The search for miles is never-ending. I want to fly business class but cannot afford the approximately $8,000 it costs from the West Coast. I can purchase biz class tickets from a consolidator and pay around $3,800 which includes $500 worth of hotel vouchers, but that is still too rich for my blood. So it's upgrade city and, with American Advantage, my frequent flyer program, that means about 50,000 miles per person, per trip. We don't fly much domestically so the miles must be accumulated via credit card purchases and various promotions - "collect our 100-mile certificates from specially marked Kelloggs cereal boxes" etc.

Occasionally, airlines put business class seats on sale, but you have to be paying attention. We are planning a November trip and throughout August and September haunted the airlines websites as well as online sellers like Expedia and Orbitz. After trying many city pair combinations, we found on Orbitz a $2,100 price on an Air France, San Francisco-Paris nonstop. The alternative was to pay $757 each for upgradeable economy tickets on American Airlines, Portland to Frankfurt via Dallas/Fort Worth, and use 100,000 of our precious miles to upgrade. Considering the 100,000 miles, the Dallas stopover and the fact that we couldn't get the dates we wanted, we elected to pay the higher price and keep the miles. Did we make the right decision? Obviously, I think so. Since we paid $4,200 total for two business class tickets, instead of $1514 for two upgradeable economy seats, our additional cost for admission to the room with the big seats on Air France is $2,686. But we still have the 100,000 miles. Since one can purchase up to 25,000 miles from American for 2.5 cents each or $625, it might be argued that we could have purchased the two-person upgrade for $2,500 (2.5 cents x 100,000) except that you can't buy more than 25,000 miles per year. It is possible, however, to buy another 25,000 miles and give them to someone (spouses to each other, for example). That's another 25k per person for a total of 50k miles, but only half the needed 100,000 hard-earned miles which, if used correctly, can be worth much more than 2.5 cents each. For example, in high season about the best we'll be able to do on a biz class purchase is $7,600 for two tickets from a consolidator. If we instead buy two upgradeable coach fares for, say, $2,400 and use our 100,000 miles (50,000 per person) to upgrade, we'll save a total of $5,200 and our 100,000 miles will have been worth 5.2 cents. We will therefore save our miles until then.

If, as we do, you play these mileage games and are continually looking to get upgraded, here are a couple of outstanding resources.

Webflyer.com

The first is WebFlyer. This is a huge website with something of interest to every air traveler, but the most informative pages are e-mail forums on each of 30 frequent flyer programs. FF rules are complex, often arcane, and many times the best deals are not well promoted by the airlines. The vast majority of Webflyer's e-mail posts are from very savvy, very frequent travelers who know from years of experience how to work the system.

Let's say, for example, you have 100,000 points in the American Express Mileage Rewards (MR) program and you want to transfer all or some of them to Lufthansa, which is not an MR participant. Is such a transfer even possible? That very question was recently asked on WebFlyers MR forum and here is one of many responses:

If you are willing to move your points to another Star Alliance partner to redeem them on LH, you can do either of the following:

1. Move AMEX MR points to either Mexicana or ANA directly since both are in the Star Alliance and part of the AMEX program. You can then redeem points on LH!

2. Wait till October 26, 2003 and move the points to USAirways directly through the AMEX program. USAirways will be part of the Star Alliance on that date and you can then also redeem US points on LH.

Mr. Upgrade

Those lacking the time or inclination to regularly monitor a dozen or so websites will do well to let someone like Matthew Bennett, aka "Mr. Upgrade", do it for them. His First Class Flyer Website, monthly newsletter First Class Flyer ($187), and raison d'tre, are all about finding the cheapest front-of-the-bus fares and getting the most out of frequent flyer programs. While the price for his newsletter will deter some, the serious business and first-class flyer will find it a bargain.

With resources such as these, one must now approach the traditional ways of getting a deal on a business class ticket with skepticism. For example, the American Express two-for-one platinum card deal that offers a free international business class ticket with the purchase of a full-fare ticket. There are a couple of hitches; the card's annual fee is $395 and you pay tax on the free ticket. Right now, for a late November departure from the West Coast, Lufthansa's website wants $7,694 for the roundtrip to Frankfurt. Add the annual Amex fee of $395 (I can think of no other reason to carry the Amex platinum card than for this twofer deal), the tax of $82 on the companion ticket, and your total for two people is $8,171, or a little over $4,000 per person. Not bad, but consolidator fares are about $3,800 and include $500 worth of usable hotel vouchers. And, if you are flexible regarding arrival city, Orbitz is currently quoting low business class fares on several airlines. Some examples: San Francisco to...Paris, $2,100; Amsterdam, $2,300; Milan, $2,300; Brussels, $2,300 and Munich, $2,200.

Deals like these make United's recent offer of a free economy ticket with each purchase of an international business class ticket seem almost laughable. Assuming Europe as the destination, you would likely have paid about $7,500 (West Coast) in order to get one economy ticket worth from $500 to $800. (The free economy ticket, you see, is valid only between September 15 and March 31, when international coach fares are at their lowest.) So this is not a good deal; even in high season a consolidator business class ticket is about half the United published fare and a flexible traveler probably would have found something for less than $3,000, even in July and August. For one international business class fare and one economy ticket the smart buyer would pay between $2,800 and $3,500 vs. UALs deal price of $7,500.

So, whether you have to clip cereal box tops or spend $187 on a newsletter, never pay full-fare for business class. Your best option, of course, is miles, but how to accumulate them and how to redeem them is an art. To know more about it I suggest you consult, as I do, WebFlyer and Mr. Upgrade. RHB