Rules for frequent fliers are changing
When it comes to using them for travel, miles from most airlines and those earned on American Express can be used for hotel rooms, vacation packages and car rentals. American, United and Delta programs all now offer "auction" sites. American's offers "once in a lifetime" experiences, such as a weekend at the Country Music Awards in Las Vegas that includes air, hotel and seats for two people; at last check, the bid was 400,000-plus miles. Delta auctions include specialty experiences and resort stays. United's offers hotels via an opaque site powered by Hotwire, where you can a specific number of miles for a hotel in a certain area but can't see the hotel name until after you close the deal.

In addition, it is possible to sell your miles for cash. The airline programs prohibit it, but it is legal. You can check their value at dozens of online sites, including FirstClassFrequentFlier.com

Airline mergers: With pending American-US Airways a virtual certainty, the question if obvious: What happens to your miles?

Rick Seaney of Farecompare.com thinks they will have even greater value, because you'll be able to use them to go more places. "If the United and Delta mergers are any indication - the merged airline will be very sensitive to business travelers and their beloved miles and perks - at least in the short term," he wrote via email.

As for my group cruise to Rome, we decided the number of miles and co-pays required were more than we wanted to part with. We decided instead to visit several national parks this fall and will buy air tickets for a few hundred dollars. But we're planning early for next year's group cruise, so we can snag that frequent flier ticket early.

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USING FREQUENT FLYER MILES

Jane's mileage strategy:

-Book as far ahead as possible. Seats are released 330 days out.

-Look first on the website, but bear in mind not every partner's seats will be visible; while United has 30 partners hooked to its online awards system, American currently has only six.

-Call the airline when you've got plenty of time to chat up the award agent. If the agent isn't into a serious effort, call back until you get one who views award tickets as a puzzle. You may have to pay a small fee for using the agent, but it can be worth it.

-No seats? Call back every few days.

-Be willing to shift your dates a little. Who can't use an extra few days in Australia?

-Be willing to overnight near an airport. For a $150 hotel night, you can end up with a pair of air tickets that would cost you $2,200 or more.

More mileage tips:

-Use your miles for expense tickets; don't blow them on a ticket you can buy for a few hundred dollars.

-Award tickets usually are more available and require fewer miles in the "off season." To Europe, that's usually November through March.

-Try for last-minute tickets, within two weeks of travel. Award seats are based on capacity, and airlines sometimes release seats on flights that aren't filled within a few weeks of the flight date.

-Fly mid-week, when mileage tickets are easier to snag.

-Sign up for airline frequent flier email letters; pay attention to double-mileage offers and reduced-mileage "sales."