By Joe Brancatelli
May 22, 2013 --Another "definitive" frequent-flier award availability survey hit the media last week. As usual, most media types played it up. As usual, however, the survey was mostly bogus, laid low by its own flawed assumptions and by the fact that "winning" the frequent-travel game is essentially a selfish pursuit.

If you don't get the airline seat or hotel room you want when you want it at the price you want to claim it for, you're going to decide that the program stinks. No "definitive" survey will (or probably should) change your mind.

I'd never try to convince you that one airline or one hotel's program is definitively better than another. I can't be in your head, your wallet or your schedule, so I don't know what's best for you. But once a year or so, I do stop to remind you of important new developments and the evergreen truths about the programs. When you know this stuff, you can maximize your ability to "win" the game and minimize your chance of flying all those miles and staying in all those hotels for no real payoff.

The best stuff isn't on the web
Although your mileage may vary based on family needs and interests, the highest dollar payoff for frequent-flier miles is when you claim international premium-class tickets. Business- or first class seats to international destinations can cost $20,000 or more roundtrip if purchased in cash. Here's the problem: U.S. airlines don't make the full inventory of international seats available on their proprietary websites, the places most business travelers use to claim awards. It's not so much that they're hiding them (although, sometimes, they are), it's that many international seats are offered on their partners' aircraft and that inventory is rarely integrated into the system that shows award availability on the web.

Take United Airlines, for example. It says MileagePlus members claimed 4.7 million awards on United last year. But another 1.6 million awards--fully 25 percent of United's total 2012 payout--were for travel on partner airlines or for other travel-related items. Thirty international airlines offer award seats to MileagePlus members, but only a few are displayed on United's Web site. The solution: Call your airline's frequent-flier service center whenever you're looking for a high-value award. You'll have a much better chance of scoring the award you want if you call.

If in doubt, call again
Unfortunately, not every agent you'll reach at a frequent-flier service center is a program expert. And a few are sloppy or are disinclined to help you get what your want. The smartest way to approach a call center is to have done your homework in advance. It's not enough to know what destination you want, what class of service you want and what days you want to travel.

If you're serious about getting what you want, you should know which of the airline's partners fly between your origin and your destination. Then (politely) keep asking the telephone agent to check all the available options that you know exist. If they can't accommodate you, hang up and call again. Two or three times if you must. Persistence pays off. You've earned the miles, but you may have to do a little more work (and work to reach a motivated call-center agent) than you thought necessary to get your preferred payoff.

Play your airline cards right
Twenty-five thousand miles is what the major U.S. carriers require you to fly in a year to earn the lowest level "elite" status in their respective frequent-flier programs. But that is the same number of miles they asked you to fly two decades ago, when they were much smaller. Flying 25,000 miles now on mega-merged airlines that have thousands of flights a day to hundreds of cities and often give you elite-status credit for things other than flying isn't that big a deal anymore. And, frankly, the benefits of lowest-level elite status (usually designated as silver) reflect the no-big-deal nature.

Low-level elites rarely get upgraded anymore, rarely get free rides in premium economy and simply aren't treated much better than average fliers. So why chase a nearly worthless status? You can often get the few valuable perks of low-level elite status (free checked baggage and somewhat faster boarding) by taking the airline's credit card.

It's good to be (hotel) elite
In contrast to the big airlines, major lodging chains treat elite-status customers (even low-level silver players) comparatively well. There will be bonus miles, room upgrades, complimentary breakfast and other nice perks that airlines simply don't match at their entry levels.

And the payout if you reach the top elite tiers of the hotel programs is often extraordinary. One example: My should-have-been-uneventful three-night stay this month at the Hyatt Regency in Greenwich, Connecticut. My rate was less than $100 a night, but as a top-tier Gold Passport elite, I also received: a choice of welcome amenities (I chose the mango salsa with banana chips and two bottles of Corona); coupons for a lavish breakfast buffet each morning (no matter that I only eat a bagel and fruit in the morning); free parking; free internet; an upgraded room; and a 2,500-point bonus because the club lounge was closed that weekend. And like all Gold Passport members, I also received an additional 3,600-point bonus because Hyatt was running a seasonal promotion during May.

Don't arbitrage the American-US Airways merger
Thanks to frequent promotions, US Airways often sells credits in its Dividend Miles program for the equivalent of around 2 cents a miles (the current promotion is here). If you know what you're doing, you can turn those purchased miles into an off-peak business-class ticket to North Asia or Europe, meaning you'd spend under $2,000 for your round trip. That's a very good deal. What isn't a good deal is buying US Airways miles on the expectation that they'll be converted to American AAdvantage miles when US Airways merges with American. No one knows what the merged carrier's frequent-flier program will eventually look like, so it's silly to assume you can beat a frequency plan that hasn't even been designed yet.

A buffer against program devaluations
We recently discussed the wholesale devaluation of most major frequent-guest programs and the evolution of airlines to revenue-based reward programs. The best way to avoid having the value your miles and points slashed by these changes is not to "bank" them. Spend them as quickly as you earn a reward you want.

But if you're looking for a hedge against selective devaluations, get one of the Chase credit cards that offer Ultimate Rewards points. Cards such as the Chase Sapphire and Chase Ink generate these Chase-proprietary points in substantial number because there are lavish bonus opportunities (including double points for travel and dining spend on Sapphire and quintuple points for office supplies and communications spend on Ink). Best of all, Chase allows you to convert Ultimate Rewards points on a 1:1 basis to an admirable number of other programs, including United MileagePlus, Southwest RapidRewards, Marriott Rewards, Hyatt Gold Passport, InterContinental Priority Club Rewards and even Amtrak's Guest Rewards plan. When the spirit (and need) arises, move points to the travel programs. Until then, leave the points in your Chase account.

ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.