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Spending: Make the most of your miles

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Major airlines may be financially squeezed, but it's not only their stockholders who are suffering. Customers trying to use their frequent-flier miles also seem to be feeling the pinch. Industry watchers say many airlines have made fewer seats available to frequent-flier customers — a fact the airlines dispute — or require more miles to reserve those seats.

And when the major airlines cut fares to compete with discounters, don't expect them to reward you with a full complement of miles. American Airlines, Continental and Delta have halved the number of miles they award toward elite status on heavily discounted tickets. You can still earn the full quota on Continental if you book through the airline's Web site, but only until the end of this year. On the other hand, American will award 150 percent of miles flown if you purchase a first-class, business-class or full-fare economy ticket.

So how can you stretch your miles in a world of stingy frequent-flier benefits? Bob Jones, travel "frugalist" and consultant to Cheapseats.com and Onetravel.com, offers these tips on how to get the most from your miles.

Use upgrades on international flights. Because first- and business-class seats tend to cost a fortune on overseas routes, you get more for your miles than when you upgrade on a domestic flight. Domestic upgrades are also harder to come by because many airlines have reduced or eliminated first-class on some routes.

If you're told frequent-flier seats — so-called restricted seats — are booked, try again a week before your departure when some unsold seats may be released. Even if you buy a ticket after you're initially denied a restricted seat, getting one at the last minute may still be worth the $50-to-$100 exchange fee.

Consider joining Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan program, even if you don't plan to fly to Alaska. Alaska's program is considered one of the best because of its many reciprocal partnerships with other airlines, including American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Continental, KLM, Lan Chile and Northwest.

With Alaska's program, you can collect miles you have flown on partner airlines and then use those miles to book free flights on Alaska or its partners. More choices mean a better chance of booking a free ticket. And a free domestic ticket on its own flights is only 20,000 miles through Alaska's program.