Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Fri Jul 14 2006, 08:42PM

It's easier than ever to earn a free trip and harder than ever to book one

It's easier than ever to earn a free trip and harder than ever to book one. Air travel has bounced back big time since 9/11, so there aren't as many empty seats that airlines can offer up to frequent flyers. Some airlines are requiring travelers to cash in more miles to get a ticket. Others are eliminating business class seats, so it's harder to use miles for upgrades. Despite all this, I still firmly believe it's worthwhile to try to rack up as many miles as you can. After all, what other industry offers you something for nothing?American Airlines introduced the first modern frequent flyer program in 1981. Since then the idea has taken off. All U.S. airlines and most foreign carriers now have programs. Technically 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. That's why you should balance your desire to hoard miles for the priciest flights with the need to use miles up before the mileage program changes.

Fortunately, even if your favorite airline 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 booking on the bankrupt airline is dicey, try to get seats on a partner airline instead. 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 how to get as many miles as possible and how to successfully cash them in. These days you can earn frequent flyer miles without ever actually flying anywhere. I love to travel, so I've signed up for every possible program. Long distance service. Rental cars. Hotels. I even earned miles just for joining a wine tasting association. Talk about a win win! Every time my favorite airline offers an incentive, I snap it up. I got miles for going to Florida a certain month. I got miles for trying the electronic check-in kiosk. More miles for checking my mileage statements on line, where I gleefully noted just how many gazillions of miles I have!

Now that I no longer carry a balance, I can also earn miles on my credit card. I charge everything! Groceries. Dry cleaning. I made the down payment on my car with a credit card. I charged my wedding reception and practically earned a second honeymoon. Many credit cards let you accrue miles on just one airline. I prefer credit cards that partner with multiple airlines and let you choose. American Express has a particularly versatile program. For example, if you don't have quite enough miles for a ticket, Amex will advance you the miles! Now banks that offer Visa and Mastercard are introducing their own offers to compete.

So, once you get piles of miles, the next challenge is using them. 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. I usually have no problem because I plan all my vacations the first week of the year and book them by the end of January. That way you get to daydream about your vacations all year long. Airlines only give away four to seven 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 farther. 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 this 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 black out dates. 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. That way your vacation starts while you're still in the air! Here's a new one I learned a couple years ago: You may be able to travel for free to two destinations instead of just one. I went to Asia. 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 was allowed to fly to Hong Kong, layover for a week, then continue on to Bangkok ľall for free! I saved myself a few hundred dollars just by asking.

1. Sign up for as many frequent flyer miles as you can, including when you travel for job interviews or business trips.
2. Make sure the airline has your frequent flyer account number each time you book a ticket and board a flight.
3. Keep your ticket stubs until you receive your statement and see that you've been credited for each trip.
4. Sign up with frequent flyer partners.
5. Book free seats early (and often!)