Have you ever pulled teeth from a Mesozoic mastodon? Perhaps not, but that would seem to me an easier operation than redeeming frequent-flyer points these days.

I've just spent half the morning trying to get an economy seat near the bulkhead with extra legroom for my 82-year-old six-foot-three father. "That will be an extra 20,000 points," I was told. The return flight ticket was already 45,000 points. Ker-ching. Oh, but a return seat in a higher class is just 54,000 points. So it costs more to sit in economy?

I duly decided to switch the octogenarian to premium economy - which had been my preference in the first place, only when I'd tried to book online, no seats were available.

Call up an airline to use your points and you'll appreciate a whole new meaning of the phrase "holding pattern": you could knit a jumper and play a dozen games of patience as you sit on the phone, losing yours.

Moreover, free tickets aren't exactly that when you're paying a fuel surcharge. "Paying HK$3,000 for a 'free' seat hardly feels free," I told the operator, who then spent 10 minutes arguing that I was exaggerating - by HK$24. But I shouldn't complain; a friend paid HK$6,400 in taxes for the privilege of using her frequent-flyer points to go from Sydney to Los Angeles.

I can understand why so many people just let points expire. Some say they're not worth the paper they're written on: you either can't use them when you want to, or you can't bear putting yourself through the ordeal of claiming them. Choose to do so and you'll probably need a holiday to recover.