How to use frequent flier miles without flying

Maybe you have some leftover miles after using a big sign-up bonus for a trip. Or perhaps your miles are about to expire, but you have no travel plans. For whatever reason, you want to use your miles without flying.

Unfortunately, airline programs’ alternative redemption options are rarely the best deal – but this guide will help you make the most out of them.

Table of contents

Why redeeming for flights is usually best

Frequent-flier programs are designed for earning free flights – and across the board, this will generally fetch the best value.

Of course, within that generalization, there’s a lot of room for variation. With some programs, your points have a fixed value (for example, Southwest points are worth 1.43 cents each for Wanna Get Away fares as of February 2015). For legacy programs (such as American, United and Delta), points fluctuate in value because you’re redeeming in fixed increments. Booking a $150 flight for 25,000 miles gets you a value of 0.6 cents per mile – but booking a $1,000 flight for 50,000 miles gets you 2 cents per mile.

If you need help calculating the value per mile, read this article. The consensus among those playing the rewards game is that 1 cent per mile or point should be the minimum you settle for. With that in mind, let’s look at how airline programs’ non-flying redemption options stack up.

Gift cards

Bottom line: Your value varies from pretty bad to pretty good, depending on which program you’re using and what kind of gift card you want.

You can’t redeem frequent flier miles for cash back, so gift cards are probably the next best thing. However, your options (and their value) vary tremendously by program. For example, Southwest offers travel-related gift cards at a value of just over 1 cent per point:

Southwest gift card redemptions

United, meanwhile, allows Premier members and those who have a Chase MileagePlus credit card to (for a limited time) use rewards for gift cards for various retailers. Value varies from about 0.6 cents per mile to about 0.8 cents per mile.

American also lets you redeem for gift cards via Points.com, but the value is pretty dismal. For example, a Macy’s gift card will require you to sacrifice your miles at a value of less than 0.4 cents each:

American airlines gift card redemption

Rental cars

Bottom line: You can often get more than 1 cent per mile with this option, whether you’re renting an economy car or a premium one.

Taking a road trip instead of flying? Renting a car with your miles isn’t a bad way to spend them. You can expect your points to be worth 1 cent or more, which fluctuates based on location and the type of car you’re renting.

For example, Southwest allows you to rent an economy car from Alamo at 6,704 points per day.

Southwest rental car redemption

Based on the daily rental price on Alamo’s website, that’s a value of 1.31 cents per point (not too far from the 1.43 cents a point that Southwest points are usually worth for Wanna Get Away fares as of February 2015). Upgrading to a premium car gets you only a slightly lower value of 1.2 cents per point.

Donating miles to charity

Bottom line: It’s hard to attach a monetary value to charitable donations. Instead, the value comes from knowing points you can’t use are helping others. Because the minimum amount you can donate is usually quite low, this is a good way to put points you can’t use for yourself toward a good cause.

Frequent flier programs usually give you the option of giving your points to charities that need them. You can help soldiers get home to visit family, for example, or help children with life-threatening illnesses take their dream trips.

Rules vary by program. American and Delta, for example, require you to donate a minimum of 1,000, and American allows you to donate your entire balance if it’s under 1,000 miles.

Magazine subscriptions

Bottom line: It’s an easy way to get rid of a small number of miles – and get a lot of value (1 cent or far more) out of each mile. Of course, the real value depends on whether you actually read the magazines.

Jet Blue, American, Delta, United and others participate in the Magazines for Miles program.

Magazine redemptions

Digital media

Bottom line: For a small number of miles, you can download a song or a book. While you’ll generally get a value of less than 1 cent per point, what else are you going to do with a couple hundred leftover miles?

United has a robust program for digital media redemptions. Songs generally cost around 160 miles each (placing the per-mile value at about 0.8 cents, based on the cost on iTunes and Amazon). Ebooks, meanwhile, go for about 1,000 and 2,000 miles (putting the per-mile value at about 0.5 cents per mile, based on prices listed on Amazon).

Merchandise

Bottom line: Redeeming for merchandise is rarely the best way to spend rewards – and airline programs are no different. The miles required to redeem for the nicer electronics can usually get you a round-trip flight – so think long and hard before redeeming.

Airline programs allow you to redeem for a wide variety of merchandise, from cooking equipment to electronics. This can be a good opportunity to splurge on something if you have absolutely no other use for your points and don’t want to pay cash for the item. That said, always check the price of the item online and make sure you’ve made your peace with getting a poor value for your points.

For example, United’s program allows you to redeem 45,300 miles for this Keurig system:

United merchandise redemption

That same system happened to be on sale on Amazon at the time this article was written for $143, meaning a value of only 0.3 cents per mile.

Hotels

The bottom line: The value varies by property, date and program, but you can get close to 1 cent per mile in some cases.

Perhaps flying isn’t in your future, but you’d like to take a staycation or book a room for a visiting family member. Several frequent flier programs allow you to use your miles a partner properties.

For example, a one-night stay in March at the Crowne Plaza Times Square will cost you 46,000 AAdvantage miles:

AA hotel redemption

Based on the dollar cost of the room, that’s a value of about 0.6 cents per point. What’s interesting here is that this hotel is an IHG property – and the IHG Rewards Club offers the same room for only 1,000 fewer points per night (45,000). That means you’re getting roughly the same value for your miles as you would within the hotel’s own rewards program. This is only one example, though, and your results (and value) will vary. We checked several other hotels, and value ranged from 0.5 cents per point to almost 1 cent per point.

Easy ways to keep your miles active

If you’re scrambling to redeem because your miles are about to expire, there are some easier ways to keep them active until you can redeem for a flight:

  • Use your airline card (if you have it): If you have the airline’s co-branded card, each transaction earns miles and therefore re-sets the expiration clock.
  • Join the dining program: Don’t want to sign up for an airline card (and an annual fee) just to keep your balance active? Many airline programs have dining programs, which allow you to connect any debit or credit card to your frequent flier account. Any time you use the card to pay at partner restaurants (these are usually chains that are located in many metro areas), the expiration clock re-starts.
 
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