FLUENT FLIER: I was always interested in airlines as a business and I was good at figuring out deals. In 2001, I registered on www.flyertalk.com, a site where frequent fliers can exchange tips on how to accumulate miles, among other things. I read what everyone else had to say and realized I had a knack for digesting and interpreting frequent flier speak and promotions. Three years ago, I became a Flyertalk moderator for the MilesBuzz and Delta boards and started writing my blog, View From the Wing. A year later, I joined Flyertalk's member-elected board.
TOP FLIGHT: Frequent flier programs came into existence in 1981 when American and United airlines started theirs. I am a member of two dozen programs -- United, American and Starwood Hotels are my favorites. The two airlines offer great reward redemption and have partnerships throughout the world, which makes it easier to get the flights and hotels you want. Starwood is great because it has no capacity controls on awards -- if there's a standard room available for awards, you can use your points. Also, points can be transferred directly to an airline.
RACK 'EM UP: It's best to concentrate on one program until you have enough miles to do something with them, although having a bunch of programs to redeem points in is good too. Recently, my wife and I had to fly to a funeral. I wanted first-class seats and I was looking at flights on United, but I also checked its alliance partner, US Airways, and I considered using my Delta miles on Continental, Northwest or Alaska airlines. I ended up flying United, but it was nice to know I had alternatives.
CHARGE IT: Credit cards that offer mileage in return for purchases are a good way to earn miles, but only if you pay off the balance each month. You also need to consider your volume of charging, because many of these cards charge an annual fee and you want to make certain the rewards are worth it. If you spend $1,000 a month or less, consider a card with no annual fee.
FLY THE FRIENDLY SKIES: The best thing to do is either book early or book late when you use your miles. It is a myth about having to book your frequent flier trips 330 days out [that's when airlines usually make the seats available]. There are many flights that might not start out with reward mile seats or sometimes the airline realizes it can sell the seat. But seats often go unsold and an airline will add frequent flier award inventory.
MILES, MILES EVERYWHERE: You can learn about cool promotions and the world of frequent flying at Flyertalk.com. It has a forum for everything, and if you go to the MilesBuzz section you can learn about ways to earn miles without even flying. Not long ago, British Airways offered 10,000 miles for test driving a Jaguar, and a member posted how you could actually get 40,000 miles from the deal. Gary Steiger's site [www.freefrequentflyermiles.com] is also a great source. Let's say you're about to sign-up for Internet access: You could go to Steiger's site and click on "Internet Access," and he's listed all the Internet service providers that offer frequent flier miles when you sign up. And almost any shopping you do online can earn you miles by simply using the right shopping portal.
CHA-CHING: Who doesn't remember the pudding guy? They even made the movie "Punch-Drunk Love" based on his story. The guy earned more than a million miles for a mere $3,140 worth of Healthy Choice pudding back in 1999, when Healthy Choice was offering a great promotion. He earned lifetime elite frequent flier status. And he gave most of the pudding to charity, so he also got a tax write-off. He really figured out how to get the biggest bang for his buck. I haven't bought any pudding to earn my miles, but I've flown to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in business class for $55 on a mistake fare and paid for my entire honeymoon, except for food and spa treatments, with airline miles and hotel points -- including first-class flights to Tahiti and Australia and nights at some of the world's best resorts.
EXIT AISLE: Like anything, frequent flier miles (and purchased tickets!) have risks if an airline goes bankrupt, but there haven't been any major frequent flier programs that have failed. If a larger carrier files for bankruptcy, you can see if other members within the airline's alliance will still honor the miles, especially if you've already booked your award ticket. Exercise some caution with smaller carriers.
As told to Karen Hart