Fares may be stratospheric but…

Planning a trip to some far corner of the world? Exciting as the destination may be, the thought of spending 10, 12 or even 14 hours folded up in a cramped, economy-class seat is just plain miserable for older adults.

Unless you're one of those lucky souls who can sleep sitting upright, there's no escaping the discomfort of the coach-section cattle car.

It's all the more rankling when you know the passengers at the front of the plane are having a very different experience — roomy seats, palatable food, gracious service and nonstop entertainment. The only thing to stop price-conscious fliers — that's most of us — from living the good life at 35,000 feet are the stratospheric fares. It costs around $10,000 to hitch a first-class, round-trip ride from New York to London and $12,000 to fly from Los Angeles to Sydney.

Business-class fares are slightly more affordable — about $5,000 to fly from New York to London and $7,300 from L.A. to Sydney. Unless you can redeem hard-earned frequent-flier miles to move up the airline food chain, flying first class can cost more than the rest of your trip.

If you have that kind of money to burn, airlines want to be sure you get what you pay for. In the past year, carriers have beefed up service both on the ground and in the air. Virgin-Atlantic's Upper Class service is one of the best first-class values you'll find. The airline pioneered the full-service airport lounge 10 years ago, and recently opened a new clubhouse at New York's JFK International Airport. There, passengers can freshen up with a shower, dine on made-to-order meals, watch a movie on a portable DVD player or just relax and enjoy the groovy, retro-'60s ambience.

Virgin also introduced at new concept with the Revivals Lounge at London's Heathrow airport. Arriving Upper Class passengers can pop into the lounge for a shower (private bathrooms have heated floors and in-shower radios), have their clothes pressed and grab a bite to eat before hopping in a limousine — service is included in Upper Class fares — for a ride into town.

In the air, Virgin-Atlantic has revamped its Upper Class cabin and service. Passengers now can stretch out to sleep in roomy seats that extend to full-size beds with down comforters and full-size pillows — after changing into complimentary sleep suits. On red-eye flights, there's even a designated Snooze Zone for those who want to sleep the whole time. Other improvements include an expanded bar area, plus a designated space for the airline's signature, in-flight spa treatments, where passengers can get a massage or manicure. Moreover, Upper Class passengers now order meals and snacks from a menu so they can eat whatever they want, whenever they want, during the flight.

Cathay Pacific, which operates long-haul flights between North American and Asia, also has a "passenger is always right" policy in first class. Passengers can snooze in seats that extend to full-length beds and enjoy made-to-order food whenever they want. Flying through Cathay's hub at the new Hong Kong International Airport? You'll definitely want to spend time in The Wing, Cathay's new, Zen-like lounge for business- and first-class passengers. Business-class passengers can take a shower, get a hot meal at the popular Noodle Bar and relax over a drink at the Long Bar. First-class passengers have it even better with the Cabanas — private rooms, each with a spacious tub, lounge chair and luxurious toiletries. Both business- and first-class passengers can reserve a facial, body treatment or massage at The Wing's new Elemis Day Spa.

Australian carrier Qantas has turned its attention to the onboard experience. Sydney's star chef, Neil Perry, was brought in to revamp in-flight cuisine with fresh ingredients and creative menus that reflect Australia's bounty of seafood, lamb, produce and, of course, first-rate wines. So far, Perry has redone menus in first and business class, and will soon turn his attention to food in coach. Meanwhile, first-class passengers now stretch out in full-length sleeper seats and enjoy individual video screens with a library of 60 movies. In business class, passengers unwind in new, adjustable and reclining "Dream Seats" while they peruse 10 channels of continuous programming on personal video screens.

One way to defray the high cost of first- and business-class airfares is to take advantage of frequent-flier programs. Airlines use these programs to reward loyal customers with upgrades and free trips. But when it comes to earning and redeeming miles, it's a matter of buyer beware. Savvy travelers have to stay on top of ever-changing program rules, as well as short-term promotions to rack up more points. Here are some tips to earn miles — and use them:

*Join programs for airlines you're likely to fly. One airline may have a terrific program, but if you'll never fly that carrier because it doesn't serve the airports you use, it won't do you much good.

*Earn miles through affinity programs. Flying isn't the only way to rack up points, and many airlines have partnerships with car rental agencies, hotels, credit card companies, even Internet service providers. This is a boon, especially if you don't fly frequently.

*Read the small print. Not all miles are created equal, and airlines may only credit discounted economy fares with a half-point per mile, or no points at all.

*Keep track of mileage program statements. Make sure your account is credited for all miles earned through flights and affinity programs.

*Take advantage of special offers for extra miles. Short-term programs offer bonus miles for flights, hotel stays and credit-card purchases.

*Stay abreast of program changes, which can affect how quickly you earn miles. For example, Northwest Airlines recently stopped rewarding miles for its Internet Cyber Saver fares. Other airlines may raise mileage requirements for rewards.

Staying on top of frequent-flier program changes and special promotions can be a full-time job. Two Web sites that make it easier are InsideFlyer magazine's WebFlyer site — www.InsideFlyer.com — and Frequent Flyer magazine's site –www.frequentflyer.oag.com Bookmark each site and sign up for monthly e-newsletters for the latest information.