And when it comes to the stickier pieces of the game -- such as making sure miles are actually credited to your account, dealing with miles that don't show up, navigating the cross-promotional activities of alliance programs, flying on partner airlines, keeping your hard-earned miles from expiring and actually redeeming your miles -- it takes an expert to figure it out.
I got in touch with Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com, editor-at-large at Smarter Travel, and author of "Mileage Pro: The Insider's Guide to Frequent Flyer Programs," and asked about some of the trickier elements of the mileage tracking and redemption process. Tim knows the frequent flier business inside and out, and from both sides of the fine print; after having spent 20 years working for the airlines, traveling all over the world negotiating frequent flier program agreements with airlines in North America, Asia and Europe, Tim is now a "regular" traveler like most folks, spending most of his time "chained to my desk, writing about travel."
Q. What do you suggest when miles do not show up on your frequent flier account?
A. Monitor your frequent flier accounts to confirm that all miles have been properly posted. If they haven't posted within three months of the transaction date, follow the directions published on the airline's Web site to request missing credit. You may be asked to furnish proof, so it's always best to retain receipts until miles post. (For more on this topic, see Why You Should Save Your Boarding Pass.)
Q. What if this happens when you fly with an airline that is a partner of your preferred airline, and the miles do not show up on your account?
A. If the missing miles are for flights, either on the host airline or one of its partners, the credit request can usually be made online, via the program Web site.
Discount Airfare Deals
Q. Do international flights present any special challenges with the two issues above?
A. There used to be frequent lapses when earning miles in the program of airline A for flights on airline B because of disconnects between the two carriers' reservations systems. But these issues have been largely resolved, and today such problems are the exception.
Q. What do you suggest to folks who have expiring miles: transfer, sell, buy a magazine subscription?
A. With so many opportunities to extend the life of miles, there's no good reason to allow them to expire. If you can't find an easy, cheap mile-earning purchase to keep your account active, redeeming as few as 400 miles for a magazine subscription is usually a solid value and will keep the remaining miles alive for 18 - 24 months, depending on the program.
Q. When you have elite status on one airline, does that afford you any benefits on airlines that are in the same network, but are otherwise competitors (such as with two Star Alliance airlines; United and US Airways could be one example)?
A. Some elite perks are offered to airlines' partner carriers, through one of the global airline alliances (SkyTeam, Star, Oneworld). But generally the most coveted perk, complimentary upgrades, is only offered on the airline in which status was earned.
Seven Ways to Score Airport Lounge Access
Q. Have you seen any other odd situations with mileage award problems for which travelers should watch out?
A. The biggest issue facing frequent fliers today is award availability. With most airlines flying over 80 percent full year-round, it's harder than ever to find award seats. One suggestion: If you can't find an award seat online, pick up the phone and call the airline's reservations center. A professional agent has a much better chance of booking your award, and you won't pay the service charge (typically $25) unless the booking is successful. It's a small price to pay.
Q. Do you ever recommend that travelers who earn miles on their credit cards, but may be having problems redeeming them, simply cash them in for cash back (usually at 50 cents on the dollar compared to the value of the flight they might get)?
A. While the lure of travel is a powerful psychological incentive, a free trip is not always the best deal financially. Before signing on to a credit card that awards frequent flier miles, consumers would do well to consider cash-rebate cards, which award a rebate on purchases of 1 - 2 percent. Cash in hand often trumps miles, and can always be used to buy a ticket -- with no capacity controls or blackout dates -- if travel is a priority.
Q. Do you ever recommend that people buy miles, or even take status upgrade flights (flying just for the sake of earning enough miles to bump your elite status)? Under which circumstances are these good tactics, or bad tactics?
A. Buying miles is a great deal for the airlines that sell them but generally a very poor deal for consumers. Caveat emptor. If you are within striking distance of earning elite status near the end of the year, it may well be worth it to make a "mileage run" -- a cheap flight taken solely to earn enough miles to reach elite status, typically 25,000 miles to reach the entry-level tier.
Q. How far in advance should folks plan on applying for award travel if they hope to redeem their miles for a flight?
A. One road-tested strategy for successfully redeeming frequent flier miles: Book early (330 days before departure, when airlines first make seats available in their reservations computers), or book late (within 14 days of departure, when airlines may make more award seats available on flights that don't appear likely to sell out).
Poll: How Many Frequent Flier Programs Do You Belong To?
More Tips from Tim (and Beyond)
For tracking your miles, Tim's site FrequentFlier.com has produced a mileage tracking site, MilePort.com, which will track all your miles for more than 100 airline and other loyalty program accounts in one place. Once you set up your accounts, the site has the "functionality to navigate to various loyalty program Web sites and automatically insert your log-in information for each of your accounts." This way you don't have to enter all your awards every time you travel, and tracking whether they were credited is streamlined; if the miles don't show up on MilePort, they were not credited.
Other mileage tracking programs to check out include AwardWallet, GoMiles, MileageManager, Milewise, Points.com, Traxo, TripIt, UsingMiles and Yodlee.
Most of us get offers for mileage-earning credit cards in the mail, and the pitches for these cards are becoming ubiquitous. On a recent flight with US Airways, we were pitched fully three times to sign up for a new card during the flight -- twice over the PA, and once by an attendant prowling the aisles. There are several different kinds of cards, as well -- airline-affiliated credit cards, bank-issued cards with a travel awards program, debit cards with the same, and charge cards such as AmEx -- and then there are the hotel-issued cards that have airline mileage awards, whew. If you are looking for a guide to choosing the best card and program for you, Tim's site offers this advice.
10 Hardcore Tips for Frequent Travelers
The Independent Traveler
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Smarter Travel.