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Got frequent flier miles? Book that flight early

By Ben Woolsey

If you have an airline credit card that allows you to earn frequent flier miles, you know the thrill of seeing all those free miles reflected on your statement each month. It's a great feeling to know that you are leveraging everyday credit card spending to earn a sweet reward.

Compare Airline Credit CardsBut if you haven't used your mileage reward to get a free ticket in the past, you may be in for a rude awakening. That's because it can take a pretty sizable lead time to find a flight to your dream destination. That's because there are more "miles" out there in frequent flier accounts than there are available seats. That is caused by the fact that many of the nation's largest airlines limit the number of seats that are available on each flight for frequent flier award redemptions.

If you want to call up a major airline and book a trip to Hawaii for next week, there is a pretty good chance you will hear laughter on the other end of the line. Booking a frequent flier ticket to a highly desirable location generally requires a significant lead time.

That rule may not apply if you only wish to use your miles to go to Duluth so see you grandparents next month, but it's still a good idea to plan ahead as far as possible. There are other ways to get the most flexibility for your time and effort, though.

One of the best ways is to get a generic frequent flier credit card. This type of credit card, like the Capital One No Hassle Miles Card or the Chase Travel Plus Platinum Visa Card, allows you to earn miles that can be redeemed for free flight on any major airline. That way you are not limited by the free seat policies of any one airline. In fact, with these cards, the airline doesn't even realize they are "giving away" a seat to a frequent flier in the first place. That's because when you choose to redeem your earned miles, a travel agency actually goes out and buys a discounted ticket with your miles (so a real reservation is made with real money).

Airline credit cards are one of the most lucrative types of reward credit card because when you look at what you would have to pay to get that free ticket, it often runs into the equivalent of hundreds of dollars. The trick is to either use a generic miles card, like the aforementioned Value Miles card, or perhaps the Miles Card from Discover, to provide maximum value and flexibility.

One upside of airline-specific programs is that they allow you to earn bonus miles for things like hotel stays and automobile rentals. Another upside is that many airline programs allow cardholders to double dip and earn double miles for various flights and other promotions when using their airline credit card.

Finding the airline credit card that is right for you often depends on where you live, where you want to fly and whether you fly very often for business or pleasure. Frequent business travelers often use one airline and have their travel costs picked up by their employers, which allows them to rack up enormous amounts of miles with their chosen airline, especially if they make all their business charges with that airline's frequent flier credit card.

For others who don't travel much but use their credit card for many everyday purchases, a generic card (without an annual fee) would probably be the best choice for earning that free ticket down the road.

To comment on this story, write Editors@CreditCards.com.

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Published: March 21, 2006


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