This year, it became more difficult and expensive to buy upgrades and redeem miles, as airlines tacked on fees and instituted policies allowing passengers to use only certain flights to earn elite status. Fewer people will now qualify, says mileage expert Randy Petersen.
On the other hand, new alliances among airline frequent-flier programs have made it easier to accumulate miles. Members of Continental OnePass, Delta SkyMiles, and Northwest WorldPerks programs can earn miles on flights operated by any of the three. Southwest is offering double credits for on-line bookings through the end of the year, bringing the number of round-trip flights needed to earn a free ticket down to four.
If you maintain several frequent-flier accounts, Petersen's Web site, www.mileagemanager.com, keeps track of them for you, tells you when you've earned enough miles for a free ticket, and updates you on promotions via e-mail.
Unlike airlines, hotels are actually making it easier to qualify for elite status in their loyalty programs, and as the chains compete for a smaller number of business travelers, they're offering not only more rewards but also helpful business-related services, even for those who aren't enrolled in a program.
The 18 million members of Marriott Rewards can rack up points for more than 300 different awards; this year the program added a new category of elite-only awards, such as seven nights in Hawaii. In June, the company also reduced the number of nights required to qualify for elite status to 10 a year, down from 15.
The "double dipping" policy of Hilton HHonors allows customers to earn hotel points and airline miles simultaneously; now travelers can also buy points, in increments of 1,000 ($12.50), to qualify for free hotel stays or for tickets with airline partners, including Continental and Virgin Atlantic.
Wyndham's ByRequest program has made its policy more inclusive, allowing new members to immediately earn the perks that long-standing members have always received: free local and long-distance calls, high-speed Internet access, photocopies, and faxes, as well as special rates at Wyndham resorts in North America and the Caribbean.
High-speed Internet access is the local phone call of the 21st century: the service that nearly every business traveler needs, and hates to pay for. While hotel companies such as Marriott and Starwood finally have high-speed access at most properties—a new Web site, www.pluggedinns.com, allows you to search for wired hotels by location—they also charge a fee, usually $10 to $15 a day. (Some chains, such as Fairmont, make free service available to elite program members.) But Omni offers free high-speed Internet to all: at any of its 32 hotels, guests can log on using a Wi-Fi compliant network interface card (or NIC, a feature in most new laptops); wireless adapters are available(for a small charge) to those who need to use traditional Ethernet cards.
If you work out on the road, check out the latest perk from Hilton: the hotel staff will deliver a Sole F-80 treadmill to your room for $15 a day in any of 100 locations; 50 more locations are expected to have the service by the end of the year.