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Online Shopping Malls Beckon Mileage Mavens

SmarterTravel

The latest chapter in the unfolding story of travel rewards programs may well be entitled “Buy and fly.”

Over the past 25 years, the majority of frequent flyer miles have been earned for actually flying, followed increasingly closely by miles accumulated for making purchases with program-affiliated credit cards.

While the airlines decline to divulge specifics, anecdotal evidence suggests that a third category of mileage earning is growing faster than both flying and credit card use, and could eventually overtake both as the programs’ number-one generator of frequent flyer miles. Tellingly, the up-and-coming category, mileage malls, isn’t even related to travel, suggesting just how far the programs have progressed in their evolution from frequent flyer to frequent buyer programs.

A mileage mall is a network of online retailers that award miles for purchases to members of a particular program. Over the past few years, all the largest U.S. airline programs have developed such online malls, the largest of which boast between 100 and 200 participating online stores, enabling program members to earn miles for purchases of every imaginable type of merchandise.

American’s AAdvantage eShopping mall, for example, allows members of American Airlines’ program to earn miles, typically between one and three miles per dollar spent, at more than 200 online merchants, from the Apple Store to Nordstrom to Zappos.com. Delta’s SkyMiles Shopping Mall includes about 150 online stores, and United’s Mileage Plus Mall features more than 120 merchants.

Even smaller programs hosted by such regional carriers as Alaska Airlines and Midwest Airlines have mile malls, although Alaska’s directory lists only about 100 participating retailers, and Midwest’s has just one third that many.

Among the major hotel chains, the programs of Marriott and InterContinental have malls, with the Marriott Rewards and Priority Club Rewards shopping malls each featuring almost 200 retailers. TripRewards, the frequent-stay program for the Cendant Hotel Group (Howard Johnson, Ramada, etc.), offers points-for-purchases at a modest collection of 17 merchants.

American Express Membership Rewards has redesigned its program benefits to include a mileage mall. Beginning on October 1, Membership Rewards members will no longer earn double points for purchases charged to an American Express card at stand-alone supermarkets, gas stations, drugstores, and the U.S. Postal Service. Replacing the everyday double points offer will be an online mall where Membership Rewards members can earn two points per dollar spent at more than 100 retailers.

Begin at the beginning

While earning miles at the mall isn’t complicated, it does entail one easy but critical extra step.

As many would-be mileage collectors have discovered, it’s not enough to be a member of a program and shop at a program partner’s website. Miles and points are only registered and awarded when program participants begin shopping at the mall’s own homepage, which generally can be found one or two clicks away from the website of the airline or hotel that hosts the program. From there, shoppers and their membership numbers can be tracked and any purchases made at participating merchants’ websites can be credited to their accounts.

No miles are awarded for shopping directly on the store’s website—there’s no provision for capturing the shopper’s frequent traveler information—and the programs won’t award credit retroactively for shopping trips that bypass the mileage mall’s main entrance.

More miles for merchandise

In the run-up to fall, several programs now have special “back to school” bonuses in effect, allowing shoppers to earn extra miles at select merchants.

Through September 17, AAdvantage members can earn double miles for purchases at select merchants participating in the AAdvantage eShopping mall. With the bonus, members earn six miles per dollar spent at Target.com, Lands’ End, and Overstock.com; four miles at Staples and Nordstrom; and two miles at HP Home Store.

Through September 15, Northwest WorldPerks members who spend $150 shopping at the WorldPerks Mall will earn a one-time 500-mile bonus.

Search for reward opportunities

Since there’s no extra charge to earn miles for purchases at participating online retailers, and many brand name retailers are affiliated with one or more mileage programs, ever-growing numbers of savvy mileage collectors make it a point to channel as much of their business as possible to merchants that award miles.

But with so many merchants offering miles and points in so many programs, it can be challenging to determine which retailers are linked to which programs. And as new merchants are added to existing programs and new malls are developed by programs that previously lacked them, the difficulty increases exponentially.

Two websites, evreward.com and RewardsDB.com, simplify the process of connecting retailers and programs by allowing users to search for travel rewards opportunities by merchant name, category, or program affiliation.

Want to earn miles for your next online book purchase? A quick search on either site shows that Amazon.com doesn’t award miles or points in any travel-rewards programs, but Barnes & Noble offers three miles per dollar spent in American’s program, five miles in Continental’s program, and two miles in United’s program.

The choice is clear: just buy, or buy and fly.

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