updated 3/25/2010 9:21:17 AM ET 2010-03-25T13:21:17

BookYourAward.com founder Gary Leff—who has mastered the art of snagging hard-to-get international award seats—shares his expertise on some of the most popular and versatile programs, to help you determine which one is right for you.

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AIR CANADA AEROPLAN

Use your miles for flights on: Continental, United, US Airways, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, Austrian, Lufthansa, Scandinavian, Singapore, South African Airways, Swiss, Thai, and 11 more international partners.

Main advantage: This is arguably North America's best mileage program. Air Canada's membership in the Star Alliance gives you the greatest number of airlines and flights to use your miles on, and Air Canada's routing rules are very generous and award flights come cheaper than they do via other Star Alliance partners. A business-class ticket from New York to Paris, for instance, costs only 80,000 Aeroplan miles—as opposed to 105,000 on Continental or United.

Main drawback: Miles expire after 12 months unless there is activity in your account. (Keeping your account active is easy; you can transfer mileage from an American Express account, for instance, or make a purchase via Aeroplan's eStore.) Even with activity in your account every 12 months, miles expire after seven years.

Best for: Those who fly Star Alliance carriers (e.g., Continental, United, and US Airways) and whose award goal is international flights in first or business class.

Insider tip: Don't use your Aeroplan miles for flights on Air Canada because you'll have to pay fuel surcharges; use them for flights on Air Canada's partners, which don't impose fuel surcharges. And don't get the Aeroplan MasterCard: Instead carry a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Card (see page 48), since you can convert the Starpoints you collect into Aeroplan miles and get 5,000 bonus miles for every 20,000 you convert.

ALASKA AIRLINES MILEAGE PLAN

Use your miles for flights on: American, Delta, and 12 more Oneworld and SkyTeam partners, including Air France, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, LAN, and Qantas.

Main advantage: You can combine the miles you earn from flying both American and Delta. If or when you fly on Alaska Airlines itself, award availability is generous, and upgrades and elite status are relatively easy to attain. And Alaska Airlines offers one-way awards (American does too, but Delta does not).

Main drawback: Alaska Airlines' routes are pretty much limited to the West Coast, and the elite status you might earn can be used only on its flights.

Best for: Those who live on the West Coast (where Alaska flies) and who fly American and Delta but are not earning enough miles with either carrier to get the free flights they want or to reach elite status. Say your home airport is Los Angeles, where American and Delta both have a substantial presence, but you fly neither airline enough to obtain elite status. If you credit those miles to Alaska, you can reach elite status faster and get a greater choice of award seats than you would through American or Delta alone.

Insider tip: The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card, issued by Bank of America, gives you a $99 companion ticket every year, for use on Alaska Airlines in any fare class. Want to fly from Washington, D.C., to Maui? Buy a first-class Alaska Airlines ticket from D.C. to Maui via Seattle and you can fly someone else in first class with you for just $99.

AMERICAN AADVANTAGE

Use your miles for flights on: British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LAN, Qantas, and four more Oneworld partners.

Main advantage: High award availability and the most merchandise partners through whom you can earn miles. The only program where you can earn lifetime elite status solely through credit-card spending rather than flying.

Main drawback: Although you can use miles to upgrade from the cheapest coach tickets, you must pay a fee of several hundred dollars in addition to the miles. And even though American and British Airways are partners, you can't use your miles to fly British Airways between the United States and London.

Best for: Those who fly mostly within the United States and to the Caribbean and Latin America or who are top-tier elite.

Insider tip: While you can't use AAdvantage miles to fly British Airways from the United States to London, you can use them to fly to London from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean. If you're willing to route yourself through, say, Toronto, Montreal, Nassau, or Barbados, you can take advantage of British Airways' immense route system beyond London into Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

AMERICAN EXPRESS MEMBERSHIP REWARDS

Use your points for flights on: Nearly every major carrier.

8 things airlines won’t tell youMain advantage: For an annual fee of $95, you can transfer your Membership Rewards points to any of 17 airlines, but you can use them on many more, since points you transfer to Continental, Air Canada, or ANA can be used on any Star Alliance carrier (e.g., Egypt­Air, Turkish); points you transfer to British Airways, Iberia, or Mexicana can be used on any Oneworld airline (e.g., Cathay Pacific, Finnair); and points you transfer to Delta, AeroMéxico, or Air France/KLM can be used across SkyTeam (e.g., China Southern, Korean Air). You can redeem your points on British Airways for those U.S._London flights that you can't get with AAdvantage miles. You can transfer Membership Rewards points to Aeroplan (see Air Canada Aeroplan, opposite, for why this is key). And you can transfer points to many airlines instantaneously, which you can_t do with points earned via the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Card.

Main drawback: You don't earn elite-qualifying miles (e.g., miles that count toward elite status).

Best for: Big spenders who want to travel conveniently to a wide range of destinations and don't require elite status.

Insider tip: Transfer your points into the mileage programs that require the fewest miles for the flights you need. Say you want to fly Virgin Atlantic from JFK to Heathrow. Since the same Virgin Upper Class flight that costs 90,000 points if you redeem your miles in Virgin's program costs only 63,000 points if you redeem your miles in ANA's program, book the Virgin flight through ANA.

CONTINENTAL ONEPASS

Use your miles for flights on: United, US Airways, Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, Austrian, Lufthansa, Scandinavian, Singapore, South African Airways, Swiss, Thai, and 11 more foreign partners.

Main advantage: Continental's Star Alliance membership makes it relatively easy to redeem miles for flights to Europe and Asia. And Continental is known for giving elite-level fliers free upgrades.

Main drawback: Limited availability of 25,000-mile round-trip domestic awards. And although you can use miles to upgrade from the cheapest international coach seats, you must pay a fee of several hundred dollars in addition to the miles.

Best for: Those who want to redeem miles for international premium-class tickets—since you have so many airline, route, and flight options—or who live near a Continental hub and can earn enough miles to achieve elite status.

Insider tip: If you want to fly in business class to Europe, consider redeeming your miles on Lufthansa because of its outstanding award availability from numerous U.S. gateways.

DELTA SKYMILES

Use your miles for flights on: AeroMéxico, Air Europa, Air France, Alitalia, KLM, Korean Air, and four other SkyTeam partners.

Main advantage: Decent availability of coach award tickets.

Main drawback: Limited premium-class award availability internationally. You can't use miles to upgrade from the cheapest coach tickets; the only upgradable tickets are close to full fare.

Best for: Those who live near a Delta hub and fly enough to obtain elite status.

Insider tip: If you're not within reach of elite status and your goal is to fly internationally in premium class, credit your miles to Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan to redeem them on American and several of its Oneworld partners.

STARWOOD PREFERRED GUEST AMERICANEXPRESS CARD

Use your points for flights on: Nearly every major airline.

Main advantage: You can transfer your points to any of 30 frequent-flier programs spanning all three alliances, and you earn miles faster than with AmEx Membership Rewards—you get the equivalent of 1.25 miles for every dollar spent because each time you convert 20,000 points, Starwood gives you 5,000 bonus miles. The first year is free, but after that the card costs $45 annually.

Main drawback: You don't earn elite-qualifying miles; converting your Starpoints into miles can take several weeks, during which time award seats could disappear; and you can't put an award on hold.

Best for: Those who want the flexibility of having many carriers and routes to choose from and who don't need elite status. And, because of the time it takes to convert points into miles, those who can plan their travel months in advance.

Insider tip: Never convert Starpoints into Continental, United, or Singapore miles, since the points-to-miles "exchange rate" is terrible. If you want to fly one of these carriers, transfer your points to partner Air Canada's Aeroplan. The same Continental BusinessFirst flight from Newark to Paris that costs 170,000 Starpoints if you transfer your points to Continental costs just 65,000 Starpoints if you transfer them to Aeroplan.

UNITED MILEAGE PLUS

Use your miles for flights on: Continental, US Airways, Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, Austrian, Lufthansa, Scandinavian, Singapore, and 14 more foreign partners.

Main advantage: Its Star Alliance membership makes it relatively easy to redeem miles for seats to Europe and Asia, although not as easy as on other Star Alliance partners because ...

8 things airlines won’t tell you

Main drawback: United blocks a certain portion of its partners' award seats. Although you can use miles to upgrade from the cheapest coach tickets, you must pay a fee of several hundred dollars in addition to the miles.

Best for: Those who reach top-tier elite (they get the most and best upgrades); even those with the lowest level of elite status get to sit in Economy Plus.

Insider tip: If you can't get to elite status, credit your miles to Continental OnePass: Continental doesn_t block partners' award seats, and you can use those miles on the same airlines as you could if you credited them to United.

US AIRWAYS DIVIDEND MILES

Use your miles for flights on: Continental, United, Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, Austrian, and 17 more foreign partners.

Main advantage: Its Star Alliance membership makes it easy to redeem miles for seats to Europe and Asia. It frequently runs generous bonus-mile promotions that allow you to earn or buy a ton of US Airways miles cheaply.

Main drawback: Low award availability on US Airways planes. US Airways is the only U.S. carrier that charges an online award-redemption fee: $25 per domestic ticket and $50 per international ticket.

Best for: Those who live near a US Airways hub and have elite status.

Insider tip: Redeem your miles for business-class flights to north Asia, which require just 90,000 miles (as opposed to 125,000 on Continental and United), or Australia, which require 110,000 miles (as opposed to 160,000 on competitors).

© 2013 Condé Nast Traveler

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