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Despite the millions airlines poured into lobbying against it, as of yesterday the U.S. Department of Transportation has mandated that all flights operating in the U.S. must display the entire airfare up front in the booking process. If an airline advertises a sale price, it must be the real total price, not “before taxes and fees.” Since it has become routine for flights to Europe to have as much or more in fuel “surcharges” as the price of the ticket, the D.O.T. could no longer ignore the flood of consumer complaints.

Read this excellent story from Consumer Traveler to get the details. It’s written by Charlie Leocha, whose Consumer Alliance group should get the bulk of the thanks for making this happen.

Besides the honest airfare disclosure, the companies also have to make it easy for you to figure out how much you’ll have to pay to check bags, depending on your flight. All that info now has to be on one easy-to-find page and at the start of the booking screens.

Most airlines and online travel agencies acted in a civil manner this week, sending e-mails to their customers explaining not to be alarmed by higher advertised costs, that they’re just seeing it all up front now instead of having surcharges added when booking. The airline that everyone loves to hate—Spirit Airlines—took a quite different tack though. I got an e-mail from them that looked like this:

In a bout of double-speak that would make George Orwell and Lenin both proud, the company claimed that this law was all a big conspiracy to somehow hide taxes from you so the government could keep raising them. I can’t imagine even the most delusional Tea Party faithful falling for that one since any airline can break out taxes as clearly as they’d like anywhere on their website. But instead of a link to any page explaining the new law, there was just a link to go complain to your congressperson. How bizarre!

As SmarterTravel said in an article about the company’s actions, “Spirit’s overblown reaction to the government’s passenger protection rules—first legal action and now a very public advertising campaign—underscores the carrier’s reliance on a steady stream of passenger surcharges.” Here’s a fuller explanation of what they were claiming and how far removed it was from actual facts.

There are plenty of others out there who look at the airfare as just a way to get you in the door and start doubling or tripling that amount with extra fees and this law won’t help you on foreign domestic flights. So if you’re flying on Spirit’s kindred souls, like RyanAir or Aerobus, you’ll still need to take every advertised fare for what it is: a bait-and-switch gimmick. Here though, the consumers won one over the big corporate campaign contributors.

I devoted a fair bit of space in the book Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune to the subject of maximizing your airline miles to earn free flights on a regular basis. People have written whole books on this subject, there are blogs on this subject only, and a hugely popular message board about it. If you spend a lot of time on these, after a while it starts feeling like a graduate science course, with its own jargon, obscure acronyms, and clubby secrets.

I tried to boil the strategies down to their essence, however, because if you can just follow those you can be better off than 95% of the other travelers out there who don’t have a plan. On to that in a minute, but first, here’s an article that would be great even if I weren’t quoted in it, from MSN Money: The fastest ways to get free travel.

Some of it is about basic strategies, but the real genius of it is that some geeks did some serious number crunching and figured out which programs make it easiest to earn free flights and which ones make it the hardest. (No surprise, US Airways holds the bottom spot, as they do in almost every category imaginable.) In their crunching, the Marriott group makes it easiest to earn a free hotel stay, while Continental’s miles are worth the most among the legacy air carriers.

Promotions can seriously tip the scales though, like when InterContinental’s Priority Club puts hotel rooms on sale for only 5,000 points or an airline discounts the mileage requirement for some flights. This is where those blogs and message boards come into play.

The article looks at credit cards that earn you miles as well and the number crunchers agree with the consensus of most road warriors who follow these things: Starwood’s American Express card is the best. The best for you may be different, however. If you never stay at nice hotels on business, you’re better off with an airline affiliated card, especially if it gives you a huge bonus in year one with no fee. If you build miles in multiple programs as I do, the best bet is probably an American Express card with Membership Rewards because then you can top off your Delta miles one month and top off your Southwest credits in another: bang you’ve got free flights on both.

Mileage building strategies:

1) Try to concentrate your flying with just a couple airlines or programs. Even if it means you pay a little more sometimes or go through a hub instead of direct, this keeps you from having lots of orphan miles you can’t do anything with except buy magazine subscriptions. Ideally, this is one legacy carrier and one budget carrier.

2) Pay as many bills as possible through your mileage-earning credit card. This is not good advice for those who don’t pay off their balance regularly, so be careful. Try to only do this with a card that will get paid off regularly. But if you have the discipline, those recurring cable, wireless, and Netfilix bills can really rack up the miles. Add in some big expenses like tuition or car payments and it doesn’t take long to get to a free flight.

3) Do your shopping with a card that earns you mileage. How much do you spend each year just on Amazon and iTunes? How much do you lay out each Christmas season? It’s likely another few thousand miles.

4) Shop through the airline site. If you do some shopping through your airline’s merchandise mall, you can frequently earn 3, 5, or even 10 miles per dollar—on top of what you’re earning from your credit card. You will pay the same price for those flowers or office supplies, but again this can add up quickly.

5) Watch for promotions. Once you’ve aligned yourself with certain airlines, sign up for their e-mail newsletter and keep an eye on promotions. They’re constantly offering double miles, mileage building challenges, and other ways to build up your balance more quickly.

[Update!] 6) Join the Travel Hacking Cartel.

What’s your favorite trick for earning free flights?

SmarterTravel.com just released the results of their reader survey in which respondents pick the best and worst airlines in a variety of categories. They might as well call it the “Southwest vs. USAirways Survey” since the former did a smackdown on everyone else and the latter gets the doormat prizes.

This chart is so consistent it looks like something Southwest would mock up for a meeting presentation. If a company is consistently cheaper and better in almost every way, what does that say for the competition? See the full results here.

Related post: Best Airline Ad Ever