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4 Best Ways to Use Airline Miles When You Can't Fly

Great ideas for redeeming points with, and without, traveling

logo for an air miles rewards program displayed on a wall

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En español | With a fantasy vacation in mind, you've been diligently banking frequent flyer miles to help pay for it. Sadly, your getaway has gone away because of the pandemic. Still, those miles are valuable, and now may be a good time to consider alternative ways to redeem them. While major airlines have extended their mileage expiration dates, miles earned at others may expire in as little as three months.

Fortunately, you can often cash in points for things other than your own travel. You might, for example, book travel for stressed-out relatives, or send someone in your life some cheery flowers. If you need a boost, consider booking a weekend away at a nearby hotel, or purchasing some helpful wellness products. Let's say your budget is tight this holiday season. You could opt for cash back, redeem your miles for gifts, or use them to make a donation to a favorite charity.

Don't give up on travel

Most likely, you accumulated your stash in one of several ways. You joined an airline loyalty program, perhaps one from American, United, Delta, Jet Blue, or Southwest or their partners; you made purchases with a generic travel card such as a Capital One Rewards Visa, and transferred your miles to an airline; or you used a co-branded credit card like the JetBlue Mastercard from Barclays to buy stuff.

"Generally speaking, the most lucrative way to use your miles is for travel, so I'd encourage readers to look at booking future trips with them,” advises Nick Ewen, senior editor at The Points Guy, a website that helps consumers maximize their travel experiences. “This can be especially true now, with most airlines offering flexible change and cancellation fees. See if a friend or family member could benefit from a free flight. Last-minute airfare can be expensive, but if a loved one is an essential worker, or needs to travel to be with a sick relative, you could use your miles right now and remove at least one stressor from their lives.”

Read the terms for transferring points carefully. Delta SkyMiles restricts transfers to other SkyMiles members, for example; you'll need their SkyMiles number to move points to their account. Transfers cost $0.01 per mile plus a $30 per transaction processing fee. Capital One's Venture credit card will let you transfer points to 10 or more airline loyalty cards.


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If travel is out of the question, figure out how many earned miles — or points, which tend to be more flexible — you have, and how to get the best value when redeeming them. Consider these options.

Charitable Donations. Times are tough for many, so you may want to give all or some of your points away. JetBlue, for example, has designated a list of 21 charities in three categories — youth and education, environment, and community — that Jet Blue TrueBlue members can choose from, including the American Red Cross; the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.; Make-A-Wish Foundation; the Ocean Foundation; and its own Jet Blue Foundation. Members simply select one or more and decide how many points to give — starting at 500 with no limit. They will be sent directly to the charity. Such donations are not tax deductible for individuals or the airline.

Weekend Getaways. Flying is out, and you need a break. Consider visiting a hotel with a liberal cancellation policy that you trust will be socially distanced and sanitized. Just do the math to determine if it makes more sense to use your miles or points for your room, or to purchase the room outright, using a credit card that will award you even more points.

Cash Back/Statement Credits. In this uncertain economy, deferring the cost of everyday expenses might help you relax. Why not redeem your miles or points for statement credits? Assuming that each mile or point equals a penny, and you have 100,000 points, you could shave $1,000 off your credit card bill.

Merchandise and Gift Cards. If you can't go places, you can always get stuff. Southwest Rapid Rewards Credit cardmembers, for instance, can choose products from a list of name brands, including Weber, North Face, Cuisinart, Dyson, Nintendo, Samsung, Sony, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, GoPro, Gucci and Dooney & Bourke. They can also purchase air purifiers, humidifiers, no-contact thermometers, rechargeable toothbrushes, digital scales, blood pressure monitors, and other wellness products. Finally, Southwest offers gift cards from restaurants, department stores and other merchants.

More flexible points awards often have a panoply of offerings for customers.

Buyer Beware. Remember that rewards programs are subject to change. Also, before purchasing a gift card from a restaurant or other entity, visit the website to make sure it's still in business.