Oct. 1, 2011 -- Frequent flier Tim Pigsley might be called a gift-card junkie.
He cashes in airline frequent-flier miles for gift cards for Home Depot, Harry & David and other retailers. Last year, he cashed in miles for gift cards worth $2,500, including many for holiday gifts.
"It's actually gotten cheaper to pay cash for plane tickets and use miles for other purchases instead of free flights," says Pigsley, a hotel owner in Bradenton, Fla.
Unlike Pigsley, many fliers don't take advantage of frequent-flier programs' low-mileage awards. Yet, there are plenty of valuable items — such as gift cards and newspaper and magazine subscriptions — that can be claimed for 5,000 or fewer frequent-flier miles.
"Low-mileage goodies don't get you the best value per mile, so frequent fliers are generally pretty derisive about them," says Sascha Segan, a Frommers.com writer who researched low-mileage awards. "But leaving a few thousand miles sitting in an airline account for years doesn't help anyone — especially if those miles expire."
There are other reasons why travelers don't claim low-mileage awards.
They are the bottom of the barrel for many frequent fliers who want to accumulate higher mileage totals for more lucrative awards, such as free flights, seating-class upgrades and special airport privileges. And many veteran business travelers, just like less-savvy infrequent fliers, aren't aware low-mileage awards exist.
Trading in miles
For fliers looking to redeem small amounts of frequent-flier program miles or points, Frommer's Travel Guides provides these insights:
•Southwest Airlines is "the most generous" for redeeming a small amount of points, says Jason Clampet, senior online editor of Frommers.com.
A single cross-country flight for $450 can earn 4,500 points, enough for a $75 flight credit. Such a credit can buy a one-way ticket on many routes — including New York-Baltimore, Chicago-Nashville and Denver-Salt Lake City — that are part of the airline's $59 fall sale.
Fliers with a credit card affiliated with Southwest's frequent-flier program can also browse through the airline's numerous Web pages that offer gift cards for several car-rental companies, American Eagle, Wal-Mart, Cabela's, Best Buy and many other retailers.
•Nine airlines — AirTran, Alaska, American, Continental, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, United and US Airways— contract with Magazines for Miles, a company that lets fliers turn small amounts of miles into magazine subscriptions. The magazines offered by each airline and the miles needed for a subscription vary.
For American Airlines' fliers, 12 issues of Essence cost 500 miles, while 12 issues of Sports Illustrated Kids cost double that amount. For Hawaiian Airlines fliers, 12 issues of Essence cost 600 miles.
•United has a wide range of awards. A mixed-rose bouquet from FTD.com, a $30 value, costs 4,600 miles, and four $25 Restaurant.com gift certificates cost 2,000 miles. Other items for 5,000 miles or less include Godiva chocolates, fruit baskets and Starbucks coffee.
•Hawaiian Airlines offers some unique items for 5,000 miles: $25 off auto insurance premiums at Farmers Insurance Hawaii, one round of golf at Coral Creek Golf Resort on Oahu and 10,000 Hilton HHonors points.
•It's slimmer pickings at Delta. Besides magazine subscriptions, 2,200 miles will obtain a $7 National Geographic kids book, and 4,400 miles will land a $15 bottle of pet stain remover.
Consider a charity
Other options exist for dispensing with remaining miles.
Frequent business traveler Ellen Tyler of Healdsburg, Calif., advises fliers with a small number of miles to donate them to charitable organizations.
Tyler, who works in the food sales industry, suggests supporting the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which aims to enrich the lives of children with life-threatening medical conditions.
At several airlines, cashing in even a low amount of miles can prevent all miles in a frequent-flier account from expiring.
Miles in American's AAdvantage program expire in 18 months if there is no activity in the account, but "any type of activity that adds miles or uses miles restarts the 18-month clock from the date of the addition or subtraction of miles," American spokesman Tim Smith says.
Claiming a low-mileage award from Southwest's Rapid Rewards program, however, won't keep points from expiring. Southwest requires its fliers to earn points every 24 months to keep all points from expiring.
Frequent flier Gerald Steele, a consultant in Grovetown, Ga., says he kept his US Airways miles from expiring last year by cashing in 1,200 miles for Golf and Condé Nast Traveler magazine subscriptions. He says he plans to use such a strategy in the future for airlines he rarely flies on.
Low-mileage awards are attractive to Earl Quenzel, a frequent business traveler in Fort Myers, Fla. He redeemed miles for subscriptions to Cigar Aficionado, Wine Spectator and Afar and then used more miles for a Garden & Gun magazine subscription for his wife and Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest subscriptions for two friends.
Magazine subscriptions are "a great reward option, because you can find something appealing for everyone," Quenzel says.
Maybe not everyone. Consider frequent flier Hugh Tousey, a consultant in Clayton, N.C.
"I let my wife redeem expiring miles," he says, "but I got buried in magazines that no one read."