Airlines have been tinkering with their frequent flier programs to spur loyalty. Increasingly they’re giving customers the option to buy more than plane tickets with their rewards, and that may offer more bang for your buck.
Delta and United are among the carriers that allow their frequent fliers to use their credits or miles to pay for hotel rooms, rental cars, meals at restaurants or electronics.
The expanding programs are generally a win-win situation. By giving away fewer free tickets, airlines have a larger supply for paying customers, but perhaps more importantly giving customers more variety drives more loyalty to the airlines.
And frequent fliers get to buy something that may offer more value than a plane ticket when you consider how long it took you, and how much you had to spend to earn the program rewards.
A standard domestic round-trip coach ticket can cost at least 25,000 miles in many programs. One way to get that many miles is to buy tickets for eight round-trip flights of 3,125 miles in length each. Assuming you pay an average $250 per flight, that would run you $2,000.
If you turned around and used the miles for a free ticket on a shorter flight that only cost $150, you are effectively getting a 7.5 percent return on the money you spent.
But instead, if you used the air miles for two free nights in a hotel that cost a total of $300, you would be getting a 15 percent return.
Not bad if you are looking to save money and stretch your frequent flier rewards.
Here’s a primer on what you can buy with your rewards on Delta and United and how much it will cost you:
Delta Air Lines
The world’s biggest airline recently launched an online marketplace in which its frequent flier program members can redeem SkyMiles for hotel rooms, car rentals and merchandise.
On Delta.com you can use miles to book hotel rooms and car rentals and buy appliances, luggage, handbags and jewelry.
The marketplace offers more than 6,000 items. That’s far more than Delta frequent fliers have had access to in the past when newspaper and magazine subscriptions were popular nontravel options.
An example: Under the new marketplace program, an Apple iPod Nano will run you 29,000 miles.
Hungry? You can eat for free instead of fly for free and maybe stretch your miles.
United allows you to use your reward miles to purchase certificates to eat at numerous restaurants around the country.
Go to United.com or the airline’s partner, Restaurant.com.
You can redeem as many miles as you like for multiple Restaurant.com certificates. Pick your restaurant from over 13,000 choices nationwide. Some restaurants may restrict redemption to specific days or require a minimum purchase.
An example: For 2,000 United Mileage Plus miles, you get four $25 Restaurant.com dining certificates.