April 7, 2012 at 11:54 AM ET
Been having trouble redeeming your frequent-flier miles or points lately? If you’re a member of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program, help may be at hand.
For a mere 213,750 points, you can not only snag a seat on an SIAI Marchetti fighter plane but fly it and engage in multiple dogfights. Try doing that with your typical award seat or upgrade and the only fight you’ll be having is with the police when you land.
The above experience is just one of 40 offbeat awards compiled in a new report from IdeaWorks, a market research company in Shorewood, Wis. From onboard treats to out-of-this-world adventures, airlines are offering unique rewards that add new value to travelers’ frequent-flier accounts.
Consider some of the options:
According to Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks, airlines offer such offbeat rewards for a number of reasons.
“I think they’ve felt enough negative feedback regarding [regular] award availability that they’re trying to offer more options,” he told msnbc.com. “Secondly, they’re feeling more competition from bank-issued rebate cards that they feel compelled to spruce up their offerings.”
At the same time, says Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com, such offerings speak to the aspirational nature of frequent-flier programs: “These sorts of rewards transcend basic economics and cast a warm, fuzzy glow around the programs.”
In fact, anyone considering cashing in points or miles for an offbeat award should be aware that under the usual calculus — each point or mile is worth about one cent — paying cash is sometimes the better way to go.
For example, members of Air France KLM’s Flying Blue program interested in a heritage flight on a DC3 would be better off paying the $167 fee than using the 50,000 miles (equivalent to $500) the program requires.
On the other hand, considering a 7-night stay on Necker Island, Sir Richard Branson’s private island, retails for $28,895, the 1 million miles ($10,000) Virgin Atlantic requires is a relative steal.
Either way, the real value of these rewards is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, especially for those with large program balances earned through more flights than they care to count.
“The magic of these rewards is that if you’re an elite member, oftentimes the last thing you want to do is take another flight, even if it’s free,” said Sorensen. “They’re almost like impulse buys.”
Of course, such impulse buys do require some advance planning. Consider Etihad Airways’ Guest program, which offers members the opportunity to purchase a 68-foot yacht valued at $3.5 million.
The bad news? It’ll set you back 385 million miles. The good news? The price includes delivery.
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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.