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Got Miles? Two New Sites Tell You When to Use ‘Em

Do you have trouble figuring out where and when to use your miles? Whether you’re better off buying a ticket with miles or paying cash? If so, two new websites offer to help.

MileWise is the more ambitious of the two. It searches paid and award tickets and compares them. It also ranks options in terms of the best potential use of your cash and point resources.

You start by entering your frequent-traveler programs: airline, hotel, and car rental, with the info required for the site to get at your data; the site tracks balances in more than 400 separate programs, including credit cards that allow transfer of mileage to individual airlines or cash transfers to buy tickets.

When you plan a trip, you enter the itinerary information—origin and destination points, preferred cabin, and number of travelers. You can search for fixed dates or for a plus-or-minus one-week “flexible dates” range—a really big plus for leisure travelers. The site searches paid airfare options, directly and through online search aggregators, covering “all the airlines you’d expect.” It also searches for award seat availability on Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, United/Continental, and Virgin America, checking directly with each line. The resulting “flexible dates search” displays a one-week matrix of departure and return dates, with each entry showing either a dollar fare or a mileage requirement. Once you select dates, the final display shows the best 15 alternatives—some paid, some awards—along with the ability to book by credit card, redeem miles from an airline program, or transfer miles/points from a credit card.

When I tested MileWise, it worked as advertised:

On my first sample trip—a simple coach flight from my home airport at Medford, OR, to Boston—the site provided all I needed to make a decision. On the specific preferred date I submitted, MileWise couldn’t find any low-mileage award seats on any of my airline programs so it recommended buying a ticket. But if I had been willing to shift my dates a day, I could have found seats for 25,000 miles on Continental or 37,500 miles on Delta.

For my second trip, I chose what I knew would be a tough challenge: Medford to Paris in business class. Here, somewhat to my surprise, MileWise actually found award seats on Delta for the low-range 100,000 miles. But the itinerary was lousy: Medford to Salt Lake City, a long layover, an overnight red-eye to Atlanta, an all-day layover, and finally another overnight to Paris. There’s no way I would actually have endured this marathon. And the result included an oddity: a much higher rating for using AmEx points rather than the same number of Delta points for the identical itinerary, given that I would have to transfer the same number of AmEx points to Delta.

Is MileWise ready for prime time? Yes, at least for simple domestic trips. And it’s probably OK for simple international flights, as long as it can find seats on the five U.S. lines it covers, plus their partners. But you start by knowing that finding award seats on itineraries that require a change of planes is, at best, a tricky proposition, so MileWise probably isn’t yet totally up to the task. Still, for many of you, it’s worth a try.

Superfly doesn’t help you find award-ticket availability. But, for any trip, it does tell you whether you’re better off using miles or paying, and it rates paying options in terms of the ticket price offset by the value of mileage you’d earn. The site also keeps track of your mileage accounts, and it says it expects to provide information on airport lounges. As in almost all search systems, you can specify cabin (economy, business-class, or first-class, but not premium economy) and the number of travelers in the party. When I tested it, the system worked as advertised. The main drawback—at least for leisure travelers—is that the search system does not accommodate “flexible date” searches.

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Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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