first encounters: Miles and miles of freedom

You can easily spot Executive Club members at airports. They have their blue and silver plastic cards strapped to their luggage
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The Independent Culture
They are the Green Shield Stamps of the Nineties. Instead of collecting perforated sheets and licking your way toward a new iron, you stack up credit towards an airline flight with a piece of plastic. There are 3.75 million registered users of Air Miles in the UK, who between them hold 2.75 billion Air Miles.

The plastic comes in different versions. There is a straight Air Miles card that you can use at various outlets, a special Shell Air Miles card, a scheme operated by NatWest credit cards, or you can simply clock them up every time you fly with British Airways. If this sounds complicated, it is, and the effort might never be worth it because it takes ages to get airborne. For the sake of accruing a handful of the things, you can find yourself making a detour to a Shell station, (one mile per pounds 6 spent) or using a NatWest credit card (one mile for every pounds 20 spent), which charges one of the highest interest rates. Changing money with Travelex earns them, as does staying in various posh hotels, hiring cars and parking in certain airport car parks.

Something for nothing

Flying, it turns out, is the fastest route to a freebie with wings. This isn't so surprising when you discover that the Air Miles operation, which took off in 1988, is now wholly owned by British Airways. The airline fills seats it might have flown empty by selling them to Air Miles; collectors get "something for nothing"; and Air Miles distributors win by enhancing brand loyalty. A round trip to Milan (pounds 372) will earn you 80 Air Miles if you fly economy; double that in club. Even so, getting to Paris, one of the cheapest foreign destinations, requires 450 Air Miles. So that's six trips to Milan, or pounds 2,232.

With your blue plastic card you become a member of British Airways' Executive Club, which entitles you to some nebulous benefits. These include worldwide emergency assistance, a theatre booking service (!) and, if you graduate to a silver card, the chance to use the Executive Club lounges. You will also receive regular mail from the manager of British Airways, Carol Mickleburgh. She writes so often that I feel I almost know her.

You can easily spot Executive Club members at airports. They have their blue and silver (I've never seen a gold) plastic cards strapped to their luggage. I was pathetically proud of having a silver card. I know this because this year I was demoted to the blue tier. Admittedly I got a nice letter from Ms Mickleburgh: "I am sorry to see that you did not fly with British Airways as frequently as in the past. I hope this does not reflect any dissatisfaction with the service you have received." Look, Carol, it's simply that I haven't travelled as much this year. My life isn't as interesting as it was, all right?

And what am I having to forego? Nothing much, actually. Just the chance to use those plush airport lounges. These are sufficiently comfortable to make you feel good about travelling again, and, rather insidiously, make you feel good about yourself. Usually, they're a whole lot more pleasant than being on the plane.

Fancy a coach trip to Derby?

If you don't spend your life in airport terminals, you can console yourself that there are other, slightly less glamorous, ways to blow your hard- won miles. A mere 100 will get you a coach trip from London to Derby. Or into Alton Towers.

But if you do have enough to buy a flight, how easy is it to get it? Well, you have to book at least a fortnight in advance and, once booked, you cannot be change it. I've used mine to fly to Amsterdam, yet, strangely, it didn't feel free, because it cost 500 Air Miles

with certain insurance policies;

- the scheme accounted for 5 per cent of "surplus" last year

If that seems a high price to pay, b

, although attempts to actually speak to the owner of the signature at the bottom of all that mail drew a blank - she is as elusive as the chance to earn a really fat wad of airmiles in one hit

, somewhere in my subconscious,

, and discreetly served,

it can be done.

. I felt lowlier than an economy class traveller, but got there just the same. Y

that records your total electronically every time you use it

, whatever method you choose,

Which makes it doubly infuriating that, f

Club lounges are a peanut lover's heaven. There's an endless supply of them - dry roasted and ready-salted - as well as drinks, biscuits, newspapers and air conditioning.

Impossible, if you think of it on the spur of the moment.

You can also clock them up if you send a bouquet, buy Wine from Wine Rack or use an Irish Ferry.

Plenty of people clearly think it's worth it.

This is allegedly to ease check-in, but one wonders how many flaunt them in order to give the impression that they are Important Business Travellers.

Bear in mind that, with , there are perks to be had.

make membership seem surprisingly worthwhile. They

if it's a popular route you'd be well advised to book earlier than that. O