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United-Continental rolls out gift card-air miles exchange program

February 16, 2012|By Mary Forgione | Los Angeles Times Daily Travel & Deal blogger
  • Members of United-Continental's Mileage Plus program can exchange gift cards for air miles.
Members of United-Continental's Mileage Plus program can exchange… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Gift cards accounted for 18% of holiday spending last year, so likely some of us still haven't gotten around to using the prepaid presents. Here's a new way to spend them down: United-Continental airlines allows members of its frequent-flier program to exchange gift cards from major retailers for air miles.

The Mileage Plus Gift Card Exchange accepts more than 60 types of gift cards -- Best Buy, Crate & Barrel, JC Penney, Peet's Coffee & Tea and Walmart, among them -- that have at least $25 credit and no expiration date.

Whether this is a good deal depends on many things. First, United determines the exchange rate based on "market pricing and other factors," according to the airline's website. Second, the same value of the same gift card may vary depending on when you cash it in. (Members, however, don't have to accept the bid offered by the airline.)

United-Continental did not respond to my requests for information.

But Darren Booth on a Frequently Flying blog post tested a $25 Target gift card that translated into 670 air miles -- which comes out to 26.8 miles per dollar, not as good as the 28.6 miles per dollar you would get by buying the miles outright. "The benefit of this program is subjective, in my opinion, as it depends on whether or not you'd personally get more for your dollar redeeming gift cards as they are originally intended," Booth writes.

Of course, you also can go to such websites as CardPool, Plastic Jungle, Gift Card Granny and get cash for leftover or unwanted gift cards.

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