We all know there's no such thing as a free lunch, but most of us still believe in the possibility of a free air ticket - if only we can spend enough on our credit cards, telephone calls or hotel stays. Soon, there will be even more ways to clock up the miles, with more services offering reward points, more partnerships between the credit cards, hotels, airlines and other businesses, and more ways to transfer, convert and combine those miles. There will be more ways to spend those points, too. Some programmes will be offering tickets to sporting events, discounts on groceries - or you may even be able to put your points towards a car. The number of programmes has ballooned in the past year - and the number of people signing up for the loyalty programmes has grown with it. Cathay Pacific expects to have 370,000 on its Asia Miles programmes this year and 730,000 by the end of next year. Its previous Passages programme had 429,000 members at its peak. The hotel programmes are also signing up new members by the thousand. Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts' Golden Circle and Holiday Inn's Six Continents Club have more than 100,000 members each. The credit-card companies are keener to introduce reward programmes as the proliferation of cards and the economic downturn are squeezing their profits. 'People have got a little more careful in their spending,' said John Steward, vice-president and general manager at American Express. 'Everyone is working that little bit harder.' Airline alliances also help to make air miles easier to collect as miles earned on one airline in the alliance can be added to its partners' programmes. For example, if you fly to London on Cathay, the air-miles you earn can be added to the programmes run by Cathay or its partners in the oneworld alliance. Ron Mathison, general manager of Cathay Pacific Loyalty Programmes, said there were no plans to combine the programmes into a single oneworld miles scheme as separate programmes could cater to regional differences. '[Asia Miles] is going to be more in tune with the Asian market than one big, global entity,' he said. At Asia Miles, for example, miles can be redeemed for flights for family members, which is not possible on many of the US airlines' programmes. The airlines also have their individual alliances. Long-standing agreements between Singapore Airlines and Delta Airlines allow miles to be swapped between the corresponding programmes, although Delta is not in the Star Alliance. The airlines are signing up partners in all businesses. But they are not doing it for the sake of their customers: they are selling their miles to anyone who will buy them. The rates vary according to how many miles a partner is likely to buy, but most are priced around US$1.50 (HK$11.66) per mile and sold under terms that mean customers will get the same mile-earning rates as similar partners. As a result, most credit cards require you to spend about $12 for every mile (or $8 per kilometre for km-based programmes) and most hotels will credit you with 500 miles per stay. Air mile collectors should read the fine print carefully. Miles and points are not earned equally. If you fly at a discount rate, you may only earn half the miles flown on some airlines, while business-class passengers will earn a 25 per cent bonus on the miles. Some tickets, such as group or staff tickets, earn no miles at all. There is no free lunch from the partners, either. Many card and telephone companies charge for converting points to air miles, so that the rate at which you earn miles will be painfully slow. Hotels generally ask their guests whether they want the hotel rewards programme or to earn air miles with their stay. Although hotel programmes generally offer better deals, most people want the free flight. 'First and foremost, what people want is air tickets,' said Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts group director of marketing programmes Michael Leong. The hotel's research showed air tickets were so popular that it was not worth introducing its own rewards programme. Instead, the hotel offers air miles on a choice of 24 airlines and a recognition programme that means the more often you stay, the better the treatment you get. The hotel takes every detail on each individual's preferences when they sign up for the Golden Circle programme. Members can also enjoy such perks as a free stay for their spouse, free local calls and complimentary breakfasts. Those opting to build up air miles through hotel stays can find the going slow - you would need to stay in a hotel at least once a week for nearly a year for the simplest rewards. Some are even slower. Cable & Wireless HKT recently awarded Asia Miles for expenditure on its telephone, Internet and interactive TV services. But at $20 per mile, you would have to spend $500,000 on telecoms services to earn enough points for a round-trip ticket to Shanghai. This would take nearly 42 years. And beware: Asia Miles points expire after three years. Better rates are often offered during special promotions, which are set to become more varied and frequent. Asia Miles has 61 promotions running. With so many points piling up, the airlines, hotels and card companies are looking for more ways for you to spend those points. They want you to use the miles you accumulate. If you never get the reward for your points, you will be less inclined to save them up again and they will have lost your loyalty. In the industry's jargon, the breakage rate is an indicator of the success of a loyalty scheme. A breakage rate of 20 per cent means 20 per cent of the points awarded to programme members are never spent. To push breakage rates down further, Asia Miles is introducing new awards for relatively few miles such as event tickets, upgrades, hotel nights and golf trips. With so many point-collecting programmes, the biggest headache for the ordinary traveller will be keeping track of all the points and converting them at the right time at the least cost. Most programmes send out quarterly statements, which can be slow and expensive. A few are using the Internet, including Hyatt Hotels and Resorts. Members of its Gold Passport programme can access their accounts through a Web site, which can be quickly updated by the company as the miles are earned. The change has saved costs and time for Hyatt. The Web site also has won awards, including the industry's Freddie Awards, run by Inside Flyer magazine. With more mile-earning options and promotions, those who are prepared to study the details will find it easier than ever to get a free air ticket - or at least a round of golf. Firms fight for faithfulness Everyone is familiar with the concept of earning free flights, but what about free legal advice, free medical treatment or free cars? As the fight for customer loyalty gets tougher, businesses are finding more and varied ways to offer rewards. American Express, in a co-branded card with Cheung Kong, offers discounts on all kinds of Cheung Kong property services. Cardholders earn one point for every $8 spent, with the points redeemable for downpayments on Cheung Kong-developed properties, agency fees for Hong Kong Property or Kingswood Property or solicitors' fees. To further encourage loyalty to Cheung Kong companies, cardholders earn double their points when they spend in the group's retail outlets, including Watson's and ParknShop. Not only credit card companies are becoming more inventive. Other businesses use reward programmes to keep loyal customers. Property management company and estate agent Colliers Jardine recently launched Client Privileges. On completion of a lease transaction with the company, customers are entitled to discounts with a range of partners, including Ikea, California Fitness and the Matilda Hospital. American Express says consumers are developing their own strategies of earning and spending their points. John Steward, vice-president and general manager, Hong Kong, says many people use separate cards for travel spending and ordinary household purchases. He himself has a card dedicated to spending in US dollars. Consumers are also wiser about terms and conditions. And they are saving more. Mr Steward says some customers have accumulated more than a million points, which now could mean 200 nights luxuriating at the Bali Cliff Resort. When a new edition of the rewards catalogue came out in Australia recently, Amex was surprised to find the top reward was soon snapped up - an Audi costing a cool 23 million points. But most people still prefer the smaller prizes: short-break holidays by the beach.