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From free flights to room upgrades, there are loads of travel-related freebies and discounts available to people who participate in frequent flier and other travel loyalty programs.

But many travellers don’t have the mental bandwidth to keep track of all the programs he or she has joined – let alone all of the special bonuses that can help them earn rewards faster. In the US, more than 70 million travellers belong to frequent flier programs, but only six million redeemed miles for flights in 2009, according to the consulting firm Market Platform Dynamics.

Back in the (sexist) 1960s, everyone who watched a James Bond movie took it for granted that his boss M would have a female assistant like Miss Moneypenny to book travel and track expenses. Nowadays, we all rely on computers, not secretaries, to keep tabs on our budgets and you don’t need to be a globetrotting super-spy to see the world. Here's a rundown of a few cutting-edge digital tools that help monitor your airline miles, credit card points and other reward programs.

Best bill-paying tool that also monitors your mileage program
Web-based, personal finance management services, similar in purpose to Quicken and Quickbooks software, are increasingly adding travel-related features to their offerings. PageOnce, available to US residents, remains the safest online service for bill-paying and managing personal accounts, partly because it does not store your checking account details, so no hacker can potentially come in and steal the information to drain your savings.

It takes some effort to input the membership numbers of your various loyalty programs. But after you've set things up, the site will continuously fetch the latest points balances, expiration dates and reward opportunities from all your flight, hotel, car rental and credit-card programs. Unlike other programs, you can sync PageOnce data with downloadable apps for iPhone, Blackberry and Android devices, allowing you to access your information on the go -- helpful if you want to request an upgrade for a hotel room or airplane at a moment's notice.

Best financial monitoring tool that helps you budget for your vacation
Mint
, owned by Quicken, is PageOnce's largest rival, with the same type of personal finance management and data security. Unlike PageOnce, Mint doesn't currently have mileage tracking as a service, though that functionality will be added soon. Yet Mint does uniquely have a tool to help US and Canadian users plan their vacation budgets. Go to the site's vacation budgeting estimator and punch in your destination, the number of days you'll stay, the duration of your trip, number of people travelling and related information. The tool will then estimate how much plane tickets, hotels, rental cars and other major expenses will cost.

Most comprehensive and internationally-minded rewards tracker
Neither of the above mileage-and-points tracking tools is as comprehensive as the specialist site AwardWallet, which supports all of the world's major loyalty programs and is available to travellers worldwide. Founded in 2004, the free tool covers every large national travel company, from Amtrak to American Express to Diners Club, except for Southwest Airlines. AwardWallet alerts you when miles and points will expire, and these alerts are more timely and helpful than Mint's, given the site's actionable advice on how to keep miles and points active. AwardMiles also can also let you manage accounts for multiple family members. It has an unusually intuitive way of displaying any elite status you've earned, too.

Most interesting newcomer is the first ‘cash and reward search engine’
I'm also keeping an eye on new-this-year competitor service UsingMiles, which attempts to offer a similar tracking service to AwardWallet and also e-mails when your miles are in danger of expiring. I like its interface, but am disappointed that it doesn't support award programs for several major travel companies, such as Air Canada, Air France, American Express, Amtrak, Best Western, Hyatt, JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic. (Despite having "miles" in its name, UsingMiles also helps people track hotel, rail and rental car rewards.)

To its credit, UsingMiles tries to outdo AwardWallet by attempting a new trick: becoming the world's first search engine for cash and award travel, meaning that you can enter the name of your airline (or hotel chain or rental car company) and find products on which you can spend your award points. You can also compare the value of using points versus cash to make sure you're getting a solid deal. But the search engine has a similar problem in that it misses several a few major companies (Air France, LAN, etc) and thus misses the complete picture of travel opportunities you may be missing out on.

Best service for beginners learning the loyalty redemption game
One problem with all of the sites mentioned above is that they assume users understand their frequent flier programs and how to max out their rewards. The Travel Hacking Cartel charges a monthly fee (from $15) in exchange for text and e-mail alerts about travel reward opportunities along with marvellously straightforward (and mercifully brief) videos to help you get up to speed on the basics of earning travel points. The site is run by Chris Guillebeau, a writer and entrepreneur who has visited more than 150 countries and thus learned a lot about frequent flier programs.

Best service for folks who understand the basics and want to kick up their award-redemption skills a couple of notches
MilePoint
, a site that also debuted this year, offers a similar service as the Travel Hacking Cartel, but for free. MilePoint delivers lessons from Randy Petersen and other loyalty program gurus on everything you need to know to earn and redeem frequent-flier points quickly. The trade off for getting free information is that you have to put more work into making sense of it. The information is presented in a much less user-friendly format than the Travel Hacking Cartel (no videos, no e-mail or text alerts and no step-by-step guides). But it's hard to argue with free.

Sean O'Neill is the tech travel columnist for BBC Travel

 

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