Frequent-flyer miles have become a kind of currency--one that hotels are increasingly willing to trade in. This summer, major hotel chains have launched new programs to attract frequent flyers, making the next few months an ideal time to earn free travel while staying on the ground.
The problem for even the savviest traveler is that it's maddeningly complicated. There are frequent-flyer, frequent-sleeper, and even frequent-driver programs, and many of them overlap. Yet by combining the programs, travelers can not only clean up on air miles but also earn points on hotel programs toward free rooms and other amenities.
SUBTLETIES. Most hotels require members to fly a partner airline and show a valid ticket at check-in to get a 500-air-mile bonus, but some hotel programs will give you 1,000 miles if you fly on Delta Air Lines or Continental Airlines. Or they will offer double or triple miles during specific time periods.
The game became more interesting for travelers in May when Marriott launched Marriott Miles, which doles out bonus miles whether or not the member has an airline ticket. Even better, the hotel will double the miles accumulated after five stays, allowing participants to earn a free flight on some carriers after 20 stays--and only 10 stays with Continental. But you don't have to stay at Marriott to earn miles without flying: Hotels linked with United Airlines and American Airlines will usually grant free miles without your having to show a valid ticket at check-in.
Newcomers to the frequent-flyer game should first decide on an airline program, says Stan Dale, editor of Mileage & Points, a newsletter for frequent flyers. Some subtleties come into play. It's easiest to accumulate points on Continental, but it's difficult to use them because seats for frequent flyers aren't readily available. Delta offers 1,000 miles per hotel stay but requires 30,000 air miles to earn a free flight. Other airlines require a minimum 20,000 miles for a domestic round-trip ticket.
After choosing a frequent-flyer program, find out which hotel and rental-car programs the airline is tied in with and use them whenever possible. As with the airlines, it takes some finesse to choose the best hotel deal. For instance, Inter-Continental Hotels is the only hotel chain to offer bonus miles each night instead of each stay, but the rooms are expensive and there are only 15 hotels in all of North America.
Jim Williams, an executive at Luce Press Clippings, spends more than 100 nights a year away from his home in Mesa, Ariz. He stays at Hilton, flies United or Delta, and rents cars from National, earning air miles from all three as well as bonus points from National on his Hilton HHonors program. This summer, he is flying to London gratis on Delta and staying free at Hilton for a week, cashing in air miles and Hilton HHonors points.
For serious mileage hunters, it's sometimes better to jump from hotel to hotel and follow the seasonal promotions in search of the most bonus miles. American AAdvantage and United Mileage Plus program members can earn double miles this summer as part of Inter-Continental's Spectacular Summer Options program. The program also offers a 50% cut in room rates through Sept. 12. Last winter, Radisson offered triple miles (1,500 mileage credits) for each stay for members of its airline partners' programs. Offered for the past two years, the chain anticipates offering it again next year. Hilton HHonors is promoting a "double-dip" program granting guests who accrue both air miles and points a free weekend night for every three stays and two weekend nights for every five stays from May 15 to Aug. 15.
KEEP SIGNING. Bobby Finken, a salesman from Dallas, estimates he earns only 20% of his vast wealth in air miles by actually flying. Car-rental companies, which typically offer 500 miles per rental but are just as liberal with their double- and triple-bonus-mile promotions as the hotels, add substantially to his cache. Finken also recommends signing up with credit cards, long-distance phone companies, dining-out programs, and other companies that offer tie-ins with airline frequent-flyer programs.
The idea is to earn the most miles while spending the least amount of money. Finken earned 9,000 miles, nearly half what it takes for a free ticket on one weekend trip to New Orleans by combining promotions and programs. "It's a game, that's all it is," says Finken. These days, the game has never been more lucrative.