THE BLOG
07/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

You Might Want to Check Those Frequent Flier Miles

If you haven't thought much about those frequent flier miles that you've hoarded over the years, then Monday's announcement of a merger between United Airlines and Continental that would create the world's largest airline may give you something to consider.

Traditionally, when airlines have merged, frequent flier miles were carried over allowing customers to select among an increased number of flights and destinations. It's unlikely that this merger will be any different. But airlines merge in part to take advantage of more efficient operations, such as fuller flights, which could make it harder to use frequent flier miles.

"Historically, people won't lose their miles, but they will probably have a harder time booking miles because fewer award seats will be available," said Rob Seltzer, a CPA and personal financial specialist, based in Beverly Hills, Calif. "I recommend people use them sooner rather than later, and try to book as early as they can," he said.

On Monday, United Airlines and Continental Airlines announced a $3.1 billion merger that is expected to create a coast-to-coast behemoth with a leading presence in the top domestic markets, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, along with an extended network to Asia, Latin America and Europe, according to the New York Times. The deal is expected to close by the end of the year.

In coming weeks both companies will issue bulletins on how they will handle the frequent flier miles, but you can imagine what would eventually result from this union - less competition and higher air fare prices.

Are there steps consumers can take now to help lessen the burden of higher prices and fewer seat selections? The California Society of Certified Public Accountants has some suggestions. The society is the nation's largest professional, non-profit state association representing more than 34,000 CPAs in the area of tax, audit, accounting and consulting services, such as personal finance. They offer these six tips:

• Consider using frequent flier miles sooner than later. Major carriers have cut back on the number of planes flying on most of their routes, which translates to fewer available rewards seats. In effect, the value of your miles is decreasing, and the trend isn't likely to reverse itself anytime soon.

• Book very early or very late. You'll have the best chance of finding an available seat if you book soon after the flight has been entered into the computer booking system, which happens up to 330 days in advance. On the other hand, if a flight hasn't sold out, airlines figure they've nothing to lose by making more seats available for award travel.

• Consider paying double. It may be worth spending 50,000 to 80,000 miles for unrestricted access to any unsold seat on a domestic flight. It's not cost-effective but there's a point at which you should stop doing the math and just do it because it makes you happy.

• Use miles to upgrade, especially on long flights. New York City to LA coach fare is running about $250 these days. Buying your way into a $1,000 business-class seat is a great use of 5,000 to 15,000 miles.

• Don't overpay for miles. If you're being charged $80 a year for a Visa card that earns miles and it takes you three years to earn a coach ticket, that ticket has cost you $240 -- enough for you to go almost anywhere in the country on a low-fare carrier.

• Finally, aspire to be elite. Even as mileage programs are getting stingier for occasional fliers, they're growing more generous when it comes to heavy travelers, who are being wooed with an ever-growing array of perks. Getting into the so-called "elite" status league usually requires 25,000 flight miles (as opposed to miles accrued on a credit card) in a calendar year - which will usher you into a world of early boarding, guaranteed upgrades and reams of bonus miles. So if you take more than four long-haul trips each year, it pays to stick with a single carrier.

Also, don't expect to see any changes in the extra charges that many consumer pay for luggage, and even carry-on bags. "Paying for baggage is here to stay, mainly because of the higher fuel costs that the airlines are paying," said Mitch Freedman, a CPA and personal financial specialist, in Westlake Village, Calif. "Airlines want ticket prices to be competitive, so they won't raise those if they can help it. But they will still keep these extra fees."