How To Avoid Spending a Penny at the Airport by Using Points and Miles

Save on airport snacks, Wi-Fi and more

Man shopping at the airport
••• Anouchka/iStock

Even the most prepared traveler can be tempted to peruse the shops and restaurants at the airport. I always bring plenty of entertainment – like my favorite travel playlist and the latest book I’m reading  – and snacks to the airport. But that doesn’t necessarily stop me from thumbing through pages at the magazine stand or sipping on a glass of wine at the closest bar in my terminal. I’m even more likely to indulge if I get through security earlier than expected, my flight is delayed or I have a long layover.

Whether or not you come to the airport intending to spend money, it happens more often than not. But did you know you can also use your loyalty points and miles to avoid spending a penny of actual money at the airport? Here are a few tips.

Swap miles for food and drinks

Food and drink at airports can be pricey. But rather than shelling out cash for a sandwich in the food court or cocktail at one of the terminal bars, in some cases, you can pay using your airline miles. United MileagePlus is one of the first travel loyalty programs to offer such an option to its members. In 2014, United partnered with Newark International Airport, enabling members to pay for food and drink purchases at select bars and restaurants in Newark Terminal C.

The way the program works is, United has set an exchange rate at about 143 miles for $1 of spending at the airport. To pay with MileagePlus miles, members can use iPads located right on their tables and either scan their boarding pass, or manually enter their MileagePlus account number.

If paying with miles isn’t available at your airport of choice, remember to put purchases on your travel rewards credit card, so you can earn miles with every dollar spent.

Shop duty free

I sometimes find myself wandering through duty free shops when I have time to kill at the airport. Depending on the airport, duty free shops have different selections of luxury products, including cosmetics, perfume, apparel and accessories.

These products are often discounted in comparison to traditional retail prices and are exempt from certain taxes, so duty free is a great way to get some shopping in as you wait for your flight. While it’s easy enough to buy products directly, some airports and loyalty programs enable you to save your cash for later by redeeming airline miles for duty free goods. Lufthansa Miles & More, Europe’s largest frequent flier program, has partnered with Heinemann duty free shops to offer its members the option to use miles to purchase duty free products. Through the partnership, customers can shop at Heinemann stores in airports across Austria, Denmark, Germany and Italy, with one Euro equaling 330 Lufthansa miles.

If you’re saving your shopping for the flight, some airline loyalty programs also allow members to pay for in-flight shopping using miles. For example, Air France Shopping through Flying Blue offers its members more than 400 products, which can be purchased either in cash, by credit card or using miles.

Browse on free Wi-Fi

If you get to the airport with time to spare, you might want to do some online shopping, stream Netflix, get ahead on work emails, or do a number of other online activities.

While some airports – including Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Denver International Airport, San Francisco International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International airport – offer free Wi-Fi, others charge a fee by the hour or day, or even require a monthly or annual membership.

Many airports are equipped with Boingo, which allows users to connect to Wi-Fi hotspots at hundreds of airports and other public locations. Boingo costs $39 per month for 2,000 minutes, which you might not necessarily find worthwhile if you only need to jump online for a short amount of time ahead of a flight. The good news is, some rewards credit cards include a Boingo membership for cardholders, including the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card, Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card, American Express Business Platinum and American Express Personal Platinum credit cards.

The American Express Business Platinum Card also includes access to Gogo, which offers in-flight Wi-Fi and typically costs $16 per day or $60 per month.