ATLANTA - 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.
AirTran, Delta and United are among carriers that allow their frequent fliers to use their credits or miles to pay for hotel rooms, rental cars, meals at restaurants or electronics. Delta's SkyMiles program alone has more than 70 million members.
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 roundtrip 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 roundtrip flights of 3,125 miles in length each (roughly the distance you would fly roundtrip between St. Louis and Los Angeles). Assuming you pay an average $250 per roundtrip 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% 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% 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 three major airlines and how much it will cost you.
The discount carrier participates in a global points exchange called Points.com where AirTran flight credits can be traded for hotel rooms and other items.
Join for free and then start browsing the different categories of Points.com partners (hotels, retail, travel). You can initiate a trade by requesting the number of miles or points you want to get from another participating reward program in exchange for your AirTran flight credits. If you see a trade you like, you can accept it. Or move on and look for a better exchange.
Participating in such programs is one way several airlines are expanding how you can use your points, credits or miles.
On the points exchange site, you can also turn your miles into certificates accepted at more than 200 retailers and restaurants.
An example: On Points.com you can trade three AirTran flight credits for 2,000 Priority Club points. Priority Club is a hotel reward program. You can use those points toward stays at hotels including Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn and Staybridge Suites. But, if you accept this trade, it also will cost you $87.
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 non-travel 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.
Some other helpful tips:
• Remember, sign up for an airline frequent flier program. It is free to join.
• Consider using your airline rewards for upgrades to first class or business class. That's another way to get more bang for your buck, because buying a business class seat at the time of booking can cost you twice as much as a coach seat. But if you book a coach seat and upgrade the day of the flight using your reward points, miles or credits, you save a bundle.
• One unusual offer: For 100 AirTran frequent flier credits, the carrier will buy you a ticket anywhere in the world on any airline, with no restrictions besides the advance purchase requirement. So, if you want to travel at a peak time to Tahiti, AirTran will buy your ticket for you and you even earn the frequent flier miles on the carrier you choose for the flight.
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