Want a free airline ticket? Go fishing in the right hole.

These days, American air carriers have made a full-blown industry out of providing tantalizing ways to encourage us to cast a line in search of those illusive free airline tickets.The pursuit of free tickets has put bizillions of frequent flier miles in our airline accounts. In 1997, although Americans cashed in 200 billion of these miles, trillions - for once I am not exaggerating - remain to be used. Free air travel, rooms, car rentals and other perks are major marketing bait that hook us surely.

I first swallowed that hook in the early 80's when the programs were new and miles were not that easy to come by. You flew, your account grew. Without some time in the air, it was then virtually impossible to feed your mileage accounts.

Not so in the '90's. You, too, can partake of the mileage feeding frenzy without the need to even fasten a seat belt before takeoff. A true story is told of the assiduous frequent flier fisher who read with glee the rental car company offer "Rent A Car For Five Days In May And Earn A Round-trip Ticket Anywhere In The Continental United States." Now those kinds of offers have pretty much gone belly up, along with the $39 peanuts flights from Salt Lake City to Denver.

Happily swallowing the advertiser's bait - hook, line and sinker - our enterprising fisher during one week's worth of lunch hours rented an auto a day at the car rental office in his own neighborhood. Each noon hour he cruised around the block for 2-3 minutes, then returned the car. By Friday he had spent about $125 and earned a ticket that was worth $400 since he used it for a trip from Los Angeles to New York City. Not bad for a week's fishing.

And speaking of New York, I love the story about the fellow who bought an original oil painting at a Big Apple auction for $3 million. He charged it on a credit card that affiliated with an airline frequent flier account. Strike! Major mileage faster than you can tie a fly.

Even for those of us who are not inclined to five-minute car rentals or pricey original art, the same principles of mileage accumulation still apply:

- Join mileage programs even if you fly that airline infrequently. Most programs are free; usually an application is available in the magazine in a seat pocket near you or from the nice flight attendant. My own guppy-sized account with Western Airlines grew overnight when Delta took over, and the miles flowed more freely.

- Join hotel and car rental programs, especially the free ones. Occasionally, the hotel programs will offer a short-term free enrollment period. When you check into a hotel/motel, ask about that company's programs and if they are free, sign up on the spot. Even mom-and-pop outfits have their own frequent stayer programs that are a great deal if they don't follow the example of fishing licenses and expire in the near-term.

- Watch your credit card, long distance, and frequent flier program mailings for special offers. Businesses with on-the-road-again clientele connect these days. That means you will find travel companies and telecommunications outfits as chummy as lures in your tackle box. Expect those buddies to share bait; in this case, rich offers of mileage in their airline partner's programs. Bonus miles are often attached to those ubiquitous offers - "Join (or switch) now for free and we will give you 3,000 miles (plus a can of worms, a package of hooks, and a gutting wonder), you lucky consumer."

- Use credit cards that apply a mile on your frequent-flier-program-of-choice for each dollar you spend. Seasonal specials enrich these programs if you spend a certain dollar amount at Christmas and/or buy that new fly rod in a particular store. A new partnership between a retailer and an airline can result in extra miles too. "Buy now - Get 3,000 bonus miles." These new partners will troll deep for your bucks.

- Keep your frequent-everything cards together. I have a travel creel, of sorts, in which I store all my airline, car and hotel program cards. When I check into a hotel, I can easily present my accommodation and airline cards, and get points on both. Partnerships among travel and other businesses are like fishing itself - you need to have bait options because you never know when the waters will change. Keep those cards handy since yesterday's partners may not be today's.

- Eat for the miles. Major airlines have frequent diner programs. At selected restaurants, which lure everyone from lobster lovers to fish taco fiends, you can receive miles for all the food you buy.

So you want a free airline ticket? Throw in a line - there's no limit to this catch.