How to use those confusing frequent-flier miles

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It's almost like having a million free miles and nowhere to go. Travelers today are frustrated in their efforts to spend frequent flier miles with labyrinthine rules, blackout dates, and jam-packed airplanes blocking every attempt to cash in.

Charisse Jones, national business travel correspondent for USA Today, joined Carl Quintanilla on TODAY to offer fed-up fliers a guide to making the most of those miles they have piling up. The veteran reported admitted the complex—and constantly changing—rules and regulations are tough to keep up with.

"My mind is always spinning," she told Quintanilla.

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Basic math is part of the problem. The frequent flier programs, which American Airlines rolled out first in 1981 with 283,000 members, are bursting at the seams with hundreds of millions of fliers today. "But there are only so many seats an airline is going to make available 'for free' or as a reward," Jones told Quintanilla.

"Airlines have also cut back on the number of seats they're flying, period. They want to make sure their planes are full since an empty seat is a money loser."

So what's a flier to do when there's not enough to go around? For one, Jones said, hang on to miles for a flight that's worth it—think dream trip to Paris, not a domestic hop valued at $300. Be prepared to spend big, with cross country flights costing up to 60,000 miles according to Jones.

Don't let your miles expire; even a small purchase like a magazine subscription can keep your account active said Jones.

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And finally, "Don't despair," she said. "There are other experiences, and merchandise you can purchase with your miles."

Airlines are ponying up some tempting consolation prizes for the foiled reward-seeker, starting as low as United's 100 mile song download and flying as high as Delta's GE Profile 57 bottle wine center for 240,800 miles, which, according to Jones, is "really for the person that has so many miles they can't spend them all on travel."

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For as little as 10,000 Delta miles, Jones said you might be able to "get a pair of baseball tickets to see your favorite teams play...and we're not talking about sitting in the bleachers eating popcorn and drinking beer. These are the VIP seats."

46,150 American miles can get you a night at the five-star Athenaeum Hotel in London's tony Mayfair district, Jones told Quintanilla.

Or, you could invest in some good karma and give your miles to charity. Jet blue will kick in $10 for every 1,334 points (miles) you donate.

—By Dana McMahan, TODAY.


U.S. News