One round-trip flight can get you free stuff. That's why you should never fly without joining your airline's frequent-flier program -- it's like leaving money on the table. But infrequent fliers can be discouraged by airlines' mileage expiration dates, which kill off mileage balances before those once-a-year trips can transform magically into a free flight. Rather than let your miles evaporate, you might as well put them to good use.
These low-mileage goodies don't get you the best value per mile, so frequent-flying aficionados like the folks at FlyerTalk (www.flyertalk.com) are generally not fans of redeeming miles for swag. But for infrequent fliers, leaving a few thousand miles sitting in an airline account doesn't help anyone -- especially if those miles expire after 18 months of inactivity.
Here are two easy options if you have earned 5,000 miles (or one round-trip flight across the U.S.) on major domestic airlines.
1. Redeem miles for newspaper and magazine subscriptions. AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, United, and US Airways all contract with Magazines for Miles (www.magsformiles.com), a company that lets you turn even very small amounts of miles into subscriptions. The magazines offered by different airlines vary; for instance United offers Marie Claire, while American Airlines doesn't.
This is probably the highest-value way to turn small numbers of miles into something valuable. You can get up to 10 magazine subscriptions for your 5,000 miles. Redemption amounts vary, of course: 12 issues of Essence (worth about $18) cost 500 miles, while 51 issues of The Economist (worth about $127) cost 3,200 miles.
2. Donate your miles. Transferring miles to another account isn't cheap. American charges $50 to transfer up to 5,000 miles; United charges $15 to transfer 1,000 miles. That's cheaper than buying miles outright, but it's a harsh cost per mile. There's also Points.com (www.points.com), which lets you exchange balances between mileage plans. You can swap 5,000 American miles, for instance, for 1,647 US Airways miles or for 1,062 Air Canada Aeroplan miles. But if you really can't get rid of your miles, you might as well donate them. Several airlines' websites let you transfer your miles to charities at no cost.
5 More Ways to Redeem Miles
Here are some other options that individual airlines offer for redeeming frequent-flier miles.
1. Redeem United miles for gifts. United has a great range of non-flight awards under 5,000 miles. For kids, the Mileage Plus Store offers the Lego Ultimate Building Set (a $26.53 value) for 5,000 miles or Sesame Street stuffed toys (worth $13 each) for 3,000 miles apiece. For grown-ups, you can get four $25 Restaurant.com (www.restaurant.com) gift certificates for 2,000 miles. Note: these gift certificates work at relatively few restaurants, and you can generally only use them to defray about half the cost of a meal. Or just say something with flowers: FTD.com (www.ftd.com) offers a mixed-rose bouquet (a $30 value) for 4,600 miles.
2. Get gift cards from Hawaiian Airlines. Considering the distance between Hawaii and the mainland, it's not hard to generate 5,000 miles here. Hawaiian Airlines lets you redeem small amounts of miles for pretty cool stuff. Your 5,000 miles can get you a $25 gift certificate at the Hawaii-based Foodland grocery chain or a $25 gift card to use at Ohana hotels in Hawaii or a whole bunch of casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.
3. Sift through Delta's SkyMiles Marketplace. Delta sends you to the SkyMiles Marketplace for a couple of bargain-basement options. It's pretty slim pickings, but it's better than letting your miles expire. I found a $7 National Geographic kids' book for 2,200 miles and one of those $15 bottles of pet stain remover for 4,400 miles.
4. Get LifeLock identity theft protection via American Airlines. LifeLock monitors your credit reports so no one can apply for new cards without your knowledge. The LifeLock service costs 2,500 American Airlines miles, but you need to remember to cancel it in 6 months or you'll start getting billed $9 per month.
5. Get a free one-way flight from Southwest. The low-cost carrier is the only airline that can let you turn one round-trip trip across the country into a free flight. Southwest's point system is based on dollars spent, not miles flown. Assuming you spent $450 for a Southwest flight, you'd have 4,500 Rapid Rewards points. That's enough for a $75 flight credit, which could get you from Baltimore to Cleveland or from Chicago to Nashville. (Don't forget that though the flight is free, you'll still have to pay some taxes). Want free stuff instead? To redeem your points on other goodies, you need to subscribe to Southwest's credit card.
How have you been using your miles? Tell us in the comments below.