washingtonpost.com
Color of Money Book Club

Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, November 29, 2007 12:00 PM

Personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary hosted an online discussion with Randy Petersen and Tim Winship, the authors of "Mileage Pro: The Insider's Guide to Frequent Flyer Programs" (OAG Worldwide, $19.95), on Thursday, Nov. 29 at Noon ET.

In her column from Nov. 4, Michelle writes that the authors know how to work the system to "squeeze every ounce of value" out of these frequent-flyer programs.

A transcript follows.

Read Michelle's past Color of Money columns.

____________________

Michelle Singletary: Welcome all. Wow, the questions are already piling up. So let's get right to it.

_______________________

West Chester, Pa.: Michelle, I don't want to pry into your personal background, but I admire your Big Mama so much. My husband and I are raising 2 young grandchildren whose parents are out of the picture, and the physical, mental and financial toll is at times nearly unbearable. We love them dearly, and are reasonably well off, but still . . . . we can't imagine raising 5! She is an amazing role model for all of us. Thanks for helping us make her acquaintance.

Michelle Singletary: Wow, first you are saints!!!

Trust me those kids will realize that one day. I used to cry a lot about being abandoned by my parents. But now I know I landed in the best possible place. My grandmother, Big Mama, was just amazing. She raised us, saved on pratically nothing. I try to model her now.

So thank you for your note and for stepping in to care for those kids. What a wonderful thing to do.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: I apologize for the off-topic question, but this is something that has been bothering me. About 1 year ago, my wife went to an urgent care facility for an illness. The facility did not want payment on the spot, and said they would send us a bill (we expected this to be around $200).

One year later, no bill. After 2 months we made MULTIPLE attempts to contact the facility to figure out why we haven't been billed, but kept getting brushed off, disconnected, or hung up on. The facility then closed and opened up at a new location with a new name. We have both checked our credit reports and don't see anything out of the ordinary on there. The reason I am concerned is that we hope to purchase a home in about 6 months, and don't want this problem to haunt us during the loan application process. Other than rekindling our efforts to contact the facility directly, is there anything we should do?

Michelle Singletary: I certainly can understand our concern. At this point other than making additional calls, I wouldn't stress too much. You can't make people send you a bill.

If the bill does show up you can certainly explain it to your lender. Just be sure to keep copies of the current credit reports.

I hope your wife is well now.

_______________________

Philadelphia: Hi Michelle,

I read the last discussion, in which the person who is part of a couple making at least $200,000 asked for help in figuring out how to come up with a rainy day fund. To be honest, I thought that some of the chatters' responses to that question could have been a reaction to your response. We've all grown accustomed to your telling people - at times somewhat testily - things like get married, tithe, lose cable, etc., without taking into consideration that you haven't been told everything. Perhaps the people writing in aren't legally able to marry (or use partner to refer to their spouse - I know many people around my age - 30 - use partner and don't even think "wife" or "husband" even though they're married), don't share a belief system that includes tithing, already don't have cable, etc. With this person, you suggested cutting back "just a bit" on retirement savings or looking at "other areas" (except tithing) in their budget as ways to cut, or simply waiting for the auto loan to be paid off in two years and putting that money into a rainy day fund. Perhaps this means that you're also getting better about not making assumptions based on what people say/leave out of their comments, but I - and probably many of the other readers - would have expected a very different response and tone from you if the author had even used the word partner instead of wife. In your response to this person you didn't even question their sending two children to private schools, which is a lifestyle choice for almost all people - and if truly it isn't a lifestyle choice for them, chances are they're eligible for scholarships/grants of some sort.

Everyone has an "extra" that they consider non-negotiable. It seems to me that if someone's extra matches your approval - tithing - you are a little easier in your response to that person than if his/her extra is not tithing - even if it is giving an equivalent amount to charity, and even if that person does not believe in a faith that requires tithing.

Everyone can use financial advice and no one should be shut out, but that week's discussion really made it appear as though the people who have the same values as you (regarding non-financial matters) and are already doing relatively well financially are prized more and treated better by you than those who aren't. I hope that isn't the case - it could be that you were simply relieved to have someone writing in who isn't drowning in debt. I'm sure there would have still been people commenting about the fact that a couple making at minimum $200,000 a year isn't doing poorly, of course (and I know that when I find out that someone is in a government position and not able to budget perhaps as well as they think they should be I do hope they're not dealing with taxpayers' money...). I really do think that the tone of at least some of the responses was more because the readers do expect you to respond in another manner - either matter-of-factly ("Now if you aren't getting by you may have to get another job or get a different job") or not, such as taunts in response to light-hearted comments ("So there!"), digs at people participating in other chats on the site ("It's a better use of our time than talking about crazy celebrities"), and patronizing comments to chatters who write in suggesting that perhaps there is another way to look at a question ("I get it my dear"). I'm sure most of us read more than one chat a week, and after a while people do grow accustomed to the host's style and tend to adopt it in their questions/comments. If you don't want people writing in being "mean", maybe the overall tone needs to be shifted slightly, but it will take time before any shift takes.

I'm sorry this is long and has nothing to do with frequent flyer miles, and I hope that the person who originally wrote in continues to look to you for advice because it's obvious that they're able to learn from what you have to say and what your views are. I also hope that you'll show the same consideration that you showed this couple to an unmarried couple that writes in, or a non-Christian couple, or someone who says they've already cut back to the bare bones but are having trouble starting a savings fund.

washingtonpost.com: Color of Money Live, Nov. 8, 2007

Michelle Singletary: Since you took so much time to write let me address some of your "issues" with me.

First chats don't allow for enough time to write as much as you did today. So my answers sometimes do come off quick.

>But I'm here to help EVERYONE. I don't cherry pick people because they believe what I do. But if you come into the chat and ASK ME what I think you will get the sum total of my professional, educational and yes private experiences.

I wasn't light on the well-heeled couple because they tithed. I was didn't bashed them because they had a relatively small budgeting issue. They were doing most things right. Others reacted to the $200,000 like they should be shot for even asking a budgeting question.

You have no idea and I mean no idea of the racist, mean, sexist questions/notes I get in this chat and in my e-mail box. And for the record why do so many people have a problem with people tithng. For them it's not an option. So if it's not an option, I don't encourage the to eliminate it from their budget. I understand why it's important. If you can truly afford to send your kids to private school I have no problem with that.

nd to correct you I don't tell people blanketly to get rid of cable. I say look at EVERYTHING. But if you want to keep cable something else may have to go.

Do I let some you get to me, yup sure do. I'm human.

But overall my advice is sound. Spend less than you make. Get rid of as much debt as you can as soon as you can because it makes you a slave even when it's necessary like to by a home.)

_______________________

Phoenix, Ariz.: My frustration with my dividend miles is that when I joined, I heard all I needed was 20,000 miles to get a roundtrip ticket anywhere in the continental U.S. Yet, when I seek to redeem the miles, I discover that most of the locations I wish to travel require 40,000 miles and that I will need to return a week later and that earlier return dates are blacked out. Do I have a right to feel a little cheated?

Tim Winship: Legally, US Air (and all airlines) make it clear that awards are capacity-controlled, and blackout dates may apply, and so on. But such legal disclaimers are buried in the fine print, and most consumers do expect that they will have a reasonable chance of securing a restricted award (for fewer miles) for flights close to their desired departure and return dates.

So you have every right to feel disappointed, but no legal recourse.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: My husband and I travel for pleasure about 2-3 times per year. We like to fly out of National Airport whenever possible. We're thinking it would be smart to get a credit card that earns miles with one of the major carriers that serves National. These airlines include American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and USAir. Which airline(s) do you think are a good bet to get a credit card with?

Tim Winship: The general rule is to go with the credit card of the program operated by the airline you use most often. That means you'll be adding miles for credit charges to miles earned for flying, resulting in the maximum number of miles in a single program, and the maximum number of awards.

Randy Petersen: Of these choices, I think you might consider the credit card for American Airlines. A few reasons: they have a "short-haul" award at only 15,000 miles. This is important for two reasons for you - if the destination that you want to fly to is within 750 miles of National, you'll only be paying 15,000 miles for the award vs. 25,000 miles with most of the other programs. Since your pleasure trips are somewhat limited, earning miles by credit card will be important to you and we all know, the fewer the miles the award is, the easier they are to earn. Plus American has a fairly good reputation for making seats available. Another plus - they have an offer right now that will award you 25,000 bonus miles just for signing up for the card and spending at least $750 over the next three months. That alone is almost two free tickets for you right at the start (15,000 mile award) without doing anything other than choosing the right card and the right program. It's a MasterCard so it will easily be accepted most anywhere you might choose a credit card for. Another plus ... every quarter they have special destinations for as few as 12,500 (in addition to the 15,000-mile short haul award) including some international destinations (for a few more miles) and these special awards are only offered to their credit card customers.

Certainly something to consider and if I were making the decision, it would be the one I would personally make.

_______________________

Albuquerque, N.M.: American Airlines conveniently did not credit my miles earned from flying their partner Aer Lingus to Ireland. Everytime I tried to schedule an award flight, there were no seats available on that flight to use my miles. Now they told me I would lose my miles because I don't have any activity on my account. Well, they can just shove their miles up their corporate ... Pretty soon my wallet is going to get a lot lighter when I "86" all my frequent flier cards.

Tim Winship: Try contacting American to have the Aer Lingus miles credited retroactively.

You'll have more miles to redeem, and the life of your existing miles will be extended.

_______________________

Bethesda, Md.: I have to say the best frequent flyer program is Southwest Airlines. I've never had trouble using my miles; you can "regift" them to anyone w/no hassles whatsoever; and you can extent each year's deadline for another for $50, a godsend when I was seriously ill a couple years go.

Tim Winship: I've never been a fan of Southwest's program. The earning and award options are limited. And their 2-year mileage expiration policy is consumer-unfriendly.

Having said that, the program does work well for many travelers. Your experience is a case in point.

_______________________

Rockville, Md.: With every "frequent flier" credit card or other type of card, I have never found any of the deals to be better than getting cash back. Using the points to get merchandise might sound great but every time I found an item I wanted, I could buy it for less cash than the amount I would get if I convert the points to cash.

Please help me understand why anybody would take something other than cash?

Tim Winship: Great question!

Indeed, cash back in many cases is the better financial decision. But as airline marketers have discovered, a free trip has value that extends beyond any rational calculation. A trip is aspirational, whereas cash is not.

I'm not a psychologist, but that's at least a partial explanation for what's at play here.

Randy Petersen: Why someone would choose anything than cash? Well, that's easy for those who take the time to treat these frequent flyer credit cards as they would a sound investment. As we all know, some mutual funds and stocks have a better return than others. Let's look at a specific example:

You spend 20,000 annually on a credit card. With the typical cash back programs, you will benefit with a 1% return, thus earning you $200. Hey, $200 sounds great, let's go spend it. Right? Well, let's say you want to fly to Hawaii for a nice honeymoon or to Europe with your graduating child from college as a gift. Well, we could spend $800 for a coach ticket, or we could spend $5,000 for a business class ticket. Yikes, do you really want to fly in coach for these wonderful moments of your life? You could, but tell me that biz class isn't a good idea. So, we'll go biz, because that significant other of yours is just the best. Uh, oh. $4,200 better? Let's see, i got that $200 cash back from my credit card ... but i'm still $4,000 short. Time to dip into the savings as she is worth it. BUT, then there are my miles. I'm going to use my 20,000 miles for an upgrade to my coach ticket. Cool, more wine please! And now that $200 cash back is really $4,200 cash back because i spent time thinking about how i was going to use the "rebate" not focusing on the immediate value - $200. In this case, the frequent flyer cash back was really, much more than 1%.

>The secret to these and many other life changing challenges in our lives - determining first what the prize will be.

_______________________

Now for a whine: I found out, in the space of two weeks, not only what my salary range is (the company did a survey and decided to tell us), but also what my boss is making (a huge oops on his part - he just blurted it out accidentally while we were there talking to HR about the salary survey!)

I found out I'm underpaid for what I do (well below median of the range, and I'm an old timer at the company) and also that my boss makes double what I do.

I work at least as hard as he does if not harder. I'm in a funk and feeling sorry for myself. Any words of advice?

Michelle Singletary: First, not sure it will help to compare your salary to that of your boss. He is your boss and well bosses are expected to make more although I feel you on the -- I do more than he does thing. But perhaps you aren't seeing all that he does -- the planning, meetings,etc.

Next, research online and elsewhere to get evidence of how much others in your same or similar position in the same area make. The more research the better.

Then write up all your accomplishments, provide past evaluations showing (hopefully) what a great and productive employee you are.

Prepare a memo (be very, very nice) and give it to your boss and ask that after he go over it that you have a sit down to discuss your getting a raise.

Be professional, not accuse, cry, whine or fuss. Just make a good case that you deserve more.

_______________________

Philadelphia: What is the best way to use frequent flier miles to obtain an upgrade to first class on a ticket purchased at coach fare? I am a Gold USAirways member, and always seems to miss being upgraded automatically, so how can my miles help in this situation?

Tim Winship: If you're an elite member of US Air's program, you must have a considerable number of miles sitting in your account. If the elite upgrades aren't forthcoming, redeem some of those miles for an upgrade award. It's a great use of your hard-earned miles!

_______________________

WDC: Hi there,

This is not a question on your topic today but wanted to inquire about something. My recently widowed mother is looking into a reverse mortgage. I had not heard of this and am a little concerned about it. Can you offer me your opinion and/or a good resource to fully research?

Thanks much.

Michelle Singletary: Go to www.hud.gov to start.

You will find lots of information on reverse mortgages.

Also try www.aarp.org

These mortgages are expensive but if your mom is house rich but cash poor (no savings, insurance money, etc.) it might be a viable option which would allow her to stay in the home, get some needed cash AND not have to pay the money back (no monthly payments) until she sells, leaves the home or passes away.

_______________________

McLean, Va.: Question for Tim Winship:

I am a regular reader of your's and Ed Perkins' entries on SmarterTravel.com. I am getting the impression that Frequent Flyer programs now make sense only for frequent business travelers, and that "retail" flyers looking for value in affinity programs should look elsewhere, such as hotel, grocery or fuel affinity programs. Am I reading the industry correctly?

And thank you for keeping us informed. I enjoy reading your column.

Tim Winship: It's true that bona fide road warriors get the most value out of participating in airline programs. But there's plenty of value to be derived by infrequent flyers from the programs as well, IF your goal is to get a free trip. (If not, there are indeed other rewards programs, including cash-back, that may be better options.)

Ed and I (and other consumer advocates) are certainly concerned about the decline in value of frequent flyer miles over the past few years. But while miles are worth less, they are hardly worthless.

_______________________

Dallas, Tex.: Is there anyway for a 3-4 times per year traveler to benefit from a frequent flyer program? After 2 1/2 years I finally earned a free ticket and I was happy to take that. But what I'd really prefer is to somehow earn upgrades so that my flight is more comfortable. I've always felt that FF programs only provide a lot of benefit to the business travelers in the air all the time.

Tim Winship: Remember that miles can be earned for "everything short of breathing" these days. Credit card use, retail purchases, and so on. So even moderately active flyers (or non flyers for that matter) can earn significant quantities of miles.

Using miles to upgrade from coach to first or business class is one of the very best uses of your miles, from a return-on-investment standpoint.

Randy Petersen: To tag along with Tim's advice, make sure that you understand where your miles you use toward an award redemption. It sounds like you've earned your miles the hard way ... flying that 3-4 times a year. While most know that use of a credit card is one of the easiest ways to earn your miles - it does pay to know that appx. 60 percent of all miles earned into an average account comes from not-flying miles. If you're comfortable with your credit card choices, really pay attention to the online shopping malls that most programs now have. By starting at your frequent flyer program before going online to Gap.com, Apple.com (for your iPod), Barnes&Noble.com and literally thousands of other online stores, you can earn 1-20 miles per dollar spent online shopping at many of the same places you're going to shop anyway.

Even Google likes frequent flyer miles, through the end of Dec., they have a program that can earn you miles in 6 different frequent flyer programs. Look at Google and their "Checkout" program. Yes, the whole world loves miles.

_______________________

Boise, Idaho: Randy and Tim,

If my family wants to cash in frequent flier miles (probably Delta and/or Capital One's Miles One program) for a trip to Europe in June 2009, when would we want to start looking at booking the tickets?

Tim Winship: I'll leave it to you to do the calendar math, but airlines generally make seats available in their computer reservations systems 330 days prior to the departure date. So that would be your first opportunity to book the seats, whether you're paying for them with cash or with miles.

Be prepared to be flexible on dates... award travel to Europe during the summer months can be difficult.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Help!! I'm a 24 year old who is completely lost. I have 15k in student loans, 3k on a credit card, 3k from furniture that is 0% until Jan 2009, 22k on a car note and no emergency fund. Where do I start?

washingtonpost.com: Color of Money Challenge Budget Worksheet (pdf)

Michelle Singletary: Oh my dear, you have to start by stop spending. Follow the link here for the budget worksheet. That's where you need to start.

You have to look at every expense and question it and cut where you can. If you can't cut then you need to think of ways to increase your income.

Next I hope you have put away that credit card. No more charging for ANYTHING. Nothing. Nada.

It's cash only from now until you get that debt down.

_______________________

Rockville, Md.: Regarding using the miles for upgrades, etc.

"Legally, US Air (and all airlines) make it clear that awards are capacity-controlled, and blackout dates may apply, and so on."

So, you can upgrade when THEY say it's available. Free ticket to Alaska in the winter. Free ticket to the Carribean during huricane season. Free ticket to Paris during the rainy season.

Tim Winship: Unless you're willing to spend twice as many miles for a rule-buster award, with no (or fewer) capacity controls, yes, you're at the mercy of the airlines.

Luckily, there is pressure from consumers and competitors to be reasonably generous with awards, altho the airlines' lack of generosity in recent years has become something of a scandal.

_______________________

Denver, Colo.: I have read books on frequent flyer programs that suggest you get a ticket with miles to your destination for any future date that is available (if you're preferred dates are not available). Then, show up at the airport the day you want to fly and take the chance you can get on a flight using frequent flyer ticket for a future date. If this a good idea?

Another questions, we have credit cards that acquire miles that appear to have more flexibility than directly with the airlines. Are these credit card programs good? Which credit card has the best miles program?

Randy Petersen: Risk and reward describes this type of strategy. It's really one of those old wife's tales. In days gone by it was a strategy that could work about 50% of the time. With planes so full these days, that strategy is down to around 5-10%. I guess i'd see it as if you happened to have won the lottery that same day, then go ahead and try this since you've got luck going on your side. If you did not win the lottery, then maybe try these tips:

- The busiest time when members redeem their miles for summer vacation is in mid-January (according the the airlines). My advice, call for your summer awards during this holiday season, well before when that crush starts.

- Try using awards mid-week to mid-week. Did you know you can increase your chances of award redemption by traveling tues.-thurs.? Yes, most members want to get off work on Friday and fly Sat. or Sun. The smart member tells the boss they want vacation Wed. to Tues. Same number of vacation days but much easier to claim awards.

- Did you know that not all award seats are listed online? Yes, most programs do not have partner inventory listed and as well, re-routed awards. So when your laptop says "NO SEATS AVAILABLE", pick up the phone and start all over with a reservation person. Sure, it will cost you $25 to talk to someone, but it's cheaper than the $400 ticket you may have to buy and much cheaper than the medicine you'll need to clam your blood pressure down again!!!!!

Randy Petersen: More flexibility? Sounds like a CapitalOne card. A couple problems with those cards: often require a month in advance to book. Can't be used for upgrades. Only way to earn miles on those cards toward an award is .... spending more money. With a frequent flyer credit card, you can mix in any number of ways to earn miles with your credit card - flying, spending, shopping online, car rental, surveys, staying at hotels, etc. The secret is that for a comparable 25,000-mile award, you may only spend $5,000 with your credit card and other miles come from other activities as noted. With a CapitalOne card, if you only spent $5,000, then guess what, you're only 1/5 of the way to your free award.

Best credit cards? Some of the best are American's, United's, Frontier Airlines and believe it or not, one of the best might be a hotel credit card - Starwood ranks very, very high.

_______________________

Anonymous: I am getting married in a few months, and my finace and I are discussing what to do with our finances. When my fiance was 10, her father wiped out the family's bank account and skipped town. This created obvious hardships for her family. She wants to have joint checking and savings accounts, but would also like her own personal savings account and encourages me to do the same. If I recall, you favor combining all finances, however my fiance's "Big Mama" raised her with an emphasis that women should have some of their own money. Are we doomed?

Michelle Singletary: Not doomed. But there is a lot of fear there and so I would highly encourage you both to talk to a professional before you get married. Find a really good and involved premarital counseling program. I don't mean a session or two.

Something that will get you two talking A LOT about your financial history and issues.

If from the start she wants to separate stuff there are issues of trust. You are not her father (or I should hope).

_______________________

Silver Spring, Md.: I think your advice is great. I feel very lucky to have found your column and consider you my financial guardian angel. I have always been good with money but you help me to see the more important things, e.g. helping a family member go to college rather than buying a $20,000 bag. I don't think your unfair in your assessments, and please don't change anything about your advice!!! Now, my frequent flyer question is - do you think its more worth it to use miles domestically or internationally or for flight upgrades? Is there any general idea about that? Or does it depend on what the cost of the ticket would be?

Randy Petersen: The oddsmakers in Las Vegas say that the best return for using your miles is as international upgrades. That is all well and good if that what's you can plan and manage your miles for, but honestly, I'm one of those that does not forget the MasterCard approach to using your miles:

frequent flyer miles: 50,000

12 years of marriage: well, it depends what day...

second honeymoon on a beach in Florida when it's snowing back home: priceless (thanks frequent flyer miles!)

Honestly, for most people, i say forget about trying to value them. Treat then like the jar you have that you put all your loose change in. When it comes to cashing that in, isn't what you spend it on the most valuable thing in the world?

Think aspiration. I used 25,000 miles to donate to a charitable organization. Never left home and didn't get any upgrade. But someone's life is much better now and so is mine. Use miles for rainy days and Mondays.

Michelle Singletary: First, loved Randy's response.

Second, thank you so much. I won't change. I can take the heat because I know my intent, my heart and I've seen enough of the bad stories (debt ridden people, even those paying loads of money) to know I'm putting people on the right path to prosperity.

_______________________

Annapolis, Md.: Given that airlines are reducing the availability and increasing the "price" of their frequent flyer awards, and airfares in general are falling, does it even make sense to get an airline credit card anymore? It seems to me that it's a lot easier to find a cheap airfare to go along with, say, a free hotel room from Starwood or Marriott or Hilton than a free airfare and a discounted hotel room. When does the law of diminishing returns kick in?

Tim Winship: For some travelers, the law of diminishing returns has already kicked in and they've disengaged from airline programs.

Obviously for others, the programs remain viable.

Certainly the airlines have been pushing the programs closer to the tipping point, beyond which it's no longer worth the time and effort to participate in the programs.

Your point about hotel programs is well taken. As hotel rates have risen and airfares have remained flat or declined, the value of free nights versus free flights has increased.

_______________________

Va.: I understand the cash/mileage example - but be honest - unless you are a very frequent flier - you aren't going to be upgraded for mileage. There is a road warrior on the plane with more miles/higher status/bigger bank account who will get the upgrade first. Planes are flying VERY VERY full these days and more miles out with customers than airlines can really satisfy seats for - please manage people's expectations.

Randy Petersen: Actually, there are two types of upgrades. Upgrades relative to your status as a frequent flyer and in those situations it does help to be a more frequent flyer. But, when it comes to redeeming your miles for an upgrade, all members are created equal, you will have just as much chance as most of the next members. This is because of the redemption date, sooner is better while the other upgrades for status members it is competitive because the more frequent flyer you are, the more time in advance of a flight you can maybe get upgraded - 100-24 hours in advance. But there are two different types of upgrades and mileage based upgrades are much different than status based.

Again, thanks for your participation.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: We have a credit card that allows us to use it for travel on any airline, whenever we want. I have redeemed miles a few times for flights on a variety of airlines. Sometimes the miles/points charged are more than 25,000, but never 40,000. More like 275,000. We can use the points for rental cars, hotels and lots of merchandise. We pay for the card, but that is the only money they make off of us.

Michelle,I pay the bill in full online every month before we get the paper statement. We never charge what we couldn't write a check for on the spot. We use it for everything and the points add up quick.

The card is the Citicard Premier Elite and it is tied to the Thank You points program.

Tim Winship: It sounds like you're using the card wisely and responsibly!

Cards like the Citi Premier Pass have been giving the airline credit cards a run for their money recently. The former have the considerable advantage of not imposing capacity controls on the awards.

Michelle Singletary: Just one word of caution for those of you (me included) who pay your bill off every month.

Studies show when you use plastic, you still spend more than if you used cash.

Just saying.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: How do I get airlines to STOP sending me frequent flier credit card offers (sometimes to the tune of four or five a week)?

Tim Winship: This is just my best guesss...

First, the offers are likely coming from the banks issuing the airline-affiliated credit cards. Try calling the toll-free number printed on all such offers and asking to be removed from future mailings.

Should work.

_______________________

Rockville, Md.: And if you are going to talk about using miles for an upgrade, at least be truthful.

http://www.usairways.com/awa/content/dividendmiles/programdetails/upgrades/mileageupgrades.aspx

30,000 miles needed for ONE-WAY upgrade from US to Europe. So, a round-trip upgrade is 60,000 and the ticket had to have cost you at least $1,200 AND there has to be availability.

Cash has no blackout dates.

Randy Petersen: Sorry, if we had days and specific questions about a particular airline we could easily craft answers for everyone. We're just trying to give a general overview. If you choose US Airways as your program of choice, perhaps you might want to re-consider, they are not the most generous for what you might want. As for availability, the industry gave away nearly 28 million free tickets last year, and 3.2 million upgraded ones using miles. Someone's flying for free. Hopefully using some of this advice and more from the MileagePro book will help. As well, many frequent flyer hang out at FlyerTalk.com to get the best information from fellow frequent flyers.

Thanks for participating.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Is there any reason I shouldn't pay off my home equity line of credit/second mortgage? I have enough in savings to pay it off and still leave me with about 3 months living expenses as an emergency fund.

Michelle Singletary: None I can think of if you have an good cash emergency AND then some. The then some is for everyday expenses that come up -- car repairs, home repairs, etc.

If so pay off. I would.

_______________________

Not miles related but: I just want to come to your defense. You get a couple of paragraphs and a few moments to give someone advice. You HAVE to make some assumptions as there really isn't any room for dialog. Your values and priorities are well known to anyone with any sort of familiarity with your columns and chats. So is your humor.

So of course your advice is going to have to be limited and fairly broad. And of course you are going to give advice that is at least somewhat colored by your values and priorities - you are a human. If someone needs really specific advice then they should take your advice to head to a fee-based financial planner.

So keep up the good work!

Michelle Singletary: Bless you!

I guess some people don't get my sense of humor, so there!

Oops. I did it again.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Hi there - thanks for the chat. Lately I have been getting a ton of mail from American Express, trying to get me to apply for their "Blue Sky" credit card. I am thinking about doing it since I only have one credit card and part of me feels that I should have another one in case I am traveling and there is a problem with the first card. Have you heard anything about this rewards program? From what I understand, you can apply the awards towards any airline but I'm skeptical. Thank you!

Tim Winship: The Amex Blue Sky card is a solid rewards card, comparable in some respects to Citi's Premier Pass and the Capital One card. You might want to compare them all to see which best fits your individual needs.

As to having a second card in your wallet, as a back-up, I think that's a smart move.

_______________________

Pentagon City: I want to put in a plug in for the Marriott rewards program. I travel a lot for work, so I accumulate lots of points with that, as well as a credit card. They don't have many black out dates, and I belive you can also use points for flights. Also, I'm using some points to get my dad a cool xmas present that I couldn't have otherwise afforded. And it's also nice because you can plan a road trip or weekend getaway with hotel points and not have to worry about the flight.

Randy Petersen: We like Marriott as well and one of the really nice things is that you can earn lots of points when staying for business at the more major Marriott hotels, and then use those points at some of their other chains like Courtyard or Fairfield Inn. It can make your points go much farther. As well, Marriott has a really cool relationship with SkyMall allowing you to earn points or redeem points for merchandise - like that big screen TV you've been wanting for the Super Bowl.

As with many programs, if it works for you - great. If it doesn't, then don't complain, move your business.

_______________________

Michelle Singletary: Well folks that's it for today. If we didn't get to your question don't fret. Look for my column or e-letter. Tim and Randy have agreed to answer more which I'll post.

Thanks for joining me today.

_______________________

Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive