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Summer travel tips from a 3-million miler

Summer travel got you down? Airports jammed? Flights canceled? Take some advice from a 3-million miler: Plan ahead, be proactive and practice patience. And, oh yeah, finesse your frequent-flier program for all its worth. Joel Widzer tells how.
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Summer flying poses special challenges for travelers — everything from airport logjams and full planes to severe weather, long delays and cancellations. It is 90 days of heat, crowds, sudden downpours and short tempers on both sides of the ticket counter.

In the last 15 years, I have accumulated 3 million miles of air travel, many of them during the summer months. In fact, I took 24 flights this past June alone, so I know the challenges well. My best advice is to follow the three P's of summer travel: plan ahead, be proactive and have patience.

Plan ahead. We were sitting on a rain-pelted runway in New Bern, N.C., and the pilot kept delaying our takeoff. As time wore on, I knew I might miss my connection in Atlanta to Memphis, so I called the Westin Memphis, which was holding my reservation, and told them that I might be delayed or even stuck in Atlanta overnight. The clerk said that since I'd called, the hotel would hold my room but not charge me a no-show fee if I didn't make it. One base covered. I then called a favorite hotel in Atlanta, the Grand Hyatt, and explained the situation. Same deal: The hotel agreed to hold a room in case I needed one but would not charge me if I made it to Memphis. I was covered either way, with no cost to me but a couple of phone calls. When I arrived in Atlanta, my flight was indeed canceled, but I knew exactly what to do and where to go.

Be proactive. During a weather delay in New York's La Guardia airport, I came across a friend who wearily told me he had been waiting in line for two hours trying to rebook his canceled flight. At the same time, he was on his cell phone, trying to reach a phone representative. My friend was doing everything right, but he could have cut his wait time with two easy steps — if only he took advantage of the airline's special programs.

1. With even the lowest elite frequent-flier status, my friend would have been given a special toll-free number that would allow him to bypass the public reservations line. When I gave him my own Delta SkyMiles number, he instantly reached an agent, who rebooked him on a flight for the next day.

2. A membership in an airport lounge can also get you out of a jam. While trying to get to Memphis on another occasion, my first flight from Atlanta to Memphis was canceled. I immediately went to Delta's Crown Room, where the agent rebooked me on a flight two hours later, and I snagged the last first class seat.

Reaching elite status on most airlines is not very difficult. A co-branded credit card can usually give you a head start. For example, with Delta's Platinum SkyMiles credit card, you can earn up to 20,000 of the required 25,000 "Medallion Qualification Miles" with credit card charges instead of air travel. Similarly, you can usually purchase a day pass to an airline's private lounge for a nominal fee of $25.

3. Be patient. If you are patient and can keep everything under control, you will remain calm and collected — and that's half the battle in summer. Review the terms and benefits of your frequent-flier program carefully before you travel, then calmly ask for assistance from the airline agents whenever you need it.

Here are a few more tricks I've learned.

* Have a car ready to go. If your destination is within a day's drive, and you're faced with another day at the airport or missing your meeting or a vacation day, look into a one-way rental. Often the cost is more reasonable than the cost of a night at a hotel.

* Buy a one-day lounge membership. Not only can you get rebooked more quickly in the lounge, it is also a nice place to wait out a flight delay. In fact, if your flight is delayed three hours or more, $25 for a one-day pass might be money well spent; in Delta's Crown Room, for example, you'll get free drinks, and those add up. You can usually get a guest admitted on the same pass, as well. Another nice benefit is that most lounge memberships allow you to go through the preferred security line, making your airport transition much less stressful. Many airlines now allow you to purchase a one-day pass online or at the ticket counter. I know a guy who has one for each of the three airlines he flies, each set aside for an emergency or when he needs to get through security in a hurry.

* Be in the know. On a recent Friday night, while trying to get home to Orange County, Calif., my flight was delayed due to a delayed incoming flight. When I asked the agent when the flight was going to arrive, she told me, "Five minutes." I walked to the gate, only to find out that the flight hadn't even left the departure city! This time, I fired up my computer and tracked the flight on the airline's Web site, knowing precisely when it departed and when it would arrive at the gate.

* Book directly with your airline. When you book through a third-party Web site, or even through a travel agent, you may find that the airline cannot directly access your ticketing record, thus impairing their ability to rebook a flight for you.

If you plan well, act proactively and keep your patience, the road bumps of summer travel won't take such a toll.

Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. or .