Gift boxes with ribbons and christmas decor on wooden background

Should You Redeem Airline Miles to Buy Merchandise?

With the holiday season upon us, thoughts turn to shopping and gift-giving.

Whether it’s just keeping an eye out for a good deal or strategically targeting a sale, we all try to stretch and save a little money where we can. 

But, I always stop in my tracks when I read the title of an email from an airline, hotel, or travel rewards credit card that says something like, “Shop the Holiday Guide for Everything You Need this Season.”

Here’s a past example of one I’ve received from United’s MileagePlus Program.

United Holiday Merchandise

The promotion is to redeem your United Airlines miles to “pay” for award merchandise.

At first glance, it sounds like a great way to save some money and get your family and friends the gifts they want.

Similar schemes exist with Chase and American Express partnering with Amazon. Have you ever noticed when you’re checking out on Amazon it shows how many points you have with your Amex and Chase credit cards?

They “conveniently” show you the total points needed to pay for the goods in your shopping cart.

However, savvy travel hackers value their airline miles as currency. 

Miles have a specific value, just as money does and you always want to make sure you’re getting the most out of your miles, particularly after you’ve worked so hard to earn them.

So, the elephant in the room is:

Should you redeem airline miles to buy merchandise?

Or hotel points? Or travel rewards credit card points for that matter?

Let’s take a closer look at what United is offering.

Bloggers across the internet report their valuations of airline miles across a wide range of frequent flyer programs. Factors like award availability, how easy or difficult it is to earn the miles, and what value is achieved in redeeming the miles are taken into account.

These aren’t definitive valuations. Rather, it gives an estimated starting point as you determine how much your miles are worth.

American Airlines Airplane Flying
Should you redeem your airline miles for merchandise or save them for award travel?

For the purpose of this article and its examples, I’ll be using a1.5 cents per mile value of United miles to determine whether or not redeeming for merchandise would be a good use of your miles.

If you visit United’s MileagePlus website and click on use award miles, you’ll see an option to use miles to “shop” for popular products.

One of the gift ideas within the holiday gift tab is for a 10 piece All-Clad Stainless Steel Cookware Set.

united-merchandise-all-clad-cooking-set

You can purchase this gift set for 81,300 United miles. This includes all tax and delivery charges.

I did a simple Google search for a 10-piece All-Clad Stainless Steel Cookware Set.

Here’s what my results turned up.

all-clad-google-search-merchandise-1

It’s not surprising a range of stores sell similar cookware sets.

And, after doing a quick price comparison, it was easy to estimate an average cost between $400-$700 depending on where you shopped and which set you chose.

For example, this 10-piece All-Clad set selling on Amazon falls near the top of this price range.

United’s “deal” is to redeem 81,300 of their miles and the All-Clad cookware set will be yours.

But, when I multiplied the number of miles needed by the 1.5 cents per mile, I got a total value of $1,219.50.

This is how much relative value in miles you’d be spending to get a product selling for at least half of this cost on a variety of merchant websites.

Simply put, you would be redeeming $1,219.50 worth of United Airlines miles (a.k.a 81,300 miles) for an item that can be purchased from Amazon for half the price.

You could also opt for an even better-priced option by referring back to the Google search results.

Keep in mind, this also doesn’t take into consideration potential sales or coupon offers where the cookware set would be further discounted.

On the contrary, where could you fly on an award ticket for 81,300 United miles? 

A round trip domestic saver award flight within the United States and Canada is roughly 25,000 United miles! 

You and 2 others could fly to New York City and explore Manhattan

How about an incredible National Park trip out west to gems like ZionBryceArches, and Canyonlands?

Or perhaps you’d like to head to Canada to drive the Icefields Parkway or ski at Mont Tremblant?

Bryce Canyon National Park
Just after sunrise at Bryce Canyon in Utah…

Dreaming of an international destination?

Roughly, 60,000 United miles can take you round trip to Santiago, Chile and other popular South American cities.

For 80,000 miles, you could fly to Bangkok and other parts of Southeast Asia!

Would you rather get that cookware set or visit…

Cambodia Angkor Bayon Temple
…the stunning Angkor Temples in Cambodia!

Not enough to convince you?

Let’s look at another of the merchandise “deals” featured on the MileagePlus popular products holiday gift guide, Beats by Dr. Dre Studio Wireless Headphones.

Undoubtedly a popular gift for all ages!

united-merchandise-beats

You could use 43,700 United miles for this gift, again all taxes and delivery included.

Using the same method as above, 43,700 miles multiplied by 1.5 cents apiece equals $655.50 in relative value. Here are my simple Google search results for the Beats Headphones.

united-merchandise-beats

Again, a range of stores sell Beats Headphones. A quick price comparison estimated an average cost between $200-$400 depending on where you shopped and which set you chose.

For example, this pair of Beats Headphones selling on Amazon is near the lower end of this price range.

What’s the bottom line?

If you used United miles for the Beats Headphones, you’d be spending $655.50 (a.k.a 43,700 miles) of relative value on a gift you could buy for nearly $400 less!

Where could you fly on an award ticket for 43,700 United miles? 

A round trip flight from the U.S. to the Caribbean is 35,000 miles!

A one-way award flight to iconic European cities like ParisLondonPrague, and Budapest costs just 30,000 United miles.

Let’s be honest here! Beats Headphones or……

Hawaii - Where can Capital One Tranfer Partners take you?
…a gorgeous Caribbean beach!

Also, remember that with holiday spending on gifts and other essentials comes a lucrative opportunity to earn miles and get more value from the money you’re spending. 

Shopping portals increase your earn rate on every dollar spent.

Credit card bonus categories maximize your money’s return value.

Look out for quarterly or special bonus category promotions like Chase Freedom Flex 5x the points DiscoverIt’s 5% cashback.

Finally, it’s always important to compare airfare prices with the value of your miles and points just as we did here.

If you can book a cheap discount flight on Southwest, it may not make sense to spend 25,000 United miles.

Yes, it’s cliché for a teacher like me to say it, but always do your homework!  

You wouldn’t spend more money for an item you could get for less so be just as smart using your miles and points.

So, let’s return to the question we began with…

Should you redeem airline miles to buy merchandise?

No and No! 

You are throwing away value (read: money)! 

In fact, using your airline miles for merchandise is one of the worst ways to use your hard-earned airline miles.

This holiday season, save and stretch your money.

Hunt for bargains!

Comb through deal after deal.

But, don’t use your precious airline miles (or hotel points or travel rewards credit card points) for merchandise!

What questions do you have about miles and points for merchandise?

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should-you-use-frequent-flyer-miles-to-buy-gifts

38 thoughts on “Should You Redeem Airline Miles to Buy Merchandise?”

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Even if you only track a few accounts or have a few goals, miles and points can bring big rewards, Elaine.

  1. It’s nice to hear an honest opinion about these things. Do you have any tips on what Airline or group offers the best airmiles programme? That would be interesting to know.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, Lena! Your question is a perfect post idea. The short answer is that it ultimately depends on your travel goal, but stay tuned on the blog so I address your question more thoroughly. 🙂

  2. I’ve never gotten into the miles game which I kick myself for considering how many trips I go on – but the biggest struggle has always been the fact that there are so many different mile collecting memberships. Regardless, you should definitely always double check the actual value versus the supposed reward that is being offered!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Exactly right, Prianka. You want to get the most value from your miles and points. There are a lot of loyalty programs, but you can start by making a travel goal, checking on airlines that fly the route you need, and then working to collect miles for that airline or program. It’s always best to work backwards and start slowly. 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Haha, Mary, very funny! I’m positive people redeem their miles for merchandise during the holiday season and throughout the year not realizing what a bad deal it is.

  3. Your point is valid and you really need to compare where you want to go and what it will cost. I think you need to take into consideration the cost of the flight not just go by what the Points Guy says. For example I just checked flights on United, round trip from LA to Calgary (an hours drive to Banff) can be had for $269 so compare that to the Coach bag for $295 and a flight from LA to New York right now is $331 not much a difference.
    There are other flights that are far more, so keeping the points makes sense but if you are going to a destination that is cheaper, then spending your points on gifts makes more sense.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      You bring up such a great point, Rob. Comparing the cost of a flight in dollars and comparing that with the miles needed is very smart to be sure you are getting the best value. But, I still wouldn’t use the miles for merchandise. I’d pay for the flight with money and save the miles for a destination that makes more sense to use them. Using the miles for merchandise lowers the value of each mile, which is contrary to what travel hackers aim to do when deciding how to best use their miles. Thanks for sharing such a valid point!

  4. The most valuable things for me are travel and books. I don’t think it would make any sense to redeem my miles to buy books, so I will stick to free flights.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      I love how you have your priorities straight, Claudia! Stick with those free flights. 🙂

  5. Usually, airline miles give you the best value when redeemed for the airline tickets. that is because airlines are likely to consider it costs them less if you do than if they have to pay the bag company for the handbag you redeemed your points for. It makes sense and it is the difference between value, price and cost. It costs the airline less than what it is priced at and than what you value it for whereas for a handbag, it costs them the same as the price and the same as you value. Hope I managed to explain my point. Bu basically, it is usually best to use miles fir airlines, points for hotel

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Yes, and also using your miles for merchandise lowers the value of each mile meaning less of a return in value for you, Mar. You always want to squeeze everything you can to achieve the best possible return with your miles.

  6. I agree with you 100%! I’m collecting miles through Arrival + and there is absolutely NO WAY I am going to spend those on THINGS! Nope, not now, not ever. The whole point of getting the card was to make our traveling a bit cheaper. Stuff? Who cares about stuff? We already have too much of it anyway. 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      True, people have different priorities, Mags. But, if you even want to take 1 trip a year, your miles are better saved for this rather than for merchandise.

  7. To me, it’s almost always a bad idea to redeem points for merchandises, although I’ve never really thought about it as specific as The Points Guy. Redeeming them for flights, yes, but only when the taxes & charges are minimal – which, unfortunately is not always the case in where I come from.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Ugh, that stinks about the taxes and charges! Remember, though, that many airlines are part of a major alliance and your miles and points can be used on all of the partner flights. Some of these partners will and some won’t charge the excess fees. It’s important to know which ones do and don’t.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      If you mean collecting miles and points, Mary, then definitely! Miles and points can bring great travel rewards.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Now, you’re talking, Sher! Redeeming miles for business or first class flights is so sweet! 🙂

  8. Jackie — a question on this post — my wife and I used to travel quite a bit. Now we seldom leave the city and have no travel plans at all. I’ve been spending years babysitting United points to keep them alive. Now that United has iPads in their online store, it would be fun to have one, inspite of the inflated price.

    Would you still suggest I keep my points unspent in case someday I need to fly for a family emergency? Flying with points last minute is a losing proposition: I found out the hard way, if you use miles to get on a flight that does not have miles seats available, they charge you double to “open up” a miles seat for you. No kindnesses with airlines…

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, David. Of course, the best way to use those United miles is on a flight. But if you have no plans to ever use them for travel, then why not. The biggest mistake would be letting those miles expire and never getting anything for them.

  9. I have United miles due to expire in about 7 weeks and the only trip I might take to use them rather than lose them was blacked out for redeeming miles. I found out the miles can be extended 18 months by buying a gift card, magazine subscription, or merchandise. For merchandise, the cost can be split between a minimum of 2.450 miles and money. At 1.5 cents per mile, that would be about $36 to keep the miles alive, so, I purchased something this time (you can rank choices when searching from low to high cost). Normally I agree about not using them on anything other than air travel. Although I did know someone who had an entrepreneurial husband, and due to cash-flow problems, was glad to use miles one year as a one-time approach to debt-free holiday gift-giving.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Nancy. Don’t forget, you can also use the United shopping portal or dining program to earn a few United miles and reset your expiration date. These purchases don’t have to be a minimum amount, which means you could easily purchase an expensive item (less than $20) or even just eat at a participating restaurant where you may have already planned to eat anyways.

  10. Kelly McCulley

    As some one who travels a lot (5 out of the last 6 months) I find all of your comparisons informative, but lacking any understanding of many people like me. The last thing I want to do is get on another plane, so that cookware or new iPhone is far more valuable than another plane ride, no matter where.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Kelly. I understand what you’re saying, but if you’d prefer merchandise, cashback rewards are the way to go. Value is lost when airline miles are redeemed for items like this.

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