rather than in three years. United Airways instituted the same policy, also halving its expiration time from 36 months to 18. Delta made a similar move, though its plan is a hair more generous: You have two years with it before your miles go bye-bye. Southwest also gives its customers two years. JetBlue and Air Tran have always had the strictest expiration policies in the biz: Miles disappear just one year after they're earned even if your account is active, making it nearly impossible for most people to earn free flights with these two (a shame as they're often the price leaders).
Look into getting a miles credit card.
If you get a miles credit card and accrue new miles that way, it will keep your account current. The downside is that these credit cards are often saddled with terrible fee structures and higher-than-normal penalties for late payments. You can also use your miles to buy nonairline ticket items with partner organizations -- shops, hotels, car rental companies -- and this usage will keep your account active. It will also, unfortunately, deplete your account, so it's a double-edged sword.
You can also fly a partner airline of the airline you're loyal to and accrue miles that way, keeping your account active. Two generous things you can do to keep your miles active: Give some to charity, or give them to another mileage user.
Beyond the expirations, what can you do to use your miles?
Do your research. There's a terrific website called Webflyer.com (www.webflyer.com) that tracks which months are best for redeeming miles with each airline and posts calendars on their website.
Seats open up 330 days in advance of the flight, and if you can, it's good to try then. But if you don't get seats, try in another month or two, and then try again. On some flights, the seats aren't released until they know how well a particular flight is selling. Include a Saturday night stay-over in your itinerary; as with regular flights, you're more likely to strike gold this way. Without a Saturday night stay, you may be required to use double miles (50,000 instead of the usual 25,000).
Use your miles when flying internationally.
Don't forget that you can use your miles on your airline's partners as well as the airline directly. Sometimes it's a good idea to call the airline to get information on what seats are available this way. Don't book though, as using your miles through a phone call often includes a $15- $20 fee. Use the call to gather info only and then go online to make your booking.
Find out more about the Pauline Frommer Travel Guide series, read articles by Pauline, and listen to Podcasts on Pauline's page on Frommers.com.