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A better way to keep track of airline miles

Online services that add up and monitor frequent-flier credits can

September 20, 2009|Scott J. Wilson

I've long collected frequent-flier miles haphazardly. With each flight, 1,000 or so miles go into one of several accounts I have with various airlines.

I don't fly a lot, so the miles don't add up fast. But it's like putting loose change into a jar each night -- you hope that someday it'll amount to something.

Still, keeping track of my miles has become a chore. This is compounded by the fact that I also monitor the accounts of my wife and our two children. When I looked recently, I found 23 frequent-flier accounts in our household. The only way to keep track of the miles was to log in to each account online, one at a time.

There's got to be a better way, I thought. And there is.

I recently tried out six online services that offer to track your frequent-flier miles for you. I wanted one that would show all my family's miles, plus the expiration dates (it's no use accumulating miles only to see them suddenly disappear). Ideally, all the information should be on one page. And if I could get it all free, all the better.

None of the six met all those criteria. But five of them will help simplify your frequent-flier monitoring. (The sixth is not ready for prime time.) The cost ranged from free to $15 a year, and in one case, whatever you want to pay. Most of the services also allow you to track miles earned through credit card, hotel and car rental reward programs as well as through accounts established directly with the airlines.

No matter which service you pick, prepare yourself for some data-entry work at the outset. You'll need your account numbers and passwords. If you haven't already set up online access to your frequent-flier accounts, you'll have to do that first. In my case, this turned out to be a bit like closet cleaning -- in the process of entering all the data, I found three defunct accounts that I could discard.

Still, this definitely falls into the spend-time-to-save-time category. Once you've got your information entered, you can kick back and let the service do the work.

Here's a rundown of your choices:

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Award Wallet

This site isn't perfect, but it offers most of the key features. You can enter accounts for multiple people. The main page neatly shows all your accounts, with miles for each. But Award Wallet (www.awardwallet .com) will show expiration dates for only three accounts unless you upgrade to a paid membership.

Here's where it gets interesting: How much is a paid membership? Whatever you want to pay. Seriously.

I liked this site, but I had to think about this. The whole point of tracking frequent-flier miles is to save money at some point. So how much are you willing to pay now for possible future savings?

I decided that $1 a month sounded right (OK, call me a cheapskate). I entered $6 for a six-month term and half expected the computer to audibly sneer at my lowball offer. But Award Wallet accepted it, though it did try to shame me by noting that some people pay as much as $40 for six months.

Award Wallet promises to send an e-mail when miles are expiring, even with a free account -- a nice feature in case you forget to check your balances. One flaw: The site would not show expiration dates for my JetBlue account.

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MileageManager

MileageManager (www .mileagemanager.com) is the only one of the six sites that requires that you pay a fee -- $14.95 a year. It offers a free 30-day trial.

MileageManager offers some bonus features, such as an AwardPlanner that helps you search for seats available for purchase with frequent-flier miles. You can have up to five open search requests at a time, says the site, noting, "Anything beyond that and the MileageManager staff simply become too jealous of all your travel."

But the site has several weaknesses.

You can track miles for only one person; if you want more, you have to pay for another account. It takes one to two days to update your mileage -- other sites can do it instantly. And though MileageManager does track expiration dates, it shows them on a separate page from the miles.

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MilePort and MileTracker

These two free sites are essentially identical; a log-in with one works with the other. The only difference is that MileTracker (www.miletracker .com) has the USA Today logo at the top and includes a link to the newspaper's travel blog.

MilePort (www.mileport .com) and MileTracker will track frequent-flier miles for multiple people, and they summarize the accounts conveniently on one page. (To add and modify your frequent-flier account information, look for the too-small "My Profile" link at the upper right.)

MilePort and MileTracker will send you an e-mail summary of your accounts daily, weekly or monthly (or not at all), however you prefer.

The main flaw with both sites is that they don't track expiration dates of your miles.

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Placely

MilePort

Placely ( www.placely.com) is a social networking site for people interested in exchanging travel advice and experiences. It offers frequent-flier-account monitoring as an added feature for its members.

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