United, Continental and your frequent flier miles

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Last fall, the airline marriage of United and Continental was given the legal OK. The new company, called United, is the world's largest airline.

It will be a year before United and Continental fly planes as one team. For now, each of the airlines continues to sell tickets and handle customer problems on its own. It will be several months before Continental customers can use United's EasyCheck-in kiosks, ticket counters, or website for check-in.

What about frequent-flier miles?

The reward programs won't merge for another year or so. Rest assured that mileage balances and status levels will carry over to a merged rewards program.

That said, there are some strategies to take now.

If you have a Continental credit card tied to the airline's frequent-flier program (and earning a mile for every dollar or so you spend), you should keep using it. You may receive bonus perks soon. During the similar Northwest and Delta merger, holders of Northwest credit cards received bonus miles for linking their account with a Delta Skymiles account. A similar set of bonuses may come from Continental being swallowed up by United. Compare options of various airline credit cards for travelers at WebFlyer.

If you have a lot of American Express Membership Rewards miles, you have until next September to trade them for Continental miles, which will convert to United miles. In many cases, this is a smart trade.

All that said, the best value in loyalty cards is generally in hotel cards, which can still rack up airline miles. Consider the Starwood AmEx card. This card has the option to transfer Starwood points to many airlines, such as American, Delta, and US Airways, and receive a bonus. For example, 20,000 hotel points would become 25,000 airline miles.

If you only travel a couple times a year, a hotel card is usually the most reliable choice—both for earning and redeeming points (because there are usually many options at destinations everywhere, while you may not fly the same airline often during a single year).

Are you a mileage junkie? If you have earned enough miles for status in either program, you should read United's new frequently-asked-questions page, InsideFlyer's summary of changes, an explanation of how United makes it difficult to redeem awards on partner Star Alliance member flights, and mileage-maven Gary Leff's surprisingly optimistic take on what will happen next.

[FUN FACTS: Delta, thanks to its merger with Northwest, will be second largest worldwide, after United and Continental. But Southwest will be the second-largest airline in the U.S. in terms of number of passengers flown domestically, once its merger with AirTran is wrapped up later this year.]


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