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Can’t Use Your Miles? Give Them Away!


By now most of you know the current mantra of frequent flyer miles: “Easy to earn; impossible to use.” That’s not really the case; after all, if you’re willing to pony up two to three times the base level of miles, you can almost always find a seat. But paying 50,000 or 60,000 miles for what you think of as a 25,000-mile trip is galling. Neither is continued delaying on that “free” trip. Instead, if you can’t use your miles yourself, consider giving them away to a relative or friend, especially someone who might be a bit more flexible about travel dates than you are. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}

The best way to give miles is to donate them as an award trip, not as miles. That way you get full value, with no exchange or transfer fees. Of course, giving an award trip means finding out one or more places the recipient would like to visit, at least the approximate dates when he/she can travel, and finding seats for whatever itineraries are practical. Clearly, the more flexible the recipient, the more likely you are to find the right trip. Once you do, you can have the trip ticket issued in the recipient’s name. Unfortunately, the easier approach—just get a paper award certificate issued to the recipient&mdash seems no longer to be available on most lines. And once ticketed, you can no longer change travel dates without charge, at least on some lines. Still, giving the award trip is by far the most efficient way to give some of your miles as a gift.

If giving a full trip doesn’t work, most big lines allow you to transfer points from your account to another individual’s account. But you have to pay a transfer fee of upwards of one cent a mile, and many of us believe miles aren’t worth any more than that in the first place. Of course the airlines are happy to transfer miles for a fee: It’s one of the few cases where a merchant can sell the same thing twice. Transferring points with a fee is a pretty poor value proposition if you’re giving enough miles for a trip. It might make a little more sense, however, if you have fewer than 25,000 miles that you want to unload from your account before they expire.

The worst way to give miles is to use an airline’s “give miles” program. In those programs, you don’t give miles you’ve already accumulated; instead, you give new miles. And the fees to do that are outrageous— somewhere around two to two-and-a-half cents a mile on most lines. In most cases, those gift miles would cost considerably more than the cost of the ticket the miles would buy. On American, for example, giving the 25,000 miles a recipient would need for a base-level domestic award would cost $625. For that kind of money, you could buy even a long-haul domestic ticket, without having to worry about limited seat availability. These buy-gift-miles programs are strictly for chumps and suckers.

Of course, if you have a big chunk of miles to give, a frequent traveler recipient might be delighted to receive a gift membership in an airline’s lounge club program. But those mileage prices are stiff: A one-year membership in American’s Admirals Club, for example, requires 80,000 miles. Because the cash price is $500, American is giving you a really lousy exchange rate of just 0.6 cents a mile. Feh.

If you have only a few miles in your account, more and more airlines allow you to use them for small purchases. The most common offer is for a magazine or newspaper subscription, where, for example, 700 miles will get you 12 issues of Golf Digest and 1,400 miles will get 20 issues of Fortune.

Overall, however, the main value of miles remains in their use for travel—if your gift target is flexible and patient enough to take what seats are available. Otherwise, it’ll be hard to get a value as much as one cent a mile.

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