The 7 best ways to redeem airline miles without flying
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Usually, the best way to redeem your airline miles is to get yourself right back into the sky on an award flight ... perhaps with a partner airline instead of the one you actually earned the miles with, but that's another story entirely. That's how you'll often reap the benefits of getting the most value out of your miles.
Redeeming airline miles for meals in the airport, in-flight WiFi or even (gasp!) a toaster, while perhaps tempting at times, generally means you're getting 1/4 - 1/2 the value you could if you redeemed for travel.
But, there are exceptions to every unwritten rule and sometimes there are some great opportunities to cash in your miles for something other than a flight.
Here are seven TPG-approved ways to redeem miles without actually flying.
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Cost or per point return: 0.6-1.5 cents per point
Many flexible rewards currencies allow you to redeem miles for everyday purchases. The redemption rate varies from 0.6-1.5 cents per point. For example, you can redeem Amex Membership Rewards for cash at 0.6 cents each, while Citi ThankYou points can be redeemed for one cent each.
Chase offers the best redemption rate through Pay Yourself Back. Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholders can redeem points at 1.25 cents each for purchases made at grocery stores, home improvement stores and dining establishments, including take-out and delivery services. Meanwhile, Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders can redeem points for 1.5 cents each. This option is available through Sept. 30, 2021, and may change beyond that.
Cost or per point return: 1 cent per mile or higher
If you're feeling generous and want to put your miles to good use, donating them to charity is a great option. Reward programs like Citi ThankYou, Amex Membership Rewards and American AAdvantage allow you to donate your miles toward causes that support frontline health workers, cancer research, education and more. You can also donate your miles directly to organizations like Miles4Migrants, Rainbow Railroad and JustGiving to cover transportation costs for refugees who are at risk and can't cover their own expenses.
Donating miles to charity is a good way to put them to use if you don't think you'll redeem them for travel anytime soon and are concerned about devaluations. That's a definite possibility, considering airlines have taken a huge financial hit during the pandemic and have resorted to selling miles (to consumers and banks) to stay afloat. At some point, there will be too many miles on the market and airlines will want to minimize liabilities. The solution? Devaluations.
Book travel for others
Cost or per point return: Varies
Do you have a friend or family member who works hard and could use a vacation? If you have some miles to spare, booking travel for others can be a rewarding option. We've personally used miles to cover travel expenses or subsidize hotel stays for family members on many occasions.
TPG's Points and Miles Editor Ariana Arghandewal once redeemed 160,000 Ultimate Rewards points to fly her aunt and uncle from Australia to the U.S. Booking travel for others ensures that you get maximum value out of your miles - in more ways than one.
Rental cars or hotel rooms
Cost or per point return: Varies but can be as low as 0.46 cents per mile
Airline miles are usually best used for flights. But, in some cases, you may be able to get good value from booking a rental car or hotel room using airline miles. For example, TPG points and miles editor Ariana Arghandewal once got a redemption rate of 10 cents per mile when she redeemed American Airlines miles for a rental car in Maui. And, TPG points and miles writer Katie Genter has considered using her Malaysia Airlines miles to book a hotel stay as she's struggled to find a high-value use for her small stash of Malaysia Enrich miles.
Some airline loyalty programs also let you transfer miles to select hotel loyalty programs. Granted, you'll usually lose substantial value when doing so. For example, you can convert United MileagePlus miles to Marriott Bonvoy points at a 1:1 ratio. Based on TPG's valuations, you'd be giving up a mile worth 1.3 cents for a point worth 0.8 cents. But, if your miles are expiring or you need to top-off your hotel points balance for an upcoming redemption, it may be worth it.
Cost or per point return: 0.73 - 1 cent per mile
If you travel frequently and have more airline miles than you can possibly use for family vacations, you may be looking for a redemption that will make your travel more comfortable. One way to add comfort to your frequent travels is a lounge membership. And most airlines allow you to purchase a lounge membership using your miles. Luckily, TPG points and miles writer Katie Genter recently considered whether paying for airline lounge membership with miles is a good deal.
Katie found that you can redeem American Airlines miles and Delta Air Lines miles at a rate of one cent per point toward lounge memberships. But, redeeming United MileagePlus miles to purchase a United Club membership will only give between 0.73 and 0.76 cents per mile. So, it may be better to get a credit card that provides airport lounge access, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express, Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® or United Club Infinite Card.
Special events and experiences
Cost or per mile return: Varies
Some airlines let you redeem your points and miles for tickets to special events. One of the best examples of this is Emirates Exclusives — the carrier lets you bid on tickets to major sporting events with your Skywards miles. The program is currently paused due to the coronavirus outbreak, but it can be a great use of miles when it's safe to attend these events in the future.
United offers a similar program under the name MileagePlus Exclusives. This program lets you use miles to bid on various experiences like concerts, sporting events and exclusive happy hours. Again, the program is suspended for the time being but can be a great use of miles depending on the winning bid.
Newspaper and magazine subscriptions
Cost or per mile return: Varies
Most major airlines allow you to redeem miles for a list of newspaper and magazine subscription options — including digital-only ones. These redemptions are typically powered by MagsforMiles or NewspaperRewards and include several major titles, ranging from People to Travel + Leisure to Barron's and more.
Redemption rates vary by airline and title but typically start as low as 100 miles. For instance, you can currently get 12 issues of InStyle magazines for 100 Delta SkyMiles. Paid subscriptions are currently available for $9.75, so you'd be getting nearly one cent in value per mile. While not the highest yielding redemption, it's a decent option for those looking to redeem a small number of miles or want to keep their miles from expiring.
While travel remains the best way to redeem points and miles, it isn't always an option when you're short on points for an award or there's a pandemic restricting travel. The options outlined above allow you to get at least some value out of your rewards while saving a bit of cash. And that's perfectly acceptable.
Feature photo by AsiaVision/Getty Images