If airline mileage was cash, more of us would be smiling.

Earning and saving miles is easier than ever. Hotel loyalty programs are plying guests with bonus miles on top of free nights. Credit card companies are jamming mailboxes with mileage offers in exchange for minimum spending. Sites like www.milehighswap.com even enable fliers to swap miles for merchandise, and vice versa.

Most eager for you to earn mileage are the airlines themselves, handing out bonus miles like never before and for nominal fees permitting fliers to buy extra mileage and in some cases re-activate mileage that may have expired many years ago.

The airlines are desperate in this economic climate, but, these “bad times are actually really, really good times for the frequent flyer” according to airlinemileage guru Randy Petersen, founder of frequent flier sites www.flyertalk.com and www.insideflyer.com, among others.

He adds “when times are flush, everyone wants to travel and the competition for those awards [is] very competitive. Airlines gave away more frequent flyer seats last year than ever before, so indeed, bad times mean less paying passengers to fight for award seats.”

So it’s a good time for award travel. And if it’s a good time for you to travel, too, a question remains: what’s the best way to spend that stockpile of miles?

Be flexible.

While award seats are more plentiful today, you’ll still want to book them as soon as possible – most airlines permit you to book award seats about six months in advance. You’ll also increase your chances of snagging an award ticket if you’re not rigid about your travel dates or final destination, says tour leader and Trip Chicks co-owner Ann Lombardi. Hoping to explore Europe during high season? “If your preferred city or dates are sold-out, ask the reservations agent to check an alternate destination,” Lombardi says, adding that “budget airlines like Snowflake, Germania, Central Wings, Easy Jet, BMI, and others connect many cities from hubs such as London and Amsterdam .”

If you’re determined to get specific flights, Lombardi notes that you can “request that the airline put you on a priority waitlist for award travel flights that were showing not available when you made your frequent flyer ticket reservation. Then call the airlines back every few days to see if ‘anything has cleared’ for your frequent flyer award ticket.” Be sure to request a place on the waitlist immediately after booking your award ticket, she says, otherwise you’ll “have to pay a big change fee if the flights open up after you’ve been ticketed.”

Do better than “free.”

Petersen recalled that frequent flier program United Mileage Plus announced earlier this year that “they were offering an award discount for award seats to Europe -- 15,000 fewer miles. When was the last time that ‘free’ was discounted?” During that same period he noted that the United program also said “they were temporarily lowering the ‘price’ of the popular domestic U.S. award from 25,000 miles to 20,000 miles. And, it included travel during the spring break period.”

Join the alliance.

Award travel tickets, like fully-paid ones, often involve more than one airline, and if you have stray mileage socked away in different accounts it pays to be familiar with how many partners your airline has, suggests Cynthia Davis, general manager of Adventure Tours of Idaho and a former reservations agent at Alaska Airlines. Many of the major domestic and overseas airlines belong to one of three alliances: oneworld, SkyTeam, or Star Alliance. Davis points out that “if you have 15,000 miles on US Air and 10,000 on United, that’s probably not going to get you anything from either airline,” but since both airlines are partners through Star Alliance, you could conceivably merge that mileage and use it for an award ticket or upgrade. Membership in the alliances is free and your preferred airline will have guidelines on its own Web site for how award travel works within the alliance.

Airline membership in the alliances isn’t necessarily stable, nor of course, are the airlines themselves. “Up until a few weeks ago, Northwest Airlines had an award for 25,000 miles allowing you to travel within Africa . Since Delta and Northwest have merged, the award has been erased from their system,” says Ramsey Qubein, a correspondent for ProfessionalTravelGuide.com who travels nearly 300,000 miles a year. “Continental Airlines, however, still features the award as a part of SkyTeam,” he adds, though “of course, this award will fall by the wayside when Continental leaves SkyTeam in October. Until then, this award is an absolute gem.”

If you’re dancing with multiple partners for your award ticket, Lombardi urges calling “the frequent flyer partner desk of the airlines with which you have the most points. Availability of ‘partner airline’ award tickets sometimes cannot be checked online. Partner desk frequent flyer agents not only can check possible flights with your main airline but often can find creative partner airline routes that other agents might not be willing to research for you.”

Cash out when the time is right.

If you've accumulated a lot of mileage, Lombardi says be sure to “redeem your points for the most expensive faraway destinations first so you get the biggest bang for your frequent flyer buck.” Concurs Qubein, who travels frequently between African cities, 25,000 miles can translate to big savings. “Tickets for these types of flights in Africa can be as much as $1,000 or more. This award is probably one of the best out there.”

If you banked a bunch of miles before the economy tanked, is there an ideal way to maximize them? Petersen suggests it all depends on your goals. “I'm one that says to perhaps save [your miles] for that rainy day: when the economy is bad, fares and room rates typically go down, which means that if you are using your miles now you are actually getting less for the value of those miles. Typically you want to spend them when airfares and room rates are high.”

Petersen hastens to add that “all that advice goes out the cabin door when times are tough. Really, miles and points allow you to do the things you might normally do in good times, and at the end of the day, forget about the value of your miles and points and just learn to enjoy them.”

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