If press reports are to be believed, millions of frequent filer miles are going unused this summer. Blame record loads. AMR's (NYSE:AMR) American, Continental (NYSE:CAL), US Airways (NYSE:LCC), and others are routinely flying at 80% or greater capacity. Passengers are squeezed together like sardines in a can and paying for the privilege.

In other words: Carriers can't give away freebies without booting paying customers. After years of losses and layoffs, there's little chance that's going to happen.

A Foolish alternative
You know what? Prudent Fools needn't care. The truth is that hotel rewards programs have always been more valuable than those offered by their airline counterparts, and that's still true today.

No, really. You can earn more through hotels without penalizing your airline earnings. For example, Hilton will give you at least three HHonors points for every dollar spent on a stay. All of these points are usually transferable at a 1-to-1 ratio with airline partners. When's the last time you earned three miles for every mile flown? Probably never.

Consider, too, that hotels can be nearly as expensive as flights. For example, using Expedia, I priced flights for the five of us from our Denver home to Los Angeles for one week from today, staying for five nights near Disneyland. The cheapest non-stop flight was $203 a person, or $1,015 total. A nearby Hilton hotel on non-Disney property ran $169 a night, or $845 total.

I'll understand if you're bitter about not being able to fly free, but isn't saving $845 nearly as good?

Learning to earn with the transfer game
Sure it is. And earning hotel points is pretty easy. Start by signing up for the major programs. Here's a list:

You'll also want these programs for the transfer possibilities. Allow me an example. Say you have 100,000 American AAdvantage miles you had planned to use for your summer trip but now can't because of restrictions. Consider a transfer. Hilton HHonors will give you 200,000 points for your 100,000 AAdvantage miles, and that's good enough for five free nights at the Beverly Hills Hilton in L.A. or the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Without the points you'd be stuck with a $1,500 bill in either location, according to the reservations engine at Hilton.com.

More flexible than your gymnastics instructor
Such deals aren't all that uncommon. Miles and points are interchangeable across many different programs. The best tool I've seen for transfer junkies is the Mileage Converter at WebFlyer. It isn't perfectly accurate -- it still lists a program for the now-acquired Le Meridien hotels, for example -- but it's pretty darn close.

Plus, many rewards can be had through hotel programs that aren't available elsewhere. For example, 2,800 Starwood Preferred Guest points will get you a $25 Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) card. That's good for, what, seven lattes? I know more than a few friends at Fool HQ who'd dig that offer, including my editor.

Follow the money
I admit it: I'm a sucker for affinity programs. But you would be too if you had experienced the same free vacations I've earned. That's why I've got a six-year plan to build up enough points to once again take my wife on a luxurious trip overseas. Care to join us? You can; just learn to play the transfer game.

Have other money tips? Tell me. I'm writing new articles on personal finance and investing basics every week as part of our new personal finance newsletter service, Motley Fool GreenLight. It's tailor-made for Fools like you who aim to take control of their financial destiny. Click here to learn more.

Hilton Family Hotels (NYSE:HLT) is partnering with The Motley Fool in our Foolanthropy 2006 campaign. The call for nominations begins Oct. 16.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers traveled to New York this summer but didn't use miles. He's hoping the earnings will pay off in the next six years. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. Get a peek at everything he's invested in by checking his Fool profile. Starbucks is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy doesn't need games. It's just that good.