The New Deals For Frequent Fliers

Winter is the season when low temperatures put a chill on travel plans--and airlines turn to frequent-flier promotions to heat things up. U. S. carriers are staging a replay of last year's fly-three, fly-free promotions. But don't pack yet. This year's bonuses vary significantly by carrier.

Most such programs award a free ticket after flying three round-trips or eight flight segments (that's a trip with a single flight number). You get a second ticket after five round-trips or 14 segments; a third ticket comes after seven round-trips or 20 segments. Although dates vary by airline, flights taken between mid-December, 1990, and late March, 1991, qualify for credit. Meanwhile, mileage accrues to your frequent-flier account. Your free tickets can be used between May, 1991, and February, 1992, again depending on your airline.

Eastern Air Lines' promotion is only for full-fare fliers. Delta, USAir, and Continental require you to spend $49 or $50 per segment to receive fly-three credit. So purchasers of rock-bottom fares such as USAir's $58 round-trip between Phoenix and San Diego get no fly-three credits.

American Airlines and United Airlines initially announced a stiff $200 round-trip requirement for fly-three credit. But they recently reduced qualifying fares to only $49 each way (or $98 round-trip). Northwest Airlines requires a $75 one-way fare, while America West Airlines has made its lowest-fare classes ineligible.

Travelers should remember a few simple rules: If your round-trip fare is less than $98, no program will give you fly-three credit. Conversely, if your round-trip fare exceeds $200, you'll earn full round-trip or segment credit on almost every airline except Eastern. If your ticket falls between $98 and $200, then you need to check whether your flights require connections. If they do, you'll often do better on such carriers as United and Northwest: They don't mandate a per-segment fare minimum.

Before you begin amassing flights on a particular airline, make sure its awards are best for you. American won't allow fly-three award tickets to most Caribbean destinations. And Northwest makes you fly 30% more segments than United does to win a fly-three award to Hawaii.

FLY IN STYLE. Too confused to bother with the nuances of fly-three? Try a simple bonus-mileage promotion. TWA gives triple mileage between Jan. 7 and Feb. 7, and double mileage for subsequent flights taken by Mar. 15. Southwest Airlines offers double credits for trips flown between Dec. 18, 1990, and Mar. 25.

And if you don't need another free trip, Delta Air Lines and USAir allow you to claim three first-class upgrades in lieu of each ticket earned. Whatever you choose, do it quickly. When spring comes, the airlines' fancy is sure to turn to higher fares and fewer deals.

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