Exchange Your Crappy Gift Cards for United Airlines Miles

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Received another $50 to the Cheesecake Factory this holiday season? Here’s how to exchange it for something you might actually use. As part of its MileagePlus Gift Card exchange program, United Airlines is offering to buy your unwanted gift cards and exchange them for actual award miles through the airline.

Yes, it’s a real program. United will buy gift cards from many major retailers like Best Buy, Starbucks, and Walmart, and those you’ll probably never spend at places like Hot Topic, the Cracker Barrel, and Yankee Candle—basically, any of those gift cards sold in grocery store aisles for people who had no idea what to get you. United will even accept any gift cards to other airlines like American or Southwest.

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Exchanging your crappy gift cards with United is pretty easy. If you haven’t already, you’ll also have to set up a MileagePlus account with the airline and fill out an online form with your contact information. Once you’re approved, the account will need to be active for at least 90 days for you to exchange your gift cards, meaning you’ll have to sit tight before receiving your miles. If you already have an account, the process only takes a few minutes.

Next, look up the retailer of your gift card on United’s website to make sure they actually accept it. Assuming they do, enter the value of your gift card on United’s site, and United will then convert that value into award miles. (Don’t worry—you can preview this number before accepting, in case you decide to reconsider.)

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Of course, before you accept, you should understand that the conversion rate may not work out in your favor. As the Points Guy’s JT Genter recently noted, the rate of exchange tends to value gift cards at about 26.6 times your balance. In other words, a $50 gift card might earn you something like 1,330 miles. (You’ll likely need a few thousand miles to cover the cost of a one-way ticket.)

Still, as Genter writes, if you have a gift card you might never use or are too ashamed to re-gift, you might as well use it to earn a few miles. And if shaving off the cost of your flight doesn’t seem worth it, here’s our guide to how to make the most of your holiday gift cards when you’re out of options.

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