by Sarah J.F. Braley | April 01, 2004

Travel for work often enough, and your wallet will get fatter with
frequent-flyer cards from every airline in the sky.
    Or stay on the ground: Accumulating miles these days is as simple as picking up the phone (Continental Airlines partners with AT&T) or buying a house (Northwest Airlines works with LendingTree). You can even buy miles outright; for instance, US Airways charges three cents a mile plus a $25 fee for a minimum of 2,000 miles per transaction and a maximum of 15,000 miles per year.
    It’s easy to forget the basics of membership: accumulating miles by flying. These points usually are the only ones that count toward elite status, so they’re still extra important.
    This year, most of the airlines have made it easier to get upgrades or to amass elite miles. American, Delta Air Lines and US Airways now offer their top passengers unlimited upgrades on domestic flights, a perk Continental has had for a while.
    American and Northwest have added another class of ticket that gets extra elite miles: Along with first-class and business-class purchases, Y-fare coach tickets earn 50 percent more miles toward elite status. Continental extends the rewards to H fares.
    Here are some other basics pertaining to the top six carriers’ frequent-flyer programs (many, many restrictions apply). To gain elite status in each of the plans, the lower level requires 25,000 miles traveled in a calendar year; middle level, 50,000 miles; top level, 100,000 miles. To reach Northwest’s top level, flyers only need to travel 75,000 miles in a year.

AMERICAN AIRLINES
Free tickets. To receive a free roundtrip coach ticket within the continental United States, subject to blackout-date restrictions, travelers spend 25,000 miles; for business class, 45,000; for first class, 60,000. Without restrictions, coach tickets cost 50,000 miles; business class, 90,000; and first class, 120,000.
    Upgrades. Domestically, one-way upgrades from full-fare economy cost 5,000 miles. It costs 15,000 miles to upgrade a discounted ticket.

CONTINENTAL AIRLINES
Free tickets. Free domestic coach tickets with restrictions cost 25,000 miles; for first-class tickets, 45,000 miles. Without restrictions, coach tickets require 50,000; first class, 90,000.
    Upgrades. One-way domestic upgrades cost 5,000 miles from full-fare economy and 15,000 miles from discounted fares.

DELTA AIR LINES
Free tickets. Domestic tickets cost 25,000 miles; for first-class tickets, as of March 16, the rate is 45,000 miles.
    Upgrades. Domestic upgrades from full-fare coach are 5,000 miles and, from discounted fares, 10,000 miles.

NORTHWEST AIRLINES
Free tickets. Coach tickets to travel domestically, with restrictions, cost 25,000 miles; for first class, 45,000. Without restrictions, coach tickets cost 50,000 miles; first class, 90,000 miles.
    Upgrades. Domestic upgrades from full-fare economy cost 5,000 miles; from discounted fares, 15,000 miles.

UNITED AIRLINES
Free tickets. Domestic coach tickets with restrictions cost 25,000 miles; business class, 40,000; first class, 60,000. Without restrictions, coach tickets cost 40,000 miles; business class, 80,000, and first class, 120,000.
    Upgrades. Domestically, upgrades from full economy cost 8,000 miles and, from discounted fares, 15,000 miles.

US AIRWAYS
Free tickets. Travel within North America with restrictions costs 25,000 miles; for first class, 50,000. Without restrictions, coach costs 50,000 miles; first class, 90,000.
    Upgrades. Domestically, roundtrip upgrades from full-fare economy cost 10,000 miles. It costs 20,000 miles for roundtrip upgrades from discounted fares.