I have a whopping 230,000 miles accrued on my Delta account. That's not because I'm an exceptional jet-setter. It is because I deeply dread the frustration that attends most attempts to use the miles. As a result, I tend to let them grow ever larger with each trip to Target paid for with my Delta-branded American Express card. I determined to change that over the weekend. It was time my miles worked for me! I wanted to use them not to garner a free flight, but to land me in cushy first-class for the uncomfortably long flights to and from Maui. Seeking an upgrade 10 months ahead seemed a slam-dunk. Not so, fellow travelers. I wound up spending nearly two hours on the phone during two separate conversations with very kind and enthusiastic Delta personnel (thank you Tracy and Tanner) over the weekend. And after all that time, I'm still not the proud holder of a reservation in the posh front of the plane.

Because many of the upgrade seats were taken, Tracy and I determined a few things after much noddling and wrangling: We would fly to L.A. one day and take the morning fligh to Maui the next morning. (Upgrades for the afternoon flight to Maui had already been nabbed.) Two of the people in my party would be able to use upgrades; the third in my party was going on miles alone. (The airline holds a certain number of seats for upgrade, seperate from those for award travel). Breaking up the flight seemed appealing, especially since it would give us a day in our old stomping grounds of Santa Monica. Tracy held the reservation to allow me time to chat with the others in my party before officially booking.

Oh what a difference a few hours makes. By the time I phoned back, the upgrades on the red-eye flight out of Maui were no longer available. Turns out that Tracy could hold the seats, but not the upgrades. In the intervening time, someone else got them. My next Delta pal, Tanner, couldn't do much except suggest I return two days later. That timing didn't work, so I just passed, and then nearly passed out, exhausted.

 My take-away was not a round-trip, first-class tickets to Maui. It was this: A reminder in how to use your miles. If you want to book a reward ticket or an upgrade, do it as soon as possible. And if you want to go to such popular destinations as Hawaiiduring the holiday season, book the first day a flight is available from the airlines. That, generally speaking, is 330 days out. Today, 2/13/2012, I could book a flight that returns from Maui 1/10/2012, for instance (both the flight to and the return need to be bookable, of course). Those rewards go quickly.

 The experience left me both amazed at the nice Delta people who tried so hard to help--and a little sad. But not too sad because, really, to be able to plan a family trip to Hawaii is pretty first-class, no matter how we get there.