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How to make your airline miles go far, even if you can’t


(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

With air travel at historic lows, those who once amassed significant stockpiles of airline miles are now watching them stagnate.

U.S. travelers collectively earn up to an estimated $2.75 trillion in rewards each year, and some are shifting focus from earning miles to spending. And for that, there exists more options than ever before. In addition to actual tickets and upgrades, everything from kayaks to kitchenware is on the tray table.

To which the experts insist: Buyer beware.

“The best value you’ll ever get in redeeming your miles is through purchasing actual flights,” advises Zach Honig of the Points Guy, a site that maintains a monthly valuation index of all the major perks programs. “I remember during the holidays seeing a brand-new MacBook Pro for [250,000] miles. A typical business traveler might find an offer like that appealing. But that could easily get you and a partner round-trip tickets to Europe in business class.”

With your international flight plans on indefinite hold, however, that fully loaded laptop is suddenly much more attractive. Which is precisely why some airlines, in recent weeks, have been devaluing their miles for such purchases. “As tempting as it might be, it’s not a great time to redeem them for merchandise,” adds Honig.

At any rate, just because you’re not going anywhere anytime soon doesn’t mean your points must suffer the same fate. Here are some sensible ways to put them in motion.

Improve your ground game

Currently, a single United MileagePlus mile is worth about 1.3 cents. If you were to book a $1,300 flight with the rewards currency, for example, it would require a balance of roughly 100,000. The airline also maintains its own awards catalogue, where you can shop from thousands of items narrowed down by budget. If you want an eight-piece set of Callaway Apex golf irons, it’ll set you back 495,700 miles. But that’s $6,444 in potential airline tickets for a bag of clubs typically retailing at $1,400.

“If you’re willing to take a haircut like that, make certain it’s for something of absolute necessity,” advises Spencer Howard, author of Straight To The Points, a newsletter providing awards alerts. “Baby gear is a good option.” For example, a popular choice is the Bugaboo Ant Stroller, available on Amazon from $520. Alternatively, it could be yours for 161,000 award miles.

Another outlying bargain exists at the moment for those in need of automotive support. A nationwide surplus in rental cars has caused prices to plummet — even more so when translated into miles. On the low end, a monthly rental from Hertz would run in the ballpark of $1,300. As of early May, MileagePlus Car Awards was offering a commensurate rate of 60,000 miles.

The gift of giving

Some would argue that nothing rewards quite like charity. And everyone can agree there’s no shortage of those in need at the moment. If you have the means, most domestic carriers make it easy via their websites to convert your miles into something more meaningful.

With one click, American Airlines will instantly transfer a minimum of 1,000 miles into financial assistance for your choice of one of three programs. You can direct it to either military families in need, those with medical emergencies or the food-insecure.

With certain programs, miles expire after a predetermined period of dormancy. For American’s AAdvantage, it’s 18 months. As an added benefit, Honig points out, charitable transactions preclude such actions.

“If you’re unsure of when you’ll be able to travel next, this is a thoughtful way to continually extend the life of your account,” he says. “It’s a win-win.”

Cash out

In addition to miles accrued directly with an airline, many of today’s savvy spenders have points built up with travel-specific credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the American Express Platinum Travel Card.

“If you have your travel rewards on a credit card, you have a lot more options,” explains Howard. “On most of them you can get at least one-to-one cash redemption rate towards your end-of-month statement,” where a point equals a penny. For example, 300,000 points will chop $3,000 off your bill.

But when cash is king, he suggests switching any saved Amex points to a special Charles Schwab card where each one is worth 1.25 cents. Then, that same 300,000 sum becomes $3,750 in your account.

Chase, for its part, is running frequent 10 percent discounts on gift cards to popular retailers including Bath & Body Works, Chili’s and HelloFresh, to name a few. A $10 gift card requires just 900 points.

“I really encourage people to not leave other card benefits on the table right now,” explains Maya Kachroo-Levine, a professional travel writer. “For example, my Amex Platinum gets me Uber credit every month and while I can’t take Ubers, I can use that credit toward Uber Eats. My Chase Sapphire Reserve gets me no fees on DoorDash, so I use that often as well.”

Check with your card provider and see if any promotions have cropped up in recent weeks.

A flight of fancy

Of course, you can be forgiven if the dreams of your next far-flung adventure are too enchanting to surrender. Thankfully, your miles can now go a lot further in fueling those fantasies.

“There are so many incredible opportunities for those willing to plan ahead,” according to Howard. “We’re seeing great inventory on deeply discounted awards trips, particularly at the beginning of next year.”

Business-class tickets to Asia, New Zealand and Australia, for instance — which routinely fetch 150,000 points each way — are in abundance at rates close to half that. And many carriers, including Alaska Airlines, have suspended redepositing fees should you decide to ultimately cancel the bookings. So there’s little downside to the optimism. Even if your miles remain unused, a little hope will carry you a long way.

“I’m fully expecting to do a lot of traveling by the beginning of next year,” Howard says.

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