American and United Launch Miles-for-Shopping Deals

As I mentioned in a blog post earlier this week, we've unofficially begun the holiday shopping season. And all that gift buying creates an opportunity to earn plenty of extra points and miles at the loyalty programs' mileage malls.

With most mileage malls offering bonuses of various types, it pays to comparison-shop before committing to buying from a particular retailer to earn miles in a particular program.

With that in mind, following are competing mileage mall promotions from two of the largest airline programs.

American

Of the two offers, American's is the more traditional: double miles for purchases at 15 AAdvantage eShopping mall retailers, through December 31. As a kicker, there's a $25 gift card after using a registered MasterCard credit or debit card to spend $250 or more.

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Among the participating merchants: Diamond.com, Foot Locker, Golfsmith, Hammacher Schlemmer, HP, JCPenney, Jos. A. Bank, Macy's, Omaha Steaks, Piperlime, QVC, Sally, Sears, Sunglass Hut, and ThinkPad.

United

United is offering Mileage Plus members more miles for shopping at any of 20 participating retailers, plus up to 2,000 additional bonus miles: 1,000 bonus miles for spending $500; 1,500 bonus miles for $750; and 2,000 bonus miles for spending $1,000 or more.

Unlike American's straightforward double miles, United's retailer-specific bonuses are a mixed bag. Nordstrom, for example, is increasing its mileage payout from three miles per dollar to four miles per dollar. Barnes and Noble, on the other hand, is upping its mileage incentive from one to two miles per dollar spent.

The United merchant line-up: Apple Store, Barnes and Noble, Blue Nile, Brookstone, Circuit City, Clinique, Dell Home Systems, Harry and David, Hickory Farms, Kohl's, Macy's, Magazines.com, Nordstrom, Overstock.com, RedEnvelope, REI, Sears, Sephora, Shoes.com, and Williams-Sonoma.

Your Mileage May Vary

If both airlines were offering multiples of the normal earning rates at the same merchants, it would be a simple matter to compare these promotions head to head. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

There are only two retailers participating in both promotions, Macy's and Sears. In American's offer, members shopping at Macy's earn four miles per dollar; in United's, the incentive is 3.5 miles per dollar. But that's only part of the story.

If their total purchases during the promotion period amounted to $500, Mileage Plus members would earn an extra 1,000 bonus miles, effectively raising the Macy's payout to 5.5 miles per dollar.

On the other hand, AAdvantage members could snag that $25 gift card after spending just $250.

As the above shows, comparing promotions sometimes just isn't possible.

Still, there is an approach that value-conscious consumers might consider if they're intent on squeezing every last mile from their holiday purchases. Rather than compare the offers overall, or even between merchants, compare prices and bonuses on specific items.

As an example, I searched for the Kung Fu Panda video game for use on a Sony Playstation 3.

AAdvantage members can purchase the game from Sears for $39.99, earning four miles per dollar, or 160 miles. Mileage Plus members can buy it for the same price, $39.99, at Circuit City, earning 2.5 miles per dollar, or 100 miles. So far, advantage American.

If the $250 spending threshold is reached, the American deal further trumps United's. But if $500 is spent, the extra bonus will give the United offer the edge.

Whether they do the math or not, mileage-collectors should take advantage of the extra miles in play in the run-up to Christmas. The more they give, the more they'll receive.

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