Don’t Swap Gift Cards for United-Continental Miles

Gift-Card-Exchange

United-Continental Airlines recently rolled out a gift card exchange program that allows MileagePlus members to trade unwanted gift cards for frequent flyer miles. While novel, the transfer program is far from ideal. Better gift card exchange options exist. To receive the greatest value for your gift card, steer clear of the MileagePlus gift card exchange and check out more favorable alternatives.

What’s the problem?

Simply enough, United-Continental doesn’t offer a competitive exchange rate. Unfortunately, with the program being brand spankin’ new and failing to disclose rates to non-MileagePlus members, exchange rate data is limited. But Darren Booth of the Frequently Flying blog ran an experiment with a $25 Target gift card. Trading it through MileagePlus, Darren received 670 miles, which works out to 26.8 miles per dollar. Each mile is worth 1-2 cents apiece, depending on how you redeem. That means each gift card dollar translates to 27-54 cents. For a $25 Target gift card, United-Continental will award a sum of miles worth $6.75-$13.50 (trending toward the lower estimate). Ouch.

What are the alternatives?

Rather than throwing your gift cards at flyer miles, we recommend trading for cash. Not only will you get a better value, but you’re not locked into redeeming strictly for MileagePlus options. A number of gift card exchange websites will be more than happy to buy your cards. Here’s a comparison of the top gift card exchange sites and how their Target exchange rates compete against MileagePlus.

 Website  Target Exchange Rate  Reward for $25 Target Gift Card
Plastic Jungle up to 96.6% $24.15
Cardpool 92% $23.00
 Monster Gift Card 88% $22.00
GiftCards.com 91% $22.75
Card Cash 91% $22.75
Gift Card Rescue 85% $21.25
MileagePlus 24-54% $6.75-$13.50

 

As you can see, Target gift cards are eligible for rewards up to 69% larger through a gift card exchange site. Once you cash your check, you can put the money toward airfare, or, if you change your mind, you can use it for anything your heart desires.

Again, we don’t, at this point, have access to MileagePlus exchange rates for other gift cards trade-ins. But if a Target card is purchased for a mere 670 miles, we can venture a guess other rates will be comparably unfavorable. We’ll give them credit: United-Continental came up with a laudable idea with potential to be a real boon for frequent flyers. But, as with most first attempts, the program isn’t exactly flawless. Until better gift-card-for-miles programs begin to sprout, keep cash your king and stick to popular exchange sites.

  • Dennis

    Susan is absolutely correct. You cannot apply the miles you have to a travel expense unless you can cover the whole transaction. I just had a long discussion with Customer Service in the Capital One Rewards center. They do not allow partial credits. That’s certainly not the way the commercials and printed brochures lead you to believe. Sounds like a “hassle” to me.

    • phonebanshee

      In practice, it turns out not to matter. You’ll have plenty of smaller transactions that they consider “travel” that aren’t hotel and flights. Car2go, taxi, some public transit (Clipper in the Bay Area), car rentals, etc.

  • Tom Wyrick

    For what it’s worth, I have a Capital One rewards membership. and when I look at all the options? I think you get a better deal accepting one of the gift cards than asking for cash (a check mailed to you in 2-3 weeks). For example, it costs 7,750 miles to buy a $50 gift card (for such places as Amazon.com or Shell gas stations), but the same 7,750 miles converts to only a $38.75 check.

  • jadera

    it seems that Capital one has changed the redeeming ratio. I just noticed that for $1 of purchases I need 200 points/miles. couple months ago that same $1 required 100 miles. Not cool to say the least and is making me pretty upset that they basically halved the rewards without even saying notifying us. So, you might think about other cards out there that don’t keep switching all the good stuff as soon as they got enough new customers – the month I signed up, they killed no fees on international transactions :((

    • http://www.nerdwallet.com/ NerdWallet

      Hi jadera,

      Thanks for your comment. Care to point us to the information you cite?
      To our knowledge, Capital One No Hassle Miles still return a $1 value for every 100 miles you redeem.

      • Clint Schauff

        jadera is correct. Today I logged into their site to redeem 100,000 miles for cash and it said those 100,000 miles are worth $500.00.

        • http://www.nerdwallet.com/ NerdWallet

          Hi Clint,

          I think the trouble is in redeeming No Hassle Miles for cash – the redemption value for cash has always been less than one cent per mile, unfortunately; gift cards and travel get you full value. Capital One confirms that there have been no changes to their rewards program recently, and that you can still get full value for travel/gift cards.

          Cheers,
          The Nerds

          • phonebanshee

            Also, redeeming for travel can be retroactive; you don’t need to buy from the site. Just log in later, pick the travel expenses, and pay for them with points. (We ended up not doing that; some of the gift cards are better deals, if you already shop at the merchants.) The catch (and it’s not a big one) is that you can’t do partial redemptions; you need enough points to cover the entire cost.

          • justthebest

            For my Cap One accounts (I have 2), if I charge the hotel or airline ticket on the card, I can wipe out the charge (get full credit) on the 1 cent/point system described in this piece. I’ve done in many times, with no problems at all. E.g., a $359 hotel bill–I ask them to please take if off the bill and use 35,900 of my points.

          • Michael

            The reward ratio has definitely changed. .005 for good gift cards. Travel is .0064.

          • phonebanshee

            I just tried it and the travel purchase eraser is definitely one cent / mile as of 2 May 2014. ($50 credit cost me 5000 miles). That’s slightly misleading, since $1 spend == 2 miles, so if you have purchases that they consider “travel”, it’s trivial to use this card as identical to a 2% cash back (ok, there’s the overhead of going to the web site every few months and pushing a couple buttons.) The gift cards seem to all be the same as the travel eraser, so they’re not worth bothering with lately.

  • bill

    I rather “guessed” that “miles” might be involved with redeeming travel miles, and was surprised to find out the “miles” card is merely and ONLY a cashback card with a lot of conditions called “hassle free”, when redeeming is anything but. Where has this “hassle free” language come from with Capital One? I have to settle for 6/10 of 1% cashback for simple redemption verses my other cards which are “hassle free” 1% cashback cards…

  • brycenesbittt

    A $10 Target GiftCard is now 2,000 miles. And travel purchases are on a bucket system that resulted in about a half cent per point. Finding nothing worth redeeming, I tried to donate, but apparently need to set up a different giving account (can you say “hassle”) to do so. The information above is almost completely wrong.

  • brycenesbittt

    The “no hassle” example above is wrong. If you have a $109 purchase you need to redeem at the 0-$150 level for 15,000 points.

    • http://www.nerdwallet.com/ NerdWallet

      Hi there, if you redeem for travel it should be a 1 cent to 1 point ratio, so you can use 10,900 miles to wipe out $109 of travel.

      • brycenesbittt

        Incorrect. I’m offered 15,000 miles for $109 travel expense. Non-travel expenses are worse. I can get you a screenshot from the members only area.

  • Mike Driehuis

    Use 1 ticket to pay for your purchase. I had a trip $1,182.38 and paid with 118,238 Miles .
    If I sued 10 tickets, it would cost me 150,000 miles.

    • Chari Baldwin

      Hi there,
      Did it work out when you used one ticket on the capital one website because I’m thinking about doing the same thing. Chari

  • Chris Timmer

    Here’s the table. Much better than cash rewards. Just need to have an expense near the top of the range to get the best value.

    Miles Needed

    For Travel That Costs…

    Up to $150 15,000 miles
    $150.01 – $350 35,000 miles
    $350.01 – $600 60,000 miles