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Cash and dash? First, know what that frequent-flier mile is worth

When you finally get enough frequent-flier miles for a free ticket, it's tempting to cash in those miles and go someplace fun.

Not so fast.

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That ticket from Los Angeles to Washington to visit the Capitol may not be worth the 25,000 miles that would come out of your frequent-flier account. How can you know?

The key is calculating exactly what your miles are worth. According to travel experts, airlines value them at about 2 cents per mile. Using that valuation, the 25,000 frequent-flier miles usually needed for a domestic-coach award ticket are worth $500. So to determine whether you are getting the most value for your frequent-flier mile:

1. Divide the best price you can find for a paid ticket by the number of miles needed for the award.

2. If the number is less than 2 cents, you should lean toward paying for the ticket.

For example, a search of flights from Los Angeles to Washington in late February found a fare of only $221 on America West. Using the above formula, the trip is worth only eight-tenths of one cent per mile ($221/25,000 miles). Not a good idea to use frequent-flier miles for a "free" ticket.

In addition, if you paid for the flight, you would accrue 3,490 frequent-flier miles, or about 14 percent of the miles needed for a free domestic coach ticket. And if you are a member of the airline's frequent-flier program, you would likely get bonus miles, adding even more miles to your account.

Since you can usually find a domestic coach ticket for less than $500, it's usually worth buying a ticket, and using your miles for a first-class upgrade. United Airlines recently offered a coach ticket from Los Angeles to Washington for $536 - $3,051 less than the first-class fare. With this coach ticket, you need 10,000 miles to upgrade to first class. Using the formula ($3,051/10,000 miles), we find the upgrade to be a value of 30 cents per mile - a great bargain.

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An even better option is to build up those miles for expensive, long-haul international travel. In most cases, 120,000 frequent flier miles qualifies you for a first-class international ticket. At 2 cents per mile, those 120,000 miles would have a value of $2,400. A check of a first-class ticket from Los Angeles to Sydney costs $13,500!

Using the formula ($13,500/120,000 miles), the trip is worth over 11 cents per mile. A great deal!

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor