IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Frequent-flier mile awards that have little to do with flights

To assuage mounting traveler frustration over the difficulty of booking frequent-flier tickets, airlines are offering members a cornucopia of goods that have little to do with flights.
Yolanda Gomez / New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

Having a hard time exchanging those frequent-flier miles for a ticket? How about a box of chocolates instead?

To assuage mounting traveler frustration over the difficulty of booking frequent-flier tickets, airlines are offering members a cornucopia of goods that have little to do with flights. Starting next month American Airlines plans to let its frequent fliers use miles to book car rentals and hotel stays online. Earlier this year, Delta revamped its online Marketplace, smoothing the purchase process and expanding the merchandise to include everything from a 3/4-pound tin of Godiva chocolates (8,500 miles) to laptops (285,000 miles). And next month, Delta will allow all members of its loyalty program to exchange miles for gift cards for stores like Gap and Lands’ End — a perk previously reserved for elite fliers and Delta credit-card holders. Meanwhile, United has created an entire ad campaign around alternative award options, including hotel and car rental bookings, and is billing itself as the airline that “wants you to use your miles.”

Loyalty without seats?
Airlines had to do something to convince loyalty program members that all those miles they’ve been racking up are still worth it. Landing the flight you want using frequent-flier miles has long been a challenge, but it’s gotten worse over the last two years as airlines have shrunk capacity to increase profits. Reward trips in the United States dropped 10.3 percent to 21.7 million last year from 24.2 million in 2008, according to the latest data compiled by IdeaWorks, a loyalty program consulting firm. And with airlines under continual pressure to pack flights with paying passengers, that free ticket will only become more elusive as travel demand rebounds.

“If consumers don’t see any potential reward at the end of the mileage-earning road then they’re going to start disengaging from these programs,” said Tim Winship, editor at large for and the publisher of “When that happens the airlines lose the significant revenues generated from the sale of miles to all the program partners.”

Enter the chocolates. Alternative awards attempt to address “the perception that may exist among some travelers of difficulty in using their miles,” said Tom O’Toole, chief operating officer of Mileage Plus Holdings for United, which has also been promoting a guarantee that any open seat on its plane can be booked with frequent-flier miles — so long as you’re willing to dole out enough miles. “We study intensively what travelers want in a loyalty program, and travelers told us they want to be able to use their miles.”

Doing the math
Hotel rooms, rental cars, even chocolates may sound like a good deal if you’ve ever tried to book a frequent-flier ticket only to be thwarted by black-out dates and tiered mileage calendars showing that the one day you want to fly requires double the miles. But are the alternatives worth it?

The answer to that question depends on how you value your miles. The conventional calculation is to divide the price of a ticket by how many miles you would spend for the same thing. Using 25,000 miles for a $350 ticket, for example, would yield 1.4 cents per mile. By contrast, a KitchenAid 10-piece porcelain cookware set that costs $150 on is listed on United’s online shopping page for 24,800 miles, or 0.6 cents per mile. Here, the free ticket is clearly the way to go.

But say there are no seats available for 25,000 miles for the flight you want, as when I searched for a round-trip ticket on United from New York to Miami, leaving on a Friday in early November and returning on Monday. Instead, I had to spend 50,000 miles for that same ticket, which would yield just 0.7 cents per mile. Though not a great return on miles, now the cookware isn’t looking like such a bad deal.

Clothing, electronics and food are among the worst deals when it comes to spending miles. For example, a North Face Apex Bionic men’s jacket listed for 30,300 miles on costs about $130, or 0.4 cents a mile. The laptop? About $1,000, or roughly 0.3 cents, a mile. On the other hand, booking hotel and car rentals with miles tend to offer the best value next to free airline seats. A night at the Four Seasons Hotel, Los Angeles at Beverly Hills in early November was 49,300 miles on, or 0.9 cents a mile, at $445 a night on A full-size car from Alamo was 10,000 miles a day, or 0.7 cents a mile, at $73 a day on

Bundling miles and cash
Delta and United also offer the option of using a combination of miles and cash to book travel. Delta frequent fliers without enough miles in their account get a message during the payment process to let them know. “We’re sorry. You do not have enough miles to redeem for your total itinerary. But don’t worry — you can still pay using a combination of miles and money.”

In early November, a night at the Hilton Disney World could be had for 27,604 miles or a miles/cash combination of 14,606 and $65 at Not a great deal, considering the same stay was going for $140 at American, which will also let its loyalty members use miles and cash in combination, plans to offer discounts on hotel and car bookings for some elite frequent-flier members.

American, Delta and United have actually allowed frequent fliers to use miles for hotel and car rentals for some time. But the process was clunky, requiring an agent’s help to manually convert the miles to a cash equivalent and book the hotel, or presenting a voucher at the car rental counter. Now the transaction, which is powered for each airline by ezRez, a software company that specializes in online travel, is similar to booking at an online travel agency like Expedia or Travelocity and offers a wide range of hotels. American, for example, will begin offering online hotel bookings in exchange for miles at more than 10,000 locations in over 320 destinations worldwide in November.

As with any third-party booking site, be sure to print out your itinerary and take it with you. United discussion forums on, where travelers share tips about getting the most out of loyalty programs, have mentioned baffled car-rental agents and hotel reservations that have gone missing.

Meanwhile, some frequent fliers are mulling the value of those chocolates: $25 from Godiva, or 0.3 cents a mile. At these rates, many fliers would hold out for a free ticket instead. But what good are all those miles if they’re just sitting dormant in your account?

For now at least, alternative awards offer a new outlet for fliers fed up with the lack of free seats. As Mr. Winship of said, “It’s not solving the problem but its mitigating the problem somewhat.”

This story, Frequent-Flier Mile Awards That Have Little to Do With Flights, originally appeared in the New York Times.