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Got miles? Forget the math and go for the merchandise!

How much is a frequent flyer mile worth?

Mileage Plus members participating in a new promotion from United will find that their miles are worth somewhere between a half penny and a penny each. Which raises the question: Can you do better? And if you can, should you?

The offer: Between October 1 and November 17, Mileage Plus members can redeem their miles for a wide range of merchandise, including consumer electronics, jewelry, sports equipment, housewares, etc.

(Merchandise awards have been available to elite Mileage Plus members, as well as Mileage Plus Visa cardholders, through December 31. The current promotion extends that offer to all other Mileage Plus members.)

To quantify the value Mileage Plus members can expect when redeeming their hard-earned miles for non-travel awards, I’ve chosen several samples at random, looked up their market values, and computed the per-mile value.

So, for example, program members can redeem 45,000 miles for a men’s Movado museum watch, available from for $272. Dividing the price by the mileage price amounts to a per-mile value of $.006 (six-tenths of one cent).

Or for 41,000, there’s a Canon 7.1-megapixel digital camera, priced at $199.99 at Circuit City, for a per-mile value of $.005.

And for 39,000 miles, on offer is a KitchenAid Artisan 5-quart mixer, selling for $299.95 at Williams-Sonoma, yielding a per-mile value of $.008.

So on the basis of our sample items, United’s merchandise awards are worth between $.005 and $.008 per mile redeemed. That compares rather poorly to the $.012 per mile that I use as the rule-of-thumb value for miles cashed in for free tickets.

On the other hand, when contemplating the predictable frustration associated with redeeming miles for a free trip, that Movado watch begins to look awfully attractive.

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