Earning frequent flyer miles used to be straightforward, but loyalty programs have expanded to provide miles through affiliated credit cards, shopping portals, hotels, and more. Carriers are just beginning to catch up when it comes to offering similar ways to redeem those miles. Some people may not have enough miles for an international vacation, while others are business travelers who’d rather not fly any more than necessary.
But first a word of warning: Nearly all loyalty programs value your miles at a penny each. Award flights can offer value of two cents or greater. Using miles for non-flight rewards is a good deal only if you have insufficient miles for a free ticket, you have elite status (some customers get better prices), or if you’re aiming for a unique experience that can’t be bought.
Pay with Miles Instead of Dollars
Delta Air Lines and United Airlines offer some of the most varied redemption opportunities, including online shopping malls that advertise popular electronics, sports equipment, and even kitchen appliances with prices quoted in miles rather than dollars. A new iPad might cost 150,000 miles, and many cheaper items are also available. Both airlines also work with Audience Rewards to offer tickets to Broadway shows.
United has recently added new offers to its MileagePlus program, including a Digital Media Store that allows customers to rent or buy songs, books, and films in a format similar to iTunes. ScoreBig is another MileagePlus partner that provides tickets to sporting events, concerts, and live theater. Remember, log in with your MileagePlus number because you may be quoted better prices.
Be wary of auctions. They have a reputation for offering horrible value to consumers by the time a winning bid is placed, though the available prizes can be much more interesting and unique.
Prevent Miles from Expiring
One of the best uses of miles – when not booking a free ticket – is to postpone the expiration of the remaining balance. Many loyalty programs require an account be active at least once every one or two years. Redeeming a few hundred miles can protect the thousands you were saving for a vacation to Europe. You might also find a way to use up "orphan" miles left over from a larger redemption.
• MagsforMiles works with several airlines to offer subscriptions to leading magazines and newspapers, some for as few as 500 miles.
• Gift cards to national chains can be purchased directly from airlines or via Points.com, more commonly known as a service for trading miles between programs.
• Dine at local restaurants with gift checks from Restaurant.com or Lettuce Entertain You, two companies that partner with United Airlines.
Enhance Your Next Vacation
Most people grumble about how difficult it is to find the cheapest award flights, but they still pay hundreds of dollars for a hotel each night. Consider using your miles to get the hotel and car rental for free, since these have fewer restrictions, and then pay cash for your preferred flight. Some airlines integrate car rental and hotel search engines into their websites and will quote a price in miles instead of dollars.
Hawaiian Airlines goes one step further by awarding gift cards to all kinds of merchants, including grocery stores and golf courses, where you might otherwise need to spend cash during your next island vacation. And if you just need cool shades, 25,000 miles will buy you any pair of Maui Jim polarized sunglasses.
Donate to Charity
Finally, many organizations have travel expenses that you can help satisfy by donating miles directly or by converting those miles into cash contributions. It’s wise to ask an airline what options they provide since officially miles cannot be sold or bartered. You won’t receive a tax deduction, but at least miles don’t need to be declared as income, either.