03/16/2013 08:09 am ET Updated May 16, 2013

Smart Ways To Use Your Frequent Flyer Miles

Got some airline miles burning a hole in your pocket? Not sure how to use them? If you're new to the rewards game, you've probably already figured out that the redemption process can be more than a little daunting.

Some people track miles like a hawk and accrue plenty of them (say, on their credit cards) but forget to keep their eyes peeled, eventually logging on to see what's what, sometimes only to find that their miles have expired.

Yes, for every freebie-obsessed flyer, there are plenty of newbies wandering in the desert, no doubt dreaming of the vacation of a lifetime, but unable to figure out how much points they'll actually need or, more importantly, how many points that trip's actually worth.

Maybe that's not you, you already have a handle on that end of things - you check prices and make sure you're not wasting miles when you could be banking still more towards an even better reward. But that's just the first hurdle. What about the fees? Are their hidden costs to your "free" trip that'll eat away so much value that in the end, you should probably just pay cash?

Confused? There are a few easy and clear guidelines that ought to help clear at least the basics up.

For one, I recommend using miles for upgrades as much as I'd recommend using them to book a free trip. For example, on American Airlines, I've frequently been able to upgrade my one-way economy ticket between New York and Los Angeles, typically purchased for $189 to $250, to a $2,000-plus business class seat, using 17,000 AAdvantage miles. Upgrades are one of the simplest ways to get value from your miles; in this scenario, the miles end up being worth around 11 cents apiece before figuring in the economy fare - either way, far above the typically accepted average value of 1.2-1.4 cents per mile. (Plus, you get miles for your trip.)

Then remember that the best deals often go to those who plan the furthest in advance (330 days ahead on some airlines - that's when new seats become available), but also to those who can be the most spontaneous. Sure, first class may be full if you wait until the last minute, but on some airlines, there can be some excellent economy mile deals if you just need a flight and don't feel like shelling out for an expensive last-minute fare.

And finally, never forget: Don't be a miles hoarder. As the airlines continually find new ways to tinker with programs, holding out for the trip of a lifetime you may never take could end up costing you more than taking a free trip or two to somewhere more modest, like California or Florida.

To give a sense of what's awesome - and what's less than awesome - we've chosen ten available rewards right now that'll give you a general guideline of what's out there. See the informative chart we've created.

Related: Top 10 Ways To Prevent Miles From Expiring
Related: Expert's Tips If You're Having Trouble Cashing In Your Miles