Gillian Kemmerer is the founder of RSJ & the site's main author.

Marco Polo. Victoria. The Flying Club. Star Alliance. Remember in high school when you joined every club in existence to make your resume look better?If you’re treating frequent flyer memberships with as much attention (or should I say, as little) as you treated Model UN, it’s time to get a handle on the hundreds of dollars and business class seats you could be accruing.

Let’s face it, you were an over-achiever back in the day.  With fewer Facebook friends than high school club memberships, you’re lucky things turned around for you in college (or else we wouldn’t be talking).  Why are you treating frequent flyer programmes as if they were Chess Club, when clearly the less-is-more principle has proven itself across time?

If your travel is not based from a central airport near your home, or if you tend to fly to multiple regions across a year, it may be tough to get picky about your frequent flyer memberships.  It never hurts to join the airline’s club, even if you are planning a one-off roundtrip.  However, accruing miles in one club or alliance could rack up big dividends for you that would otherwise be unavailable: free upgrades, lounge access, hotel discounts & more.  Here are some tips to choose wisely, consolidate rewards, and take advantage of alliances.

 

Do you fly over once per month? If the answer is no, spend your way to miles & upgrades.

What level of rewards points must one earn with Korean Air to be fed cherries on top of Incheon?

Unless you are a business flyer traveling monthly red-eyes, chances are it will take years to rack up enough miles to register at “elite status” in a rewards program.  The fact of the matter is that many airlines now establish expiration dates on miles, and even an annual Hong Kong to New York haul would not be enough to maintain them.

If you are a frequent credit card user, consider teaming up the airline of your choice with the card you swipe most frequently.  In fact, many airlines offer bonus promotions for switching to a new card.  Get a jumpstart on your miles with these seven frequent flyer cards that offer substantial “welcome” miles with sign-up.

I don’t suggest obtaining an additional credit card for the sake of racking up miles.  Choose a card that you already use, and switch to a miles-earning program.  Many of these cards offer additional rewards for hotels and merchandise, so find the right combination for your travel needs.

Form strategic alliances (in life, and in airline miles) — and know what they actually mean.

Singapore Airlines. Get into bed with your favorite airline & its partners for cross-honored miles, amenities, and more.

You’ve probably heard of the Star Alliance — what about OneWorld and Sky Team? Do you know what these terms actually mean? If you fly multiple airlines regularly, consider taking advantage of strategic partnerships designed to consolidate your rewards.

If booking a well-priced flight were likened to fighting WWII, you’d want to be damn sure of your allies before charging into battle.  It’s not always possible to fly one airline to all destinations – so why not choose your next flight strategically, taking into account airline partners and what these alliances could mean for you?  Many alliances cross-honor miles, lounge access, and optimized transfers.  Get to know the major alliances (this Wikipedia table is a great introduction), and be sure to manage your account wisely.  I recently upped my rewards when I found that my flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg on S7 was newly incorporated into Asia Miles.  One quick fax of my boarding pass led to a few more points in my account.  Check the regulations to make sure that you redeem all of your miles properly, as it may require paperwork.  When you’re sitting in that first class seat to Dubai, it’ll alllll be worth it.

Use an online miles tracker to babysit your rewards.

Trackers such as GoMiles make management easy...I just wish I had all of Stringfellow Hawke's miles to go with it.

If you owned the Hope Diamond, would you let it rot in your basement? Miles require careful management if they are to be milked for all they’re worth.  If you are a member of several rewards programs, consider test driving a miles tracker like GoMiles (it will even link to your Facebook or Twitter account!) to watch over your balances.  Simply enter your membership number and password, and the miles tracker will issue a list of balances across your accounts in one easy landing page.

Airlines are not always perfect when issuing rewards.  You’ll want to keep track of your miles so as to benefit fully.  There is often a window of opportunity in which you can redeem lost miles, and after which you can say sayonara to your expensive seats.  We’re not kidding – airlines have no qualms about penalizing you for their own mistakes, too.

You’re paying a lot of money for those economy seats – even if the fat man in Row 16 practically spends the flight in your lap.  If you utilize airline alliances, online tracking tools, and credit card programs wisely, you can spend your way to first class heaven.  I once had a free upgrade on the world’s longest flight route (JFK to Singapore) simply as a bottom tier member of Cathay Pacific’s Marco Polo Club.  You never know where your memberships will take you, especially when you treat them right.

Slideshow: A still from Korean Air’s stunning ‘Excellence in Flight’ campaign.