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Those Free Miles are Flying Away

Airlines are making it harder and harder to get freebies

Remember the days when 20,000 frequent flyer miles bought you a free flight anywhere in the United States? No longer. In the last five years, veteran frequent flyer mile gatherers have watched their stashes slowly but surely devalue. Travelers who have been saving their miles for a rainy day are in danger of being washed out.

More than 200 billion of the trillion miles awarded since the inception of frequent flyer programs remain unredeemed, and airlines are making it harder for travelers to do so by raising the number of miles needed to claim a free trip, lowering the number of miles awarded on popular routes, imposing expiration dates on miles awarded, and limiting the seats available for coupon award tickets.

The savvy flyer can still beat the miles crunch, though. If you need an extra five thousand or ten thousand miles to get a coupon, you can get them without flying by using a credit card or long-distance telephone carrier aligned with a frequent flyer program. Travelers who need fewer miles can take advantage of the many hotels, car rental agencies, and airline frequent flyer clubs that have ongoing frequent flyer promotions. Hotels and car rental companies listed in airline frequent flyer newsletters often offer double mileage promotions, while airline clubs such as TWA Ambassador's Club award 5,000 miles for a one-year membership.

Beyond these backdoor methods, travelers would do well to compare their frequent flyer programs with other major programs. Where there is a choice, it pays to sign up and fly with those programs that are the most lucrative.

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Updated on April 10, 1996