With several airlines changing the way you earn miles -- namely basing mileage on how much you spend for a ticket rather than how far you fly -- you’ll want to make the most of what you do accumulate. Even if you don't have enough points to redeem free award flights, there are many ways to reap the benefits of your hard-earned miles, onboard and off.
Make online purchases: Airlines have expanded their online stores, recognizing that it’s more difficult than ever to trade earned miles for a free ticket. The caveat is that you’ll almost always get a better deal by using cash instead of mileage, but it's worth a look if you need to keep your miles active. (Some airlines require you to earn or redeem miles every 18 months or so to keep from expiring.) For example: In United’s digital media store, you can purchase the latest Taylor Swift song for the equivalent of $1.60, just 30 cents more than on iTunes ($1.29). That's a small price to pay to maintain thousands of dollars’ worth of mileage.
Redeem gift cards: You can redeem your mileage for gift cards through Points.com and similar online services. Restrictions, such as a minimum balance or member status, may apply, and available cards can vary from airline to airline. Generally, though, expect to find all the major retailers -- including Amazon.com, Best Buy, Home Depot, Walmart, and Target -- among the participants. Some airlines also allow you to use your miles for online service subscriptions like Ancestry.com.
Limited time offer: Now through January 31, 2015, United is putting a twist on gift cards this holiday season. In addition to using your mileage to purchase gift cards, you can do the reverse and exchange any unwanted gift cards for miles. A $25 gift card will earn you 1,000 miles.
Score event tickets: Hankering to go to a football game? Want to catch the next Britney Spears concert? Some airlines offer concert, sporting event, and theater tickets in exchange for mileage. Using Delta SkyMiles (or a combination of miles and cash), for example, you can get free tickets to Broadway favorites including Wicked, Mama Mia!, and Jersey Boys. Again, just know that purchasing these tickets with cash only may be a better deal.
Experience life: Take that sporting event or concert to the next level with what airlines are labelling “experiences.” American Airlines, United, and Delta host auctions for opportunities to walk the red carpet at award shows, gain VIP access to your favorite performer, attend a high-profile sporting event, like a Bowl game. Is it worth it? That depends on how desperate you are to meet Elton John or watch Notre Dame play.
Go out to dinner: Through United’s MileagePlus program, you can purchase dining cards to participating restaurants. The program has two options: a $50 Lettuce Entertain You dining gift card for 6,800 miles (roughly $68) and $25 Restaurants.com gift card for 500 miles (roughly $5). Restaurant choices may be limited and not always the best, so be sure to do your research on where you can redeem the gift cards first.
Upgrade your flight and airport experience: Almost every airline will allow you to cash in your miles for an upgrade from economy class to business or first class. You can also use mileage to purchase membership into airline clubs and lounges, such as Delta’s Sky Club.
Exchange, trade, or gift: To take better advantage of your miles, consolidating is useful. Points.com lets you trade miles with other members, at a small fee. (It also lets you exchange your own miles on one airline with another, but usually at horrible conversion rates that aren't worth it.) Alternatively, can’t decide what to give Dad for Christmas? Alaska Airlines allows you to gift your miles to friends and loved ones.
Sell your miles: Need cash? You can sell your miles online using services like FlipMyMiles.com. Simply request a quote, agree to the terms, and receive the funds instantly via PayPal or as a cashier’s check delivered by mail.
Donate your miles: Alternatively, you can use your miles to make a difference. Several airlines let you donate to a good cause such as the American Cancer Society, American Red Cross, Make a Wish, and The Salvation Army. One airline with its own take on donation is American Airlines. It allows travelers to donate to its own charities: Miles for All Who Serve (veterans’ needs), Miles for Kids in Need (children’s needs), and Miles of Hope (improving worldwide quality of life).