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Use miles to bid for vacations, cars, and other prizes

Wouldn’t it be great if you could use your extra miles to buy a car? How about a massage or a trip to Italy? If you’re sitting on thousands of untouched miles, these items could be yours when you bid at an online auction.

Four airlines have created online auctions where frequent flyers can bid on a variety of luxury items and pay in miles rather than cash. If you find award restrictions prevent you from using your miles for a free flight or you travel so much that you’d rather not book another flight, an auction might be a great way to get some value out of your stash of miles. But, bidding wars aren’t for the infrequent flyer; you’ll need several thousand miles at your disposal to have a hope of winning a bid.

How it works

Only Alaska, Continental, Frontier, and United have embraced the mileage auction concept. Of these four, Frontier and United began their programs in 2005 and Alaska only occasionally has an item to auction off. You can view items for auction on the airlines’ websites, but in order to bid, you must log in with your frequent flyer number and password or PIN and create a profile. You will have a choice of making a one-time bid or entering the highest amount you’re willing to pay and letting the site bid automatically for you. You must not bid more miles than you currently have in your account. In addition, Frontier and Continental allow you to purchase some items directly without bidding.

What you can win

Each auction site offers several categories of prizes, often related to sports, travel, spa treatments, the arts, and gourmet dining. At Mileage Plus Auctions, you can bid to win massages, a NASCAR ride, or a romantic dinner at home for two. At Continental’s OnePass Auction site, you can aim for tickets to Broadway performances or noise-canceling headphones, and at Frontier’s More Store, you can try your luck at winning sports tickets or a snowmobile excursion.

Who can win

Frontier limits access to its auction site to its elite Ascent and Summit members. The other sites don’t have stated restrictions, but infrequent flyers may find the auctions out of their league. According to a United spokesperson, the lowest winning bid was between 20,000 and 25,000 for a massage and the highest was 1.4 million miles for a Chrysler Crossfire car. A Vespa tour of Italy went for nearly 700,000 miles. Frontier does offer more affordable options such as a $100 eBags gift certificate for 5,000 miles and $50 restaurant gift certificates for 3,000 miles. But at press time, the lowest bid on Continental was 27,500 miles; United’s was 15,000. If you’ve only got a few extra miles, you’ll do better with the fixed-price items, which often come in under 10,000 miles, than with the bidding wars.

A good deal for some

You can actually find some good deals when bidding your miles for luxury items. If the value of a mile is one cent, then the person who won the Chrysler Crossfire paid only $14,000 for a new car. But if you normally pay $150 for an hour-long spa treatment, then you’ll be overpaying if you bid 25,000 miles (effectively worth $250). Another way to think about is by equating 25,000 miles with a free domestic flight. You might prefer to get a cross-country flight rather than a spa treatment for your miles; then again, if you find redeeming miles impossible, a massage might just be a better choice.

As always, the ultimate value of your miles comes down to you. If you would prefer a vacation package or gourmet meal to a free flight, then log on and bid your miles before your desired prize is going once, going twice, sold to another flyer.

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