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Winter Is Peak Season for Earning, Redeeming Miles

Winter is travel’s slowest period, which paradoxically means that it’s the ideal time to earn miles and points in travel rewards programs, and to redeem miles for free flights.

More miles for dining

Earning miles for dining has become one of the most lucrative sources of airline miles, offering mile collectors up to 10 miles per dollar spent at participating restaurants. The earnings are even more generous when the programs shift into promotional mode, as many have done in the first quarters of recent years.

This year, American, Delta, Northwest, and United are offering dining promotions ranging from extra miles to accelerated dining elite status.

Through February 28, members of American’s AAdvantage program who are signed up to participate in AAdvantage Dining will earn 500 bonus miles for qualified dines totaling $100 or more; 1,000 bonus miles for spending $150 or more; 2,000 miles for $250; 5,000 for $500; and 10,000 miles for spending $1,000 or more. Registration is required.

With Delta’s Bon Appetit Bonus promotion, SkyMiles participants can earn as many as 10,000 bonus miles in the SkyMiles Dining program. Members must first register by February 28. Thereafter, they’ll earn 1,000 bonus miles for every $100 spent at participating restaurants through March 15, up to a maximum of 10,000 bonus miles.

Northwest WorldPerks members can earn Tier 1 Dining for Miles elite status by spending $250 or more in qualified dines (including tax and tip) through February 28. Elite status is normally earned after 12 dines within a calendar year. Tier 1 members earn 10 miles per dollar spent at participating restaurants through the end of 2007, and five miles per dollar thereafter. To qualify for the promotion, members must register in advance.

In United’s Ten Dine offer, Mileage Plus members can earn both bonus miles and accelerated elite dining status. Members must register by February 15, and then dine out 10 times for $25 or more (including tax and tip) by March 31. Upon completion of this task, members will earn 5,000 bonus miles and be upgraded to elite dining status for the remainder of 2007.

United’s promotion is potentially the most lucrative of the offers, awarding program members up to 20 bonus miles per dollar, plus accelerated elite status, if the spending target is met. Delta’s offer amounts to 10 miles per dollar spent, while American’s ranges between five to 10 miles, depending on the total spent during the promotional period. By comparison, Northwest’s offer is only so-so.

While most of the current dining promotions are offered through the airline programs, there is one available from the frequent-stay program of the InterContinental hotels network. Priority Club Rewards members can earn elite Priority Club Dining status by spending at least $250 on qualified dines through February 28. Elite dining members earn 16 points per dollar spent at participating restaurants during 2007, versus five points per dollar earned by non-elite members. Registration is required.

Formula for award travel success is seasonal

If tracking down an available award seat often seems like finding a needle in a haystack, take heart. A few more needles tend to be lurking in the hay during the winter months. That’s because the sale of paid tickets falls off following the year-end holiday travel surge and remains soft until the traditional Memorial Day weekend start of summer excursions. The more empty seats there are, the more likely the airlines are to make seats available for award usage. So this would be the best of all possible times to redeem miles for an award trip.

But while the overall odds of securing award seats are heightened during the winter, there remain seasonal supply bottlenecks to work around. For example, flights to such ski destinations as Salt Lake City and Aspen are routinely filled close to capacity. At the other end of the temperature spectrum, travel to such warm-weather destinations as Phoenix, Palm Springs, and Hawaii will be strong as well.

Since both cases involve leisure markets, travel will tend to be heaviest around weekends. Would-be award travelers will fare best by avoiding Friday and Sunday when booking trips with miles.

These strategic considerations suggest a general rule for intelligent, hassle-free travel management: Purchase tickets for travel during the high-demand summer and Christmas holiday periods; schedule award trips for the off-peak fall and winter months; and be ever mindful of the exceptions to the rule.

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