Don't Use your Miles and Points for Merchandise

These redemptions are often a very poor value.

Apple iPhone 5s
••• Apple iPhone 5s. Apple

You can use airline miles to fly First Class to destinations all across the globe. Trips that would otherwise cost tens of thousands of dollars are yours for the taking, as long as you're able to hold onto your miles until it comes time to make a proper redemption. Airlines can be accommodating in other ways, too, letting you use your hard-earned miles for complete travel packages that include a hotel and rental card, but also in exchange for merchandise that the airline has to purchase, such as a television or computer.

Once you start racking up lots of points, you'll probably receive emails from your credit card company, airline or hotel chain offering goods and services in exchange for your hard-earned points. More often than not, these redemptions are a very poor value, with prices calculated at or below one cent per point. An unlocked iPhone that you can purchase outright for $675 sells for a whopping 141,000 United miles, for example. That's enough for a roundtrip Business-Class ticket to Europe or Asia, so it's no surprise that the airline would much rather you spend all of those miles on a relatively inexpensive smartphone.

If you don't have anywhere close to the number of miles you need for a free trip, however, you'll still want to use your points before they expire. One way to do this is by purchasing magazine or newspaper subscriptions, which can usually be had for a very small number of points.

52 issues of Time Magazine costs 1,200 United miles, but you'll pay $30 for the same subscription on Amazon, making this a decent value, particularly if you don't have enough miles for free travel. A roundtrip US flight could get you a few subscriptions, so it pays to sign up for a frequent flyer program even if you don't plan on taking free flights.

The only other time it may make sense to redeem for something other than travel is when an airline or hotel chain runs a compelling experience auction. These can occasionally be an excellent value, and may get you better access than you'd get by buying tickets outright, as travel service providers get premium seats and experiences as a concession for sponsoring an event. Some brands also rent boxes at venues around the world. Starwood Hotels has a big presence at select stadiums in Chicago and New York, for example, and you can redeem points for seats that often include free food and drinks.

Generally, auctions are most popular with people who have far more points than they can use, however, such as frequent business travelers who are on the road every week and want to spend their free time at home. These customers often drive up the prices of traditional points auctions, and since they value a program's virtual currency below what you'd get when using it for free travel, it's not unheard of to see event tickets going for hundreds of thousands of points or more.