Can I use reward miles for in-flight meals and entertainment?
Cathleen McCarthy is a journalist whose articles on travel, commerce and consumer topics have appeared in dozens of publications. She writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com
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Dear Cashing In,
I've resigned myself to the fact that I'm always going to be a coach traveler, since I can't ever really justify the first-class expense. So, I try to make myself as comfortable as possible -- I get drinks, food, even watch some pay TV. Is there a credit card I could get whose reward points would cover these extras? I care less about getting free trips and more about making them fun. -- Barbara
If you're the rare bird who collects miles but doesn't care about free flights or seat upgrades, you probably shouldn't be putting too much effort into an airline credit card. While those cards reward in-flight purchases of meals and entertainment, usually with double miles earned on each dollar spent, they don't let you spend those miles while in the air. For example, you can save 20 percent on in-flight purchases on Delta when you use your SkyMiles American Express, but you can't buy a $6 sandwich from their EATS menu with the miles you earn.
Given that airlines are charging fees for so many amenities we used to get as part of the fare -- including meals -- it would be nice if they did offer more ways to actually spend miles, not just earn them, in flight.
Here's a recent exception. United introduced a digital media store earlier this month, offering the kind of MP3 and movie downloads we're accustomed to buying on iTunes -- only you can use your MileagePlus award miles to buy them. The title track from Jennifer Lopez's recently released album, "Dance Again," will cost 150 MileagePlus miles. You can rent "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, for 460 miles. Buying it outright costs 2,545 miles. (For comparison, that's 10 percent of a round-trip domestic fare at the lowest redemption level.) Later this year, you'll be able to buy TV shows with MileagePlus miles. This doesn't exactly qualify as buying entertainment “in-flight,” but downloading your own in-flight entertainment before your flight is one way to take advantage of those miles you're piling up.
You can also entertain yourself in flight via the Internet using Gogo, the Wi-Fi access you're starting to see on newer aircraft, but you will probably have to pay for that -- and not with your reward points. Delta currently has 500 aircraft with Wi-Fi access, and you can find it on certain Airbus jets on American Airlines and US Airways. Now through Sept. 7, 2012, you can buy two Wi-Fi sessions before your flight for $14.95. JetBlue and Virgin America offer free Wi-Fi, but it's limited to email, instant messaging, DirectTV and online shopping. Again, Wi-Fi service itself is not something you can use frequent flier miles to purchase.
You say you don't care about free flights as much as making them fun. If you're earning a lot of miles, I would consider using them for seat upgrades instead of free flights. It's not just extra legroom you get when you upgrade from coach to business class. In-flight entertainment, meals and drinks all improve significantly -- especially on long-haul flights. Then again, business class upgrades don't come cheap or easy unless you earn enough miles to qualify for elite status -- preferably of the mid-tier variety.
If you don't earn enough miles to upgrade or qualify for elite, and you don't mind putting up with coach seating, I would say use a credit card that rewards in-flight purchases and then use those rewards on the ground where they spend better.
See related: Wide body traveler seeks credit card for first-class seats, Frequent flier? Opt for airline card over cash back
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