Merrill Lynch & Co. has created a travel awards program for its cash management account customers who carry a Visa card tied to the account.

The Princeton, N.J.-based brokerage firm said it was the first to offer a travel program directly to clients. Cash management clients earn one point for each dollar spent with their Merrill Lynch Visa Gold cards.

Points can be redeemed for travel, retail, and dining awards, starting at 2,500 points, which earns a $50 gift certificate.

The most lavish prizes require 75,000 points. At that level, cardholders can choose from a round-trip ticket on the airline of their choice, a seven-night cruise, or an international round-trip coach ticket on American Airlines. Each trip includes accommodations.

"We designed the program specifically to meet the needs of our clients," said Nancy Kelly, vice president of Visa card marketing for Merrill Lynch. Those clients are affluent, slightly older than typical bank cardholders, and frequent travelers, she added.

Merrill Lynch worked with Carlson Marketing Group, Minneapolis, to develop the Global Gold Travel Awards program.

The program allows clients to redeem points for flights on any domestic or international airline without joining a specific frequent-flier program. Also, there are no blackout dates during holidays and no minimum stays required.

Courtney Williams, assistant editor of Inside Flyer, a monthly newsletter, said the program is on par with other affinity card programs not tied to specific airlines. There are no earnings caps, and the miles do not expire, which, she added, is an advantage over other programs.

The brokerage firm was the first to create cash management accounts. Originated in 1981, they combined investment, savings, checking, and charge card capabilities in one personal asset management account. The minimum requirement for cash and securities is $20,000. Merrill Lynch said it has more than 1.3 million accounts and $315 billion in assets.

It was also the first to tie a credit card to the account. All cash management clients are given a Visa classic card. Their purchases are debited once a month. Also, the cards can be used to get cash, which is immediately debited from their accounts.

Classic cardholders are routinely invited to upgrade to the Visa Gold card, Ms. Kelly said "Now that we have this enhancement we will be doing more of that."

Clients whose household incomes surpass $500,000 pay a $25 fee for Merrill Lynch's Global Gold program. Those with assets below that level must pay $75. "Clients are willing to pay the fee," Ms. Kelly said, "because it is still under the pricing of most of the travel cards."

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