United MileagePlus Exclusives provide an alternative to redeeming your frequent flyer miles for award travel. It’s similar to other programs run by Hilton HHonors and Starwood Preferred Guest that I’ve discussed before. Some people have so many miles or points that they can’t spend them fast enough. Others travel so often for work that another trip — even a free one — isn’t appealing.
I can understand both perspectives. Still, the key question for most people is whether they’re getting a good deal with these alternative redemption choices. In the past such alternatives included shopping catalogs and fee waivers often provide less value than free flights. When miles are used for award travel, especially in international first or business class, I expect to get two cents per mile or better. Most shopping redemptions are at a lower rate since the merchandise is bought from a third party.
I’m more open to alternatives like MileagePlus Exclusives. These awards are not always something you can buy off a shelf. For example, you can get access to United’s hospitality suite at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am or backstage access to Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour show on Broadway. (Some of these offers are only available to Premier members, and others to people with United credit card.) Some experiences, like tickets to shows and sporting events, may seem less unique but could be sold-out through traditional channels. United generally tries to provide an experience beyond face value.
Awards can include more than just the headline, so be sure to investigate. There may be gift bags, parking passes, meals, and access to related events happening at the same time. Right now there’s a wine getaway package in Oregon’s Willamette Valley available for MileagePlus members to bid their miles. But it’s not just hotel room. It includes round-trip flights for two, a rental car, three nights’ accommodation for eight people, an eight-person wine tasting, exclusive dining opportunities, and other perks.
Many awards are “sold” through a bidding process, which means it’s easy to get carried away in the excitement. I’m personally more interested in flat-price options, which are plentiful but sell out quickly. Dining experiences can be listed as low as 10,000 miles, the price of a one-way award ticket in some markets.
Either way, go back to what I said earlier about trying to get the most value for your miles. I feel pretty confident that I can get at least two cents per mile when I use them for free flights, and others may be higher or lower. That’s your opportunity cost. Multiply it by the number of miles required to bid for an experience and you can easily determine if it’s a good value.
By my measure, if that trip to Oregon were auctioned for 200,000 miles then it represents a cost of $4,000. However, I can easily see how a similar trip would be cost this much if purchased through normal channels. It may be a reasonable price. If you’re one of those people who values United miles at a lower rate, say 1.7 cents, then it’s an even better deal.
There have also been some truly exceptional options through MileagePlus Exclusives in the past, including a trip to the Rio Olympics and a chance to practice in one of United’s flight simulators. I’ll be sure to share some of these as new opportunities appear during 2017.