A recent trend in mileage awards is for airlines to offer merchandise that can be bought with miles. This is welcome news to frequent flyers, who have been begging for alternative awards to free flights. But is buying merchandise with miles a good deal? I put three airlines' programs to the test.
United's Mileage Plus Merchandise Rewards
United's elite members and Mileage Plus Visa cardholders can take advantage of an exclusive redemption opportunity with Mileage Plus Merchandise Rewards. Members can redeem as few as 4,000 miles for cameras, jewelry, kitchen appliances, luggage, and other products.
I priced out three awards in different categories to see if United's mile prices were a good deal. The first item was a three-piece kitchen set (food processor, toaster, and coffee grinder) by KitchenAid. United is charging 40,500 miles for the appliances. If a mile is valued between one and 1.5 cents, the dollar value of this award is between $405 and $608. When I priced the items separately on Amazon.com (I couldn't find a comparable set), the total came to $365. Not a bad deal, but you'll still save by purchasing the kitchen set with real money.
Next, I found an Olympus digital camera for 53,500 miles. The dollar equivalent was between $535 and $803. But, the same camera on Amazon cost only $250, less than half as much. If you redeemed miles for this product, your miles would be worth less than half a cent each—truly a bad deal.
I tried one last item, this time a Sony PlayStation Portable bundle. United will give you this portable game player for 58,000 miles, but Amazon will sell you a similar package for $250. At one cent a mile, United's award price is valued at $580, again more than twice as much.
Clearly, if you want to get the best value for your miles, you should not redeem them through United's Mileage Plus Merchandise Rewards. You'd do better redeeming your miles for flights and buying your kitchen appliances and cameras with money. However, if you have thousands of miles you never plan on redeeming for flights, you can get some pretty neat stuff from United.