It's easier than ever to rack up frequent-flier miles on your favorite airline _ or on multiple airlines, for that matter. Thanks to the proliferation of partnerships between airlines and other companies, whenever you use your credit card, make long-distance phone calls or pump gas at a certain service station, you can accumulate miles. But when and how should you use all those miles? Consider these tips.
1. KNOW THE DRILL. It's free to join frequent-flier plans, so there's no harm in joining as many as possible. That said, it can really pay to be loyal to one particular program. You'll start accruing free flights, upgrades and VIP benefits more quickly.
2. DO AT LEAST SOME HOMEWORK. Set aside an hour to read the fine print regarding your frequent-flier program. The restrictions can be complicated, but you can hit it big if you make the effort to understand how to operate within them.
3. STAY UP TO DATE. Frequent-flier plans are always changing, so it's important to keep abreast of the latest information. You can do this by visiting airlines' Web sites or by checking out WebFlyer.com (www.webflyer.com), the online arm of Inside Flyer magazine.
4. MAKE SMART DECISIONS ABOUT DOMESTIC FLIGHTS. Redeem your miles for long domestic flights instead of less-expensive short ones because you'll end up burning through the same number of miles in either case.
5. FOR OVERSEAS JAUNTS, redeem your miles during the peak season when the tickets are generally most expensive. For instance, use your miles for a trip to Europe during the summer months. In the winter, hoard your miles and pay for a bargain flight to Europe out of your own pocket.
6. ACT FAST. Considering how quickly airline partnerships and policies change, it's wise to reserve your tickets as soon as you accumulate the needed miles. Book early because the frequent-flier seats available on each plane are issued on a first-come, first-served basis.
7. STRETCH YOUR MILES. Rather than using up your hard-earned miles on a first-class ticket, secure an economy-class ticket and then use far fewer miles to upgrade to business or first class.
8. UNDERSTAND THE RULES OF THE GAME. If you're determined to score a seat upgrade, dress well and be nice to the ticket and gate agents. It can make a huge difference.
9. BE ORGANIZED. Make a point of never setting off for the airport without having your frequent-flier membership card on you _ or at least your membership number. This will prevent you from being a nuisance to airline agents because you won't have to ask them to look up your information for you.
10. GET THE CREDIT YOU DESERVE. Be disciplined about making sure that your mileage for each flight gets credited to your account. If you drop the ball and forget to credit a flight, keep your receipts so you can request the mileage when you get home.
_ Compiled by Laura T. Coffey. Sources: Frommer's (www.frommers.com); WebFlyer (www.webflyer.com)