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nov 15 2011

Miles or Cash? New Sites Help You Choose the Best Deal

Debuting in August, PointHub and MileWise are two free websites competing to help travelers determine the cheapest way to book plane tickets and hotel rooms, answering the question "Should I cash in my miles or points?"

For plane tickets, each site assumes that miles are worth about a little more than a penny a piece. They do the math for you about whether you would receive the full value of your miles if you use them to buy a ticket.

I've been testing the sites since September with accounts for myself and a family member of mine who is a mileage junkie on real-world trips. Here's the upshot of what I found:

The sites are best for: people who think they have enough miles or points (such as through credit card programs) to redeem for travel, but who hate having to do the math or research to calculate the best deal. The sites deliver "good-enough" answers to help you quickly decide if a free plane ticket is a real deal or if there are enough discounted prices that you'd be smarter to pay in cash.

The sites are not recommended for: mileage junkies and people who pride themselves on knowing the ins and outs of frequent flier and loyalty programs because they'll find the sites too simplistic and prone to overlooking upgrade opportunities and airlines' complete real-time seat availability.

PointHub and MileWise each gather your assortment of loyalty programs for airlines and hotel chains, compiling them in a single, simple, point-tracking package.

Once you're set up, search for flights and hotels on either of these sites just like you would at an online travel agency like Expedia or metasearch site like Kayak. It will tell you what's available, with the miles and points you have and compare them to the prices you could pay otherwise. You'll see flights that have award seats available, at least so far as PointHub's and MileWise's imperfect computers can find. To speed things up, you can opt to see only reward options for programs you belong to.

I found that each site requires a few minutes to set up free accounts, assuming you have multiple frequent flier and loyalty program numbers you need to punch in. Each site pulls your points balances automatically from then on. Each works with hundreds of major mileage and loyalty programs.

PointHub crunches data from Expedia and Orbitz to power its PointsTracker estimator, providing semi-personalized, side-by-side “best value” travel recommendations for what can be booked using cash or points. For each itinerary, you can see the options: say, redeeming 38,000 miles for a flight or paying about $500 for it.

MileHub taps data from Orbitz, Everbread (one of the large sources of airfare data) and from airlines, and provides scores. In a nice touch, it has clear warnings about potential fees for cashing in your miles for a plane ticket, which can sometimes top $100. On the downside, it has a scoring system for rating each deal that I found baffling, distracting, and ultimately unnecessary.

The downside of both sites is that many travelers aren't obsessed about price, preferring instead to compromise on price and an ideal itinerary. In other worse, some people won't care they can get a free plane ticket if it would mean enduring a seven-hour layover somewhere. Those people would rather pay cash for a different ticket would spare them that hassle. But neither PointHub nor MileWise do as good a job at sorting itineraries as better known travel sites.

Here's a video about one of the companies, MileWise, which is pretty similar to its rival PointHub:

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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