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Follow This Checklist to Make the Most of Your Mileage Program

Follow This Checklist to Make the Most of Your Mileage Program

By Tim Winship, SmarterTravel.com for USA Today

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from a senior airline executive. As my former boss and mentor was fond of saying: Plan the work; and work the plan. I have been planning the work and working the plan ever since. And I’ve found the approach to be as relevant to personal endeavors, like accruing frequent flier miles, as it is for business pursuits.

Think of the following checklist as an annual plan for frequent fliers. If you work it, adjusting as necessary for your individual circumstances, you will be rewarded with more miles and more awards, more value and more comfort.

From January through December, and from tax time to dinnertime, here’s how to plan your year to keep your mileage house in order.

Elite

As the current year comes to a close, the issue uppermost on the minds of the most frequent travelers is elite status.

Since program members qualify for elite status based on miles earned during the calendar year, December 31 is the cut-off point for attaining elite status, or for upgrading to a higher elite tier, for the following year.

So if you’re within a few thousand miles of earning 25,000 elite-qualifying miles during the current calendar year, it’s time to pull out the stops and make those remaining weeks count.

First, and easiest, be sure any flights already scheduled for the remainder of the year qualify for elite status. Re-book any non-qualifying flights, even if it means a less efficient itinerary. Also, reschedule any discretionary trips from early next year to late this year.

Still short? Consider a mileage run—a trip made expressly for the purpose of earning miles. Look for a heavily discounted ticket to get the lowest cost-per-mile.

Shopping for miles

Also part and parcel of the year’s close is the Christmas shopping season, with miles playing an increasingly large part.

All major programs have cobbled together extensive networks of online retailers into miles-for-merchandise malls, where frequent fliers can earn one or more miles for every dollar spent. These malls are a good auxiliary source of miles at any time of year. But they can be especially lucrative around Christmastime, when merchants routinely offer bonus miles to entice customers to push the “Buy” key.

Among the major malls:

American AAdvantage eShopping Mall
•<a href="http://www.continental.com/web/en-US/content/onepass/earn/shopping/default.aspx>Continental ShopOnePass
Delta SkyMiles Shopping
Northwest WorldPerks Mall
United Mileage Plus Mall
US Airways Dividend Miles Shopping Mall

Since gift-giving is in the air, if miles are on your wish list, encourage friends and family to give you miles for Christmas. Most programs feature “gift miles” options, allowing members to receive up to 15,000 miles per year. The giver, who need not be a member of the program, will pay between 2.5 and 2.75 cents per mile, plus a 7.5% federal excise tax and processing fees. (The gift-giver will need the recipient’s name and membership number to complete the transaction.)

In addition to the airlines’ own miles-for-sale offerings, miles can be purchased for one’s own account, or as a gift for someone else. Sometimes the airlines even award miles to the person purchasing miles as a gift for someone else.

And lastly, if the holidays put you more in the mood to give than to receive, remember that all major programs allow members to donate their miles to participating charities. In some cases, the airlines will match donated miles.

NOTE: As discussed in “”http://www.usatoday.com/travel/deals/inside/2008-07-09-frequent-flier-mile-value_N.htm">The Value of a Frequent flier Mile," another installment in this series, consumers should always be sure they will be able to recoup the cost of purchased miles when they’re redeemed.

Begin the new year right

In the spirit of fresh starts and New Year’s resolutions, the beginning of a new 12-month cycle is an opportune time to assess your situation, mileage-wise, and adjust your strategy and tactics as needed.

First, review your choice of programs. The ideal program is the one that best meshes with your actual travel patterns. Have your travel or purchasing patterns changed? If so, it may be time to choose a new program as your preferred repository of miles.

Having confirmed your primary program, or chosen a new one, review that program’s member guide and your latest account statement. Compare your current situation with your mileage goals. Are you, for example, on track for awards and elite status?

If keeping track feels like an overwhelming task, consider using mileage-management software. MileageManager ($14.95 a year) and MilePort (free) provide users with consolidated statements, automatically pulling together mileage balances, recent transactions and other up-to-date data from all active program accounts.

HINT: Similar online account-aggregation functionality can be had for free from a number of banking and financial services companies, including Bank of America, Citibank, and Fidelity Investments.

Monthly to-do’s

Do you regularly review and reconcile your account statements?

As automated as the programs sometimes seem, mileage-earning transactions regularly fail to post. And it’s up to program members to note the discrepancies and bring them to the attention of program administrators.

And speaking of reading, do read the program newsletter. Sure, it’s tempting to file those glitzy marketing missives in the junk mail heap. But you’d be missing announcements of new partners (typically introduced with bonus-mile promotions for the first three months), significant program changes, and so on.

At tax time

As the April 15 tax-filing deadline approaches, think frequent flier miles as well as tax payments.

Since 1999, taxpayers have had the option of paying federal income taxes, as well as various state and local taxes, with a credit card. And since credit-card charges can earn miles, if you’re using a program-affiliated card, consumers can earn miles for their tax payments.

Because the government is prohibited from paying the merchant fees credit-card companies charge retailers for card transactions, paying taxes with a credit card must be done through one of two independent payment-processing companies:

Official Payments, 800-2PAY-TAX (800-272-9829)
Link2Gov, 888-PAY-1040 (888-729-1040)

Both charge a 2.5% “convenience fee.” That’s pricey, and makes large payments a questionable deal. But for smaller amounts, to earn just enough miles to top off an account, it can be handy.

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In past years, H&R Block has offered customers miles in various airline and hotel programs as well.

Birthdays, holidays

Another seasonal source of miles to bear in mind is the online florists.

Both 1-800-FLOWERS.com and FTD.com participate in multiple airline and hotel programs, generally offering a healthy 10 miles for every dollar spent. And during special holiday promotions, that earning rate increases.

Dining for dollars

Whether you live to eat or eat to live, you can eat to earn miles throughout the year.

In conjunction with Rewards Network, almost all major programs offer their members miles-for-dining at more than 8,000 restaurants. The normal payout rate is five miles for every dollar spent, including tax and tip.

SmarterTravel.com features expert travel advice and unbiased coverage of travel deals.

Courtesy of © 2008 YellowBrix, Inc.

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