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10 ways to save with frequent flier programs

If you don't have a frequent flier reward program number or card when you buy your next ticket, get one. The credits, miles or points you earn when you fly add up to discounted or free flights, upgrades and other rewards.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Casino pit bosses will tell you the best way to make your table action pay dividends is to sign up for a players card that is used to record points based on how much money you put down and how long you play. You often can get freebies on food, hotel rooms and merchandise.

The same holds true for flying. If you don't have a frequent flier reward program number or card when you buy your next ticket, get one. The credits, miles or points you earn when you fly add up to discounted or free flights, upgrades and other rewards.

Not all airline programs are the same, so here are 10 tips to make frequent flier programs take off for you.

Look for value
If you have 25,000 miles and want to fly Delta Air Lines, consider how much the ticket is before you use the miles. Sales abound right now due to the weak economy. If you can fly roundtrip from Atlanta to Boston for $178, it's worth it to buy the ticket and save the miles for a free transcontinental flight that might cost you twice as much to buy, or use it for an upgrade on an international flight.

Book early
Make sure you get that free ticket for only 25,000 miles. Don't pay 50,000 miles that took you two years to accumulate for that cramped coach seat unless you absolutely have to.

The best way to maximize your miles is to book your reward ticket at least several months before you want to fly. That's because the number of reward seats available at the lowest redemption level on many airlines are limited, particularly at peak hours of the day or peak days of the year.

"If someone tries to get an award on a high demand specific flight at a specific time of day and they're not flexible, they may be disappointed," American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said.

If you must travel at a specific time on a specific day and your plans don't come together until close to the day you want to leave, you still can get a free ticket, but it may cost you more miles. For 60,000 miles, Delta guarantees a free seat on a domestic flight, excluding travel to Hawaii, as long as a coach seat is available.

Sign up for several reward programs — it's free. Rewards on AirTran Airways add up fast. You can get a free domestic coach ticket for 16 flight credits, which take just eight roundtrip paid flights, regardless of distance, to accumulate.

But if you tend to take a lot of transcontinental flights, it may get you a faster free roundtrip coach ticket on United Airlines or US Airways, which, like Delta, give reward miles based on the distance you travel. AirTran only flies in North America. But for 100 flight credits, AirTran will buy you a ticket anywhere in the world on another carrier.

Get the credit card
Some airline branded credit cards will give you 2 miles or points for every dollar spent on the partner airline and 1 mile or point for every dollar spent everywhere else. Some of those cards carry annual fees of up to $85 or more. AirTran and Delta, however, have partner credit cards that offer no-annual-fee options, but that comes with 1 point or mile for every dollar spent on the partner airline and one-half of 1 point or mile for every dollar spent everywhere else.

"For those people who charge very high dollar amounts annually to those cards but yet don't carry a revolving balance, the mileage you generate is worthwhile. The annual fee is worthwhile," said David Robertson, an expert on frequent flier credit card promotions and publisher of the Nilson Report, a credit card industry newsletter.

Watch for promotions
Some airlines offer frequent flier members the ability to get extra miles, points or credits if they rent a car with a partner company, fly to certain locations or buy a Netflix membership. For travel between now and May 14, United has lowered the miles required for travel to Europe from 55,000 to 40,000, spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said. Look for deals on airline Web sites and sign up with the airlines for e-mail alerts about promotions.

Double dip
Some hotel reward programs allow you to earn some of your rewards as airline miles with partner carriers or to transfer existing reward points to a partner airline reward program.

Watch expiration dates
Frequent flier miles, points or credits do not last forever on some carriers. With some airline programs, miles or credits can expire after a year or two. But having the partner credit card can help. At AirTran, for instance, flight credits are generally valid for 12 months after the date on which they were posted to the member's account. But for holders of the AirTran branded Visa credit card and for Elite members, flight credits are valid for 24 months after the posting date.

Avoid unnecessary fees
Book your reward ticket online. Calling a customer service agent may cost you — AirTran charges a $15 direct booking fee. Try to fly the airline on which you are redeeming reward miles. Using your frequent flier miles within three weeks of travel may cost you a fee — $75 at Continental Airlines for basic OnePass members if you book the reward ticket less than 21 days from the day you travel.

Pack light
You'll still pay those checked bag fees even if you are traveling on a reward ticket. So, try to limit yourself to one carryon bag and one personal item per person. If you have to check a bag and you are traveling with another person, merge your belongings into one bag and split the fee. But be careful not to pack the bag too heavy. There are fees for overweight bags. The fees vary by carrier — some airlines charge coach passengers on domestic flights $15 for a first checked bag and $25 for a second checked bag. Delta charges $90 on a domestic flight for a bag checked that weighs between 51 pounds and 70 pounds.

Lastly, free does not mean completely free
The reward redemption generally covers the base fare of the ticket. Some airlines will charge you for certain taxes or fees. At American and other carriers, you will still pay the $2.50 per boarding security service fee that all travelers at U.S. airports have had to pay since the fee was instituted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. At American, international award tickets are subject to, and the passenger is responsible for, applicable departure taxes and/or federal inspection fees.