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Travel credit cards make it easy to earn all kinds of rewards ranging from airline miles to hotel points and flexible travel credit. While the value of the points you earn will vary depending on how you redeem them, it’s not unheard of to receive 2 cents per mile or point in value from airline miles or hotel points for certain, high-value redemptions.
On the flipside, you can also redeem your rewards for some pretty awful items, and even ones that let you get half a cent in value or less. That doesn’t make these redemptions “wrong” per se, but it does mean you’re effectively leaving money on the table when compared to other options.
If you have a travel credit card, a hotel rewards card, or a flexible travel credit card that lets you redeem points for airfare, hotels, and more, here are the redemption options you should avoid.
Many rewards currencies let you cash in your points for merchandise. With some rewards portals, for example, you can redeem points for purchases made through Amazon.com or at Apple stores.
While this isn’t the worst option in the world, redeeming points for electronics, small household appliances, and other types of merchandise will typically get you one cent per point in value, and often a lot less.
Delta SkyMiles offers some of the worst merchandise redemptions you can find. For example, they want 141,880 miles for a 10.5-inch iPad Air with Wi-Fi. This same model currently costs only $649 at Apple.com, so you’d be getting significantly less than half a cent per point.
While it may seem tempting to use points for merchandise (free is free, right?), if you can bank enough points for something of higher value, it’ll be worth the wait.
2. Low value transfers to airlines
Most travel rewards enthusiasts know that transferring points to airlines can help you get more bang for your buck, but you have to remember this isn’t always the case. High value airline transfers can be a good deal, but not all programs are created equal.
For example, it’s common to transfer your points to the card issuer’s airline partners and receive at least 2 cents per point in value when you go to redeem. That’s because your points will typically transfer 1:1, with the exception of certain airlines.
But some programs offer paltry transfer ratios. For example, the IHG Rewards program lets you transfer points to airline programs like Air France/Flying Blue and Alaska Airlines, but you’ll only get 2,000 airline miles for every 10,000 hotel points you transfer.
Takeaway: not all points transfers are equal. Sometimes it makes sense to lose points in the transfer just to be able to use the points, but when you’re sacrificing thousands of points just for the privilege of transferring, you’re better off finding a different travel partner to use the points for.
3. Trading airline miles for hotel stays
If you have a bunch of airline miles you can’t seem to use, it might be tempting to cash them in for hotel stays through the airline’s portal. This isn’t the end of the world, and redeeming miles for hotels is better than letting them expire. Still, you won’t get very much value in return if you choose this option.
Take the American AAdvantage program, for example. You can use miles to book free hotel stays, but redemption values are not great. For random dates I chose this year, they wanted 188,500 miles for a free stay at the Ritz-Carlton Bal Harbour in Miami at the same time a paid stay would set you back $1,185 per night. That means you would get a lot less than 1 cent per point in value, which is a significantly lower value than you’d receive if you cashed in your miles for flights.
Don’t be in so much of a hurry to book your entire trip on points when saving them for your next trip will give you much more value. (See also: How Travel Rewards Cards Can Help You Score Luxury Travel Perks)
4. Gift cards
Almost every rewards program lets you cash in your points or miles for gift cards, and this can be a decent value if you don’t have the option to redeem for travel. However, you may receive less than one cent per mile in value if you cash in airline miles from an airline loyalty program for gift cards, and even flexible programs might only give you 1 cent in value per point with this option.
Cashing in travel rewards for gift cards should really only be your last resort if you find you absolutely cannot travel or your miles are about to expire.
5. Magazine subscriptions
Please don’t ever cash in your miles for magazine subscriptions, even though several programs including Delta SkyMiles advertise this option. With Delta’s “MagsforMiles” program, for example, you can get six to 228 issues of various magazines like People and The Wall Street Journal in exchange for your miles.
The value you’ll get in return may not be that bad, but this is a poor way to use airline miles no matter what.
6. Using miles for cheap flights
Finally, don’t forget to check the cash value of any flight you plan to book with miles before you pull the trigger on an award redemption. You should always strive to get at least one cent per point in value when you redeem airline miles for flights, and you should consider paying in cash if you aren’t hitting that threshold. Some experts would even say you should push to get 1.5 cents per mile in value, or close to 2 cents per mile.
When flights are cheaper than normal, paying in cash or flexible travel credit makes more sense. (See also: 9 Hidden Expenses to Plan for When You Redeem Travel Rewards)
The bottom line
Just because you can redeem your travel rewards in a number of different ways doesn’t mean you should. For the most part, you’ll be a lot better off if you redeem travel rewards, airline miles, and hotel points for the redemptions they were intended for.
If you do want to redeem rewards for statement credits, gift cards, or merchandise, you should consider picking up a cash back credit card that offers these standard redemptions. Your rewards are yours and you can spend them however you want, but travel rewards are worth more when you use them for travel instead of stuff.