Small Business

Making the Most of Your Flier Miles


Online ticketing has made it easier to see when free seats are open. American, Delta Air Lines (DAL ) and Continental let you know on their Web sites where award travel is still available. Right now, American has Miami to Barbados and New York to Paris wide open on various flights.

If you strike out with your primary carrier, check its partners. Many airlines have forged new alliances: Continental, Northwest Airlines (NWAC ), and Delta will let members use their miles interchangeably this summer. US Airways Group (UAWGQ ) and United already permit it. Of course, see what hotel and car-rental partners your mileage program offers if you need those services.

MILES FOR POINTS. On the ground, you can convert miles into points in a loyalty program, such as Hilton HHonors or Holiday Inn Priority Club, that offers goods or services. Research your transfers wisely since each program offers a wide variety of purchase options and works a little differently, depending on what you want to buy, where you want to shop, and what miles are accepted. You could exchange 50,000 Continental OnePass miles into 100,000 Hilton HHonors points (membership is free), then convert those points into $200 worth of gift certificates at Bloomingdale's (FD ) or a three-day adult ticket at Disneyland, among other things. Club Rewards by Diners Club accepts only American and United miles, but 50,000 of their miles equals 50,000 points. Club Rewards offers dozens of items, such as an eight-piece Calphalon cookware set, or a $250 gift certificate at Saks (SKS ) Fifth Avenue or Coach (COH )

Some airlines are offering merchandise or entertainment rewards. Continental OnePass has teamed up with eBay (EBAY ) to let members bid their miles on the auction site for sporting events, Broadway plays, and concerts. Right now, someone has bid 10,000 miles for two tickets to a New York Yankees game against the Houston Astros on June 10. The auction ends on June 3. OnePass members can enter at continental.ebaytravel.com.

BEWARE OF BROKERS. Some frequent fliers have turned to online mileage brokers such as awardtraveler.com and mileagebrokers.com to unload miles for cash. Sellers exchange miles from their accounts for an award and turn it over to the broker, who sells the certificate at a price as much as 50% off the regular airfare. Sellers generally get 1 1/2 cents to 2 cents a mile, so 25,000 miles would bring in about $400. But be aware that frequent-flier programs prohibit the sale of awards, so if the airline catches you, it may shut down your account. Although the prohibition also applies to miles listed for sale on eBay, a recent glance at the site shows that someone is trying to sell two lots of 40,000 Alaska Airlines miles.

Say you have too few miles to do anything with -- or more than you can possibly use. Most major airlines let you donate your stash to specific charities, though these donations aren't usually tax-deductible. However, if you're a Diners Club cardholder and Club Rewards member, you can make a tax-deductible charitable gift with miles from United and American after you change them into points. You need 5,000 points to make a $30 donation.

So give your miles away, spend them on pots and pans, or cash them in for free flights -- just make sure they don't go to waste.

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