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Shop Till You Fly

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

After her father's death, Leesa Weiss was in a Rockville funeral home putting together the final arrangements when she noticed a placard indicating that the place accepted credit cards.

The placard got her thinking. Here she was, wrestling with the death of a parent, planning the service and calculating the funeral tab of about $9,000. Why not charge it all to her US Airways Visa card and get a few extra frequent-flier miles?

"My father would get a kick out of this," said Weiss, a North Bethesda lawyer. "For what we were spending on the credit card, I thought I might as well get something out of it."

For years, savvy travelers haven't had to board an airplane to rack up frequent-flier miles. Using airline-branded cards to buy gasoline and meals, travelers have slowly added to their bank of miles. Now they're taking the expenditures to new extremes to lift their balances rapidly. They are throwing down the plastic to buy hundreds of dollars of groceries, cover college tuition, make mortgage payments, buy vehicles and even pay for funerals.

Some are finding that cosmetic surgery will get them airborne. Gerald Slawecki of Fort Washington charged a $20,000 face lift for his wife, Constance, on his Continental Airlines co-branded MasterCard and got enough miles for two round-trip business-class tickets to St. Thomas.

Thanks to airline-branded cards, paying for home improvements can lead to get-away-from-home vacations. Carol Lane, a West End advertising writer, recently took out a home-equity line of credit to remodel her bathroom. But instead of paying for the new bathroom fixtures with the line, she used her United Airlines credit card and received 40,000 award miles. She then used her line of credit to pay off the credit card bill.

The rush to accumulate miles comes at a time when it is harder than ever to use them. Some airlines have raised the number of miles needed for trips and have reduced the number of U.S. destinations and are flying smaller planes.

Frequent-flier guru Randy Petersen, publisher of Inside Flyer magazine, said travelers often have to book from six to 10 months ahead to get an available seat to popular destinations such as Paris. Travelers interested in going to Europe next summer on frequent-flier miles, Petersen said, should begin booking by December.

"It's a cloudy picture right now for reward redemption. Everything has been gone for some time," Petersen said.

Petersen said most airlines have formed code-share alliances with other carriers. For example, if a Delta Air Lines frequent flier can't get a free trip on that airline, there may be space available on Northwest or Continental. Or if you can't find one on United Air Lines, try its partner, US Airways.

Airlines do make seats available to members of their frequent-flier programs, but often only at double the usual miles to get the ticket. Travelers like using airline-sponsored credit cards to build miles, Petersen said, because it frees them from having to fly one carrier repeatedly to bolster their accounts. Some airlines, such as United, Delta and Continental, allow users to gain higher, "elite" status through their credit card purchases. The higher the travelers' status within the airline's program, the fewer restrictions in redeeming the miles for free trips.

Some frequent fliers said the annual credit card fees of $60 to $85, depending on the airline and the credit card, also make the cards less attractive. Marybeth Majka of Arlington said she has no trouble getting flights to such cities as Buffalo and Greenville, S.C. "But trying to get seats to St. Thomas or someplace I really want to go, forget it," she said. "I'm rethinking using these cards."

Airlines have tried to address frequent fliers' ire over the difficulty of redeeming miles. Last month, United Airlines launched its Mileage Plus Choices Visa card, which is similar to Capital One's No Hassle Miles card because it claims that earned miles can be redeemed for any flight, anytime, with no blackout dates or seat limitations. Delta has a similar deal with its co-branded American Express card.

Travelers who carry a large balance on the airline-sponsored cards may want to think again. Most of the co-branded cards carry high interest rates of 18 to 32 percent. So interest expenses can rack up if big balances are carried over month to month.

To reduce costs, many companies have cut back on the number of trips they allow their employees. As a result, frequent fliers are feeling the crunch, particularly those who had gotten used to building up points for first- or business-class upgrades or free trips. So some have found creative ways to build their balances.

Ann Scharpf of Huntingtown, Md., scouted around for about 40 friends, neighbors and co-workers who were willing to help her pump her American Airlines Citibank card. She would use her card to cover their groceries and other necessities if they would reimburse her.

Within two months, Scharpf was paying co-workers' car insurance. And on Saturday mornings, she would buy grocery-store gift cards on her credit card totaling $100 to $800, then hand them over and collect the money from her friends and co-workers. Next, she would deposit the cash and pay off the balance on her card. Once, a Citibank representative called her to inquire why in one day she had bought $1,500 at a Food Lion and then $3,500 at the Giant Food across the street.

"My husband was rather shellshocked over the whole thing," Scharpf said. "He'd shake his head as I rattle off the latest statistics and crunch the numbers in my Excel spreadsheet."

Within a few months, Scharpf racked up $2,700 in free tickets, enough for a trip with her husband to Australia.

"It was definitely worth the effort," Scharpf said. "All it cost me was some Saturday mornings and a couple hours to write 40 thank-you postcards while I watched the Australian wildlife."

Question of the Week: Northwest Airlines this week said it would no longer require passengers in coach to board by row. Instead, travelers can find their seats at their leisure. The airline says the new procedure will save time. What do you think of this change? Is there another boarding procedure that you think works better? Send your comments, along with your name and a daytime telephone number, to alexanderk@washpost.com .

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