Most seasoned frequent fliers know using miles for gifts isn’t nearly as lucrative as using them for award flights. But as many of us become frustrated with the ability to use miles for flights, airlines and banks are increasingly offering ways for us to use miles for actual merchandise, ranging from toys to electronics to luxury jewelry. That can come in handy during the holidays.
The four biggest mile marketplaces are from Delta SkyMiles, United MileagePlus, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou. American and Southwest Airlines don’t offer miles for merchandise options. And Chase Ultimate Rewards operates a marketplace, but with significantly less selection than the big four.
We reviewed the mile and point prices of 12 popular holiday gifts currently available in mileage marketplaces. The results showed a wide range for the exact same merchandise depending on which miles or points you use:
- United had lower prices than Delta for all 12 items, with Delta charging 30% more on average
- Citi ThankYou offered the lowest points price for 10 of 12 items – 31% fewer points than the average
- The value you get for your points is not great – every 10,000 points gets you about $48 in merchandise value on average among the marketplaces studied
- The most expensive gift of all? 20,195,760 American Express Membership Rewards points for a limited edition Chopard L.U.C. Quattro Tourbillion Mens’ watch – which has no listed price, but similar watches are available for resale for tens of thousands of dollars
- If you’re using bank points, consider a gift card redemption instead. You’ll usually get about $100 per 10,000 points in value and can use the gift card to buy the merchandise yourself, saving a lot of points.
- If you’re using airline miles, gift cards aren’t an option, but you’ll usually get better value using them for a flight. Why not make a memory and use the miles for a special holiday trip? A 25,000 mile domestic ticket can save you about $300, a much better deal.
- If you’re a very frequent flyer, you’ll get better prices if you log in to your account. Both Delta and United offer discount prices for their most frequent flyers – about 14% less than general member pricing for Delta and 22% for United.
- Shipping is included. You won’t need to lay out any cash to take advantage of merchandise awards, unless you want to expedite shipping.
- Expect to wait about 10 days for your items to arrive – so order this week to get them in time for Christmas
So Delta continues down its path of being more stingy with the value of your miles than other airlines like United. But your best value comes from bank points programs. And that makes sense – since bank points programs are less likely to have members with ultra large balances, since you can only earn bank points like Membership Rewards via credit card spending, while airline programs let you earn miles from both flying and credit card spending.
A rundown of the gifts we compared is below…
1. iPad Mini 16GB Wifi
- Delta SkyMiles: 67,300 miles
- United MileagePlus: 56,100 miles
- American Express Membership Rewards: 53,040 points
- Citi ThankYou: 36,400 points
- Google Shopping: $315
2. Bose QuietComfort 15 Headphones
- Delta SkyMiles: 52,400 miles
- United MileagePlus: 51,500 miles
- American Express Membership Rewards: 33,193 points
- Citi ThankYou: 36,200 points
- Google Shopping: $269
3. Keurig Platinum Brewing System
- Delta SkyMiles: 52,200 miles
- United MileagePlus: 34,000 miles
- American Express Membership Rewards: 38,000 points
- Citi ThankYou: 22,000 points
- Google Shopping: $176
4. Canon Powershot A2500 16mp
- Delta SkyMiles: 43,600 miles
- United MileagePlus: 19,300 miles
- American Express Membership Rewards: 25,030 points
- Citi ThankYou: 8,800 points
- Google Shopping: $69
5. Michael Kors Bead Fireball Stretch Bracelet
- Delta SkyMiles: 16,000 miles
- United MileagePlus: 11,600 miles
- American Express Membership Rewards: 12,150 points
- Citi ThankYou: 10,600 points
- Google Shopping: $85
6. Radio Flyer Classic Red Wagon
- Delta SkyMiles: 43,600 miles
- United MileagePlus: 32,700 miles
- American Express Membership Rewards: 33,060 points
- Citi ThankYou: 16,200 points
- Google Shopping: $69
7. Samsung 32″ 720p LED TV
- Delta SkyMiles: 80,600 miles
- United MileagePlus: 72,300 miles
- American Express Membership Rewards: 62,430 points
- Citi ThankYou: 40,900 points
- Google Shopping: $280
8. Fisher Price Lil Quad
- Delta SkyMiles: 23,800 miles
- United MileagePlus: 17,100 miles
- American Express Membership Rewards: 16,700 points
- Citi ThankYou: 11,400 points
- Google Shopping: $69
9. Samsung 3D Blu-Ray Player
- Delta SkyMiles: 26,100 miles
- United MileagePlus: 20,800 miles
- American Express Membership Rewards: 21,410 points
- Citi ThankYou: 19,700 points
- Google Shopping: $88
10. Samsung 3D Blu-Ray Player
- Delta SkyMiles: 50,500 miles
- United MileagePlus: 40,200 miles
- American Express Membership Rewards: 38,021 points
- Citi ThankYou: 33,000 points
- Google Shopping: $200
11. Michael Kors Lexington Gold Watch
- Delta SkyMiles: 43,900 miles
- United MileagePlus: 28,200 miles
- American Express Membership Rewards: 31,610 points
- Citi ThankYou: 20,100 points
- Google Shopping: $119
12. Ray-Ban Aviator Sunglasses
- Delta SkyMiles: 26,000 miles
- United MileagePlus: 19,800 miles
- American Express Membership Rewards: 21,560 points
- Citi ThankYou: 18,600 points
- Google Shopping: $90
It’s official: Start using American miles on US Airways flights in January, status partially reciprocal
Corrected 1/9/14 – US Airways elite policy clarified – elite status will not be fully reciprocal in January as the merged status benefits have not yet been decided.
Around January 7, 2014 American and US Airways elite fliers will enjoy *some* (not all) reciprocal benefits on American and US Airways flights. That means similar level elite fliers will enjoy similar level benefits on each airline – though our guess is upgrade benefits are not part of them. Here is the word from US Airways’ transition website:
- “Currently, we won’t match elite status levels between the two programs. Beginning in early January 2014, Dividend Miles Preferred members will receive select benefits when traveling on American and vice versa. Decisions about elite status under a combined program have yet to be made, but we’ll keep you updated and will provide plenty of notice for any decisions that impact our members.”
That means things like which elite tiers will exist in the new American haven’t been decided. Nor has how upgrades will work for elite members. Our guess is the new airline will move to the US Airways model of offering domestic upgrades that don’t require certificates for all status levels. But there are other areas that aren’t aligned, like the number of System-Wide upgrades given to 100,000 mile level fliers. American gives 8, US Airways currently gives only 2. Our guess is they will meet somewhere in the middle once the programs merge.
Other changes coming…
- You can earn American miles on US Airways flights starting January and you can earn US Airways miles on American flights starting in January
- You will be able to use American miles to book US Airways flights and US Airways miles to book American flights starting in January as well
- Reciprocal US Airways Club and American Admirals Club lounge benefits will apply starting in January
- US Airways will remain in Star Alliance until March 31, which means for that brief period you’ll be able to use US Airways miles for both United and American flights, a great opportunity
- US Airways will join OneWorld on March 31 and you’ll be able to use your US Airways miles on all OneWorld partners. Reciprocal status benefits will be phased in
- The frequent flier programs will be combined by late 2014 or early 2015 – then your mileage accounts will merge.
- There is no plan yet to be able to transfer miles from US Airways to American or back. It could come in January, but the language is not clear, and that means it could be pushed back to a later date. Here is what the US Airways transition site says: “Will I be able to merge or move my miles from one program to the other? Not at this time. We will maintain separate loyalty programs – AAdvantage and Dividend Miles – and you can continue to earn and redeem miles through each program separately.”
- The new brand / paint scheme has not been finalized – it’s possible the old scheme could be retained
- The new airline will operate as one by the end of 2015 – with a single ‘operating certificate’ and all benefits equalized
Basically, American and US Airways will still operate under each others’ ‘house rules’ from January onward but you’ll be recognized with some benefits in the interim.
What’s not answered yet:
- When will a new award chart be released? It could come in January, but most likely will happen when US Airways joins OneWorld in the Spring.
- Will your Citi AAdvantage MasterCard free baggage and priority boarding work on American flights in January? Maybe – they said free baggage benefits for elites would be reciprocal in January. So if this is coded properly you’ll be able to use a Citi AAdvantage MasterCard to get the first bag checked free on US Airways flights soon.
- Will you be able to use US Airways MasterCard companion certificates on American Airlines flights? Probably not – our guess is they keep those limited to just US Airways operated flights, and the benefit may phase away once the two mileage program are merged. But they could surprise us and allow using them across both American and US Airways flights sometime next year.
But it’s a decent time to consider a US Airways MasterCard – with the first purchase you’ll get bonus miles which you can quickly use to take advantage of both American and United / Star Alliance flights starting in early January.
Now that United is about to substantially raise the prices on awards in First and Business Class to Europe, Asia, and other far away places next year the old advice on when and where to best use those miles is starting to change.
For example, it used to be that using your miles for a 100,000 mile Business Class award to Europe was a slam dunk in value – beating out the other option of upgrading with miles and paying an extra fee.
Now, with higher prices for award tickets and lower prices for full cash business class tickets that’s looking less clear. So what do you do with your hard-earned United miles via the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card?
Let’s take a popular romantic destination, Paris. Here are your paid options for travel next summer roundtrip from the East Coast:
- Coach: $1,299
- Business: $3,474
With miles your options are:
- Business Class Award – United flights: 115,000 miles + $144 in taxes / fees (almost no availability though)
- Business Class Award – Partner flights – 140,000 miles + $144 in taxes / fees (better, but still slim availability)
- Coach to Business Upgrade – $1,299 + $1,100 co-pay + 40,000 miles
|Airfare / Taxes||Copay||Extra taxes||Total||Miles spent||Miles earned||Net miles cost||Savings per mile|
|Award - United flights||$144||$0||$144||115,000||0||115,000||$0.029|
|Award - Partner flights||$144||$0||$144||140,000||0||140,000||$0.024|
|Business class fare||$3,474|
We factored in your cash outlay, the cost of paying for a Business Class ticket in cash, and the net miles you will spend (since with an upgrade you will earn miles for your coach ticket).
And while an upgrade means a really big cash outlay – almost $2,500 – in terms of dollar savings per mile you use it is a better deal than the ‘free’ award ticket at United’s new, higher prices. You’re getting over 3 cents per mile in savings, versus just 2.4 cents if you’re stuck using a Partner award.
So if you are cash-rich and miles poor, then this is a decent deal. Unfortunately most of us are miles rich and cash poor and spending over $2,000 on airfare isn’t an option. In that case of course, using miles for an award in Business Class (if you can find one at the Saver levels) is still a very good deal.
And there are other advantages to an award instead of upgrading…
- You can confirm your seat in Business in advance. Upgrades usually have to be waitlisted so you may not know if you will be sitting in Business Class until the moment your plane is about the leave the gate. United can sometimes hold back upgrades to the very last minute as it tries to sell seats for cash.
- You can take advantage of stopovers. This is the ‘priceless’ part of a traditional mile award. You’re free to fly to another city during your trip, like Rome for example, and stay as long as you’d like (up to about a year), then go on to your destination, Paris in this case and stay as you’d like. Normally this will cost you hundreds of extra dollars in airfare, but it’s a benefit included in every award ticket.
Some of the benefits of upgrading include…
- You earn regular and Premier qualifying miles. Since you’re traveling on a paid coach ticket you’ll earn miles that count for Premier elite status as well as regular miles you can use toward future upgrades or award flights.
- You can take the most convenient flights. Using a Saver mile award often means you’re stuck taking an extra connection or two, or going on days that don’t fit your schedule well. Paying in cash and upgrading gives you a better shot at traveling on the flights you want – your days and your times – and with the most direct routing.
So while upgrading from Economy to Business on United doesn’t come cheap thanks to huge co-pays and high fares to Europe next summer, you shouldn’t think of it as a waste of your miles. In fact, it’s a very good value all things considered.
Of course, if you choose a different mile program – like American Airlines – you’ll find an even better deal. While an upgrade on American will cost your 50,000 miles roundtrip, you only pay $700 in cash for the co-pay – a savings of $400 versus United. That’s well worth spending an extra 10,000 miles.
> See credit cards that earn American AAdvantage miles.
There are reports that a targeted 50,000 point bonus offer is available to some applicants for the American Express® Premier Rewards Gold Card via CARDMATCH on CreditCards.com.
The offer as seen on 11/26/13 was:
Get 50,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $1,000 in purchases within the first 3 months. That compares to 25,000 points after $2,000 in purchases for the current non-targeted offer.
There is an Introductory annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $175.
How does it work?
You just enter some basic personal information – your name, address, and the last 4 digits of your Social Security number. Then you will see if this is one of the offers that you are eligible to apply for. You will not have a credit pull on your report for doing this – it just matches you to the eligibility criteria for the offer.
Do I need to be affluent to qualify?
American Express® cards sound high-end, but they are actually accessible to a lot of us. On CreditKarma.com the average credit score approved for this card was 737, and the lowest was 681. Because this is a charge card that you must pay in full each month, rather than a credit card that lets you carry a balance from month to month, you may find it easier as an entry level card for rewards than some.
Note that this offer is not guaranteed – only targeted customers who see the offer on CARD MATCH are eligible to apply for it.
How long will it take for the points to post?
Once you cross the spending threshold Amex usually posts the points to your account within a few days after that date. Officially they say it can take several weeks, but in practice you may find it more quickly. So those points might be ready for an award booking by Christmas time.
Where can you use the points?
50,000 Membership Rewards® points are very versatile, especially for international travel. While you’ll often pay fuel surcharges for big business / first class tickets, no other program has more global options that will get you in that big seat.
Membership Rewards® points transfer to over a dozen airline miles programs, including Delta, JetBlue, British Airways, Air France / KLM, and Virgin Atlantic. So you can send your miles to the accounts you have in those programs and build on the balances you already have. Or, you can use them to book travel directly from Amex and pay for all or part of your flight with any airline. The 50,000 points is worth up to $500 in travel in this case. That’s helpful for anyone!
Will you want to keep this card?
The annual fee is $175 after the first year. If you’re trying to earn Delta SkyMiles, this is one of the fastest ways to earn them because it offers a 10,000 point Membership Rewards® bonus after spending $30,000 each year, and offers 2x points at gas stations and supermarkets. All of these points can be transferred instantly to your Delta SkyMiles account.
Original report via BoardingArea.
Citi ThankYou points don’t get a lot of attention among serious mile and point earners because they lack a big feature: the ability to transfer the points into multiple airline and hotel programs.
Unfortunately Hilton points aren’t worth all that much on their own – a bit less than half a cent each in many cases, while ThankYou points are worth 1.25 – 1.3 cents depending on whether you have the Premier (1.25) or Prestige (1.3).
But for the first time this month Citi has been offering a special transfer bonus when you send ThankYou points to your Hilton HHonors account.
For every 10,000 ThankYou points you transfer, you’ll get an extra 5,000 HHonors point bonus. Without the promo transfers from ThankYou to HHonors get a 50% bump. So with the promo you get double the number of ThankYou points as Hilton HHonors points:
- 10,000 ThankYou points = 20,000 Hilton HHonors points
- 20,000 ThankYou points = 40,000 Hilton HHonors points
- 10,000 ThankYou points = 15,000 Hilton HHonors points
- 20,000 ThankYou ponits = 30,000 Hilton HHonors points
Is this worth it?
With HHonors points worth about 0.4 cents each, and you earning double the HHonors points, then each ThankYou point is worth about 0.8 cents when transferred. That’s not a great deal since you get 1.25 cents in value by booking any hotel or flight via the Citi ThankYou Rewards center online.
However you might find it a good deal if you have a bunch of HHonors points already and want to top them off for an award. A t ypical urban Hilton hotel like the Hilton in San Francisco will run about 50,000 points a night, or 20,000 points + $85 if you use ‘cash and points.’ With rooms there running around $200 or so a night that’s about half a cent a point in value, or one cent in value for your ThankYou points since you are getting double the number of HHonors points as the number of ThankYou points that are deducted from your account.
Below is all the fine print from Citi. The deal is good through 12/31/13 and there is no limit to the number of points you can earn via the bonus. Just note that while the base transfer is immediate, the limited time promo bonus points won’t post to your HHonors account immediately – they can take up to 30 days.
You can transfer your points online at www.ThankYou.com.
- 0/31/13-12/31/13 — Promotion Terms and Conditions:
Offer is valid for Points Transfers completed between 10/31/13 and 11:59ET 12/31/13. “Extra” refers to Hilton HHonors™ Bonus Points received through the offer in addition to the base redemption rate of 1 ThankYou Point to 1.5 HHonors Bonus Points. The Extra 5,000 Hilton HHonors Bonus Points will be received for exact multiples of 10,000 ThankYou Points transferred. There is no limit to the number of ThankYou Points you can transfer or Extra Hilton HHonors Bonus Points you receive during the promotion period. The Extra Hilton HHonors Bonus Points will be posted to your Hilton HHonors Member Account within 30 business days. See thankyou.com/terms for complete ThankYou Points Transfer Terms and Conditions. Must be a Hilton HHonors™ member and must register your HHonors number in advance through HHonors.com to participate in this promotion. HHonors Bonus Points do not count toward elite tier qualification. Hilton HHonors Points required for a reward night vary based on the category of hotel and whether the reward night is redeemed at a location during a peak or off-peak period. Visit HHonors.com/Hotel Rewards to see the number of points required to book rewards stays at each category level. Reward nights and Bonus Points are defined by HHonors in the HHonors program Terms and Conditions. Hilton HHonors membership, earning of Points & Miles™ and redemption of Points are subject to HHonors Terms and Conditions. Visit HHonors.com/Terms for complete program Terms and Conditions. ©2013 Hilton Worldwide.
- If you have a Citi ThankYou® Premier Card account or a Citi Prestige® Card account, you may transfer your available qualifying ThankYou Points to Hilton HHonors Bonus Points, subject to the following minimum and incremental points requirements, by using the Points Transfer feature of ThankYou Rewards. Each transfer must include a minimum of 1,000 ThankYou Points and any additional amount must be in increments of 1,000 ThankYou Points. In order to transfer ThankYou Points from your ThankYou Member Account into Hilton HHonors Bonus Points, you first must have set up your ThankYou Member Account with a user name and password either through the ThankYou Service Center or thankyou.com and also your Hilton HHonors Member Account with a user name and password through HHonors.com.
- Upon completion of a transfer, the resulting Hilton HHonors Bonus Points can be posted only to your Hilton HHonors Member Account.