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Non-travel benefits, military fares, overseas ATMs

This week, I’m answering a few shorter questions in place of the usual one larger report.

Non-travel use of frequent flyer miles

Several readers have asked about using their miles for something other than air travel. A typical question went this way: “Can we redeem our US Airways mileage for hotel use or any thing else?”

Given the desire of the airlines to reduce the huge inventory of outstanding miles—plus their extreme reluctance to give away any award seats—I was a bit surprised to find that most big lines offer little in the way of non-travel awards. Most of them do allow you to use miles toward vacation packages (involving air travel) as well as straight air trips; most offer opportunities to contribute miles toward charities; most let you use small numbers of miles toward magazine subscriptions; a few will accept miles for membership in their airport clubs. Beyond that, the pickings are slim:

  • American provides for use of miles for rental cars, Samsonite luggage, and for exchange into some hotel points.
  • Continental operates a very limited “Miles for merchandise” program that provides for discounts on a variety of merchandise. Details were not posted on the website, but in my experience, with many such programs, the “discount” is based on inflated list prices.
  • Delta operates a varied merchandise program, but it’s limited to “Medallion” frequent flyer members.
  • United frequent flyers can convert miles to “dining certificates” at participating restaurants. The nominal exchange rate is good, at two-and-a-half cents to five cents in certificate face value for each mile. The problem is, of course, limited restaurant participation and many restrictions on the use of the certificates. Still, in strict dollar terms, it’s the best non-travel use I’ve seen.

I found nothing similar posted on websites by other big airlines. However, program members may occasionally receive special promotions, so I suggest you keep checking with any program in which you have miles.

Several of the readers who asked this question were not clear about just what kind of “miles” they had. This report applies to miles in airline program; if you have your miles or points in a bank-run program, you can usually use them for lots of other purchases.

Military discounts

Given the widespread and almost universal “Support Our Troops” sentiments, you’d think the airlines would pitch in with good deals for service personnel on leave. As a reader asked: “Do airlines give the military a substantial discount and if so, how much?”

  • Among the giant lines, United provides the most specific information. Its website says that military fares may be available in some markets and it shows a list of military airfares on a few dozen individual routes. It posted a transcontinental fare of $199 each way, or $398 round-trip, with a one-day advance purchase and a one- to 30-day stay, available to military members on leave and dependents with appropriate ID. For a trip in January, fares available to any traveler were less than that, but the military deals may be better than regular fares for travelers who can’t book in advance or stay less than a week. United says its current program covers travel only through December 31 of this year. It’s anyone’s guess whether United will renew the program.
  • Continental posts a specific trip-entry page for military fares, for active duty service personnel and dependents. However, for the trips I tested, the “military” fares were the same as Continental’s ordinary fares. Presumably, as with United, they might be better than the best regular fares available for some itineraries when other low-priced tickets are not available. Continental also gives five percent discounts to members of the Veterans Advantage program.
  • American says it “may” offer military fares on some routes, but it posts no details.

I could find nothing on any other big line’s website. According to a recent report in the Boston Herald, Delta and US Airways used to offer military discounts but no longer do. Semper fi, Delta and US Airways!

No valid license

Security questions continue to trouble lots of travelers. One recently asked: “Can I still fly if my driver’s license is expired and I cannot renew it before my flight?”

What you need is a valid government-issued photo ID, not specifically a driver’s license. The main option, of course, is a passport. In neither case, however, can you use an expired document. The best information I could get from airline websites is that travelers without one valid government-issued photo ID can get on with two other forms of ID: A non-photo government ID, such as a social security card or a voter registration card, and a credit card or birth certificate.

Scooters and power chairs

Lots of disabled travelers rely on scooters or power chairs to get around in their daily lives, and many travelers would need such assistance when away from home. One reader asked it this way: “Can we take a scooter with a charger in the plane?”

According to the Department of Transportation, government rules require airlines to accept power chairs, scooters, and associated equipment. Where storage space is available, you can take “collapsible” scooters into the cabin; otherwise, the scooter (or a power chair) and its charger go as checked baggage. Ask your airline about making arrangements.

How “Global” is the ATM Alliance?

On several occasions, I’ve written about the Global ATM Alliance, including Bank of America, that provides reciprocal no-charge ATM withdrawals with other banks based in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and the U.K. But one reader questioned just how extensive that exchange program is.

“Many of the Global ATM Alliance members operate ATMs in branches or in affiliate or subsidiary branches outside their home countries. For instance, Barclays extends Global Alliance benefits to its ATMs in many African countries. Does BNP Paribas do the same for its African subsidiary banks? I have been trying to dig out this information without success.”

Like you, I’ve found the Bank of America website less than useful on such details. Fortunately, Westpac, the Alliance’s partner bank in Australia, posts a more comprehensive listing of the countries where member banks operate ATMs:

  • Barclays Bank: England, some Africa (Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe), France, Portugal, Spain.
  • BNP Paribas: France only.
  • Deutsche Bank: Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain.
  • Scotiabank: Canada, Chile, Mexico, the Caribbean.
  • Westpac. Australia, New Zealand, several Pacific Islands.

You pay no transaction fee if you have an account at Bank of America and use your debit (ATM) card to withdraw local currency from an Alliance member bank’s ATMs. You do, however, pay the Bank of America’s conversion fee of one percent. Still, that’s one of the very best ways to get foreign currency in the few countries where it’s available.

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