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Up in the air: A traveler's guide to frequent-flier miles, baggage fees and golf-club rentals

By Brandon Tucker, Managing Editor

It's tough to keep up with the ever-changing world of air travel, from new security measures to fees and altered policies.

Airplane
Never board an airplane without earning frequent-flier miles.
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But mileage-reward programs aren't going anywhere. They're free to join, so there's no excuse to board an airplane without your frequent-flier number on the ticket -- even if you fly only once a year.

We're here to offer a few travel tips on how to save on bag fees and rental golf clubs and to maximize the most of your your frequent flier miles. You could be on a free flight to go play golf in Scotland before you know it.

Take advantage of airline mileage programs and alliances

Forty thousand to 50,000 miles are generally enough to earn a round-trip international reward ticket, and 20,000 to 25,000 are enough to get a domestic flight.

It sounds like a lot of miles, but it adds up more quickly than you think. Fly nonstop from New York to Orlando, and it's about 2,000 miles round trip. If time isn't a major concern, add a layover, and you'll earn closer to 3,000. Fly to San Francisco, and it's more than 5,000 miles. You're already one-fifth of the way to a free ticket.

Southwest Airlines has a very straightforward rewards policy: Simply fly eight round trips for a free ticket. But you must complete your eight flights in a two-year period. We all love Southwest for the low fares and free checked bags, but its Rapid Rewards program hits a shank. Most other carriers let you keep your miles as long as your account stays active and the miles don't expire. This can be done with non-airline activity like booking reservations with your frequent-flier number at partner hotels or by with retail and restaurant purchases.

Yes, you can get miles buying a steak.

Know your airline alliances

A handful of large airlines have formed alliances -- and you should know about them. Not only can it help with missed or overbooked flights, you can also benefit in redeeming miles.

The biggest are Star, SkyTeam and One World. In each, multiple domestic airlines partner. Look at each alliance's full roster, and keep one frequent-flier account for all of them.

For example, Star Alliance has 28 airlines, including domestic carriers United and Continental -- set to merge by the end of 2010 -- and US Airways. Pick the airline among these three on which you fly the most and keep one number for them all. If you book a ticket abroad on a foreign carrier in Star Alliance, use your domestic number, and you'll receive 100 percent credit for your miles.

When looking at international tickets, consider the carrier included in your domestic alliance. A round-trip abroad can get you halfway to a free domestic flight -- or closer.

New airline credit cards offer miles and check free bags

I generally don't trust credit-card offers that come in the mail, and this common disclaimer explains why: "American Airlines reserves the right to change program rules, regulations, travel awards and special offers at any time without notice."

It's pretty vague, yet a powerful statement. For all I know, they could change their rules and regulations and repossess my car. Or they could just take away my free miles or jack up the annual fee in the middle of the night.

Since airlines began charging for bags, they've gotten creative with their credit cards, hoping to keep card holders loyal by letting them check one free bag if they book a ticket with their credit card. Other incentives, like two free airline lounge passes, are available.

I've been absolutely bombarded with airline credit card offers lately, and I've read them over. Many offer 25,000 to 30,000 miles, a waived first-year annual fee, lounge passes and a free checked bag.

I was patient, and eventually an offer came in the mail from American Airlines and Citi for 75,000 miles -- enough for three round trip tickets in the United States or nearly two to Europe -- as long as I spend $1,500 on the card within six months. It's a pretty sweet deal, but I'm still skeptical I didn't read the fine print closely enough and that those miles will come with more restrictions. Stay tuned.

Even if you pass on an airlines credit card and stick to a basic rewards card, you can still earn miles when booking hotels, car reservations and more through airline websites on top of the points you earn per dollar spent.

The latest on airline baggage fees

Baggage fees are a heated topic for golf travelers. We all love traveling with our golf clubs, but they rarely get a free ride anymore.

Southwest Airlines allows two free checked bags, and Jet Blue allows one free bag on domestic flights. The rest of the domestic carriers charge $20 to $30 each way, though some offer a small discount if you prepay online. For overseas flights, most carriers still allow at least one free checked bag.

If you can attain elite status on an airline or alliance, you can check two bags free. It's tough to reach if you're not a business traveler, as 25,000 miles are needed during one calendar year. But if you fly abroad just once and book a few more flights during the year, you may come close. Do so, and you'll check bags free as much as you fly that airline or its partners in the next calendar year.

Fees change constantly. Visit www.airfarewatchdog.com for an updated list of all airlines baggage fees.

Golf club rentals: It's okay to haggle

More golf courses recognize that the difficulty of flying with clubs keeps players from booking tee times, especially when some destinations charge $50 to $60 per set for rentals. And that doesn't include balls and shoes.

The landscape is changing, and more courses are willing to negotiate rental fees. Some include a rental set in an afternoon tee time, like La Paloma Country Club in Tucson, Ariz.

Other golf courses now charge a flat fee to rent clubs, and you can use the clubs as many times as you book a tee time on their venue during your stay. Marriott Golf properties, like Grande Pines Golf Club in Orlando, recently implemented this policy to encourage repeat play.

Wherever you travel, chances are, the pro shop would prefer to get you on the golf course. And especially if you're playing in the afternoon, few golf courses want to lose you because of the cost of rental clubs.

Brandon TuckerBrandon Tucker, Managing Editor

Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker.


 
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