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Fly Free: Frequent-Flier Miles Secrets

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See our slideshow on frequent-filer miles secrets.

Tried redeeming your miles lately?When it comes to those elusive reward-travel seats, nothing is easy (or free). The calendar is crowded with blackout dates, and airlines have now added steep booking fees, if you ever do manage to find an available flight.

“Frequent-flier miles are getting harder to use, even though the airlines claim they’re giving away more free seats,” says George Hobica of airfarewatchdog.com. But rising fuel costs—and the resulting higher ticket prices and surcharges—make cashing in your points more desirable than ever. Plus, if your account remains inactive for too long, your miles will start to expire—a tough thing to watch after working so hard to earn them.

Despite the increasing number of hurdles to book a free ticket, you still have plenty of options for spending your miles. Upgrade your ticket with miles or use them on hotel rooms. Another option?Combine miles with cash for a reward, through a program like Northwest’s PerkChoice or Delta’s Pay with Miles.

And did you know that there are frequent-flier-miles sales?Though they’re fairly uncommon, it’s worth checking the websites of your preferred airlines—we’ve found sales that save as many as 45,000 miles.

Of course, spending miles is just half the battle—you have to accrue enough to even consider spending them. What’s the best way to go about that task?

If you’re like many travelers, you probably accrue miles on at least a couple of credit cards, yet have been more inclined to pay $250 for a reasonable domestic flight than to cash in 25,000 miles. And the fact that you’re sitting on a greater number of miles than you’re using has made you less concerned about getting more.

But with skyrocketing fuel costs and, in turn, higher airfares, now is the time to build inventory—because you’ll want to start redeeming to avoid the costlier tickets. Luckily, there are more ways to amass miles than ever before.

If you’re a Northwest WorldPerks member renting a car through Hertz, for example, you’ll double your miles; Continental OnePass users renting with Alamo earn triple. Signing up for a credit card affiliated with an airline gets you miles for purchases you make anyway. And when there’s crossover between programs, it’s possible to double-dip, speeding your way to a free ticket.

Let’s face it: recent news about domestic flights has hardly been good. One major airline after another has announced scheduling cuts. But there’s one potential cause for optimism: the so-called open skies policy has eased restrictions on travel between Europe and North America, enabling many carriers to establish new transatlantic routes.

This is great news for those of us looking to earn frequent-flier miles. Additions such as Air France’s new nonstop from LAX to Heathrow, for example, may well give travelers new ways to earn or redeem miles when going abroad. Check out online advocacy groups like frequentflier.com and smartertravel.com to stay on top of the latest in international flights.

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