The most popular word in the English language is "free."
And that's probably more true than ever in these tricky economic times. We could all use something for nothing about now. So I want to write about frequent flyer miles in this week's column. Or should I say "free-quent" flyer miles?
Fortunately, even if your airline of choice goes out of business, your miles don't automatically crash and burn. For one thing, competitors are likely to honor your frequent flyer miles because they want your business. You'll probably have some warning before the airline goes belly up, so you can try to use up the miles first. If you can't squeeze in enough flights, you can use miles to shop, rent cars or stay in hotels. You can donate miles to charity and take a tax deduction. If you're really worried, some companies now offer frequent flyer mile insurance.
The more immediate concern is that the airlines could end or cut back their mileage programs just as easily as they started them. There's no law that protects passenger's rights. Airlines can raise the number of miles required for a flight, lower the number of seats available or cancel portions of their programs at will.
Some credit card companies are cutting back on their points programs, so it's possible airlines will too (although the math is different because filling an empty seat on a flight that's going anyway costs an airline nothing whereas doling out points can be pricey for a credit card company.)
Anyway, I think it's a good idea to try to use up some of your airlines miles right now so you don't lose them -- and for the fun of it.
I actually know people who no longer sign up for frequent flyer programs because they've had trouble booking seats using miles. Pathetic. True, flying for free is not a sport for procrastinators. But if you plan ahead like me you won't have any problem at all. Anticipating a vacation is almost as good as going on it, so snag some free seats well in advance and start daydreaming. Airlines only give away 4 to 7 percent of their seats per flight. You do need to get a head start.
If you still have trouble booking a trip, try avoiding hub cities. Consider flying to a nearby city and driving a little further. If you're going to Disney World, fly to Tampa instead of Orlando. If you want to visit San Francisco, fly to Oakland or San Jose. I couldn't get frequent flyer seats to Rome one year, so I booked seats to Frankfurt instead. Then I bought tickets on a discount airline from Frankfurt to Rome for a grand total of $39 each way.
Other strategies: get on waiting lists. Airlines may release more frequent flyer seats at the last minute if they see that a flight's not going to fill up with paying passengers anyway. You can also offer to cash in extra miles and see if that helps eliminate pesky blackout dates. I've noticed more and more airlines now offer tiered systems where if the most basic free seats are filled, you can use extra miles to buy your way in. Sometimes you even get an upgrade too.
Here's a spontaneous idea: ask the airline what cities you can still get frequent flyer seats for -- and just go. Try something new. Other ways to fly free: Travel in the winter (which often requires fewer miles.) Travel overnight or in the middle of the week.
As for international travel, see if you can fly on a foreign partner airline known for exquisite service. I have had such wonderful food and pampering flying coach on non-American air carriers.
And here's one final hot tip: You may be able to travel for free to two destinations instead of just one. I went to Asia several years ago. I figured I would use miles to fly to Hong Kong and then I'd buy tickets to go to a couple more cities. I found out I'm allowed to fly to Hong Kong, layover for a week, then continue on to Bangkok – all for free. I saved myself a few hundred dollars just by asking.