Airlines and hotel chains are constantly selling their points and miles, and it begs the question: Is buying airline miles ever worth it? Or is it a scam?
It can be alluring – everyone wants a big stash of miles to fuel their travels, and this can be a way to make it happen. It's even more tempting when airlines and hotels sell them with huge bonuses.
While we’d caution anyone against buying airline miles willy-nilly, there are situations where it can make plenty of sense. We'll cover the ground rules for buying points & miles.
The Principles of Buying Points & Miles
At face value, buying miles or hotel points is a bad choice. A smart credit card strategy means you can get these miles for free with money you’d be spending anyway. Even if you don't have miles with a particular airline, you can often transfer them from a credit card.
However, it’s not always that easy. Sometimes you need a few miles to book that free ticket, and other times it’s a great way to save money on a fare.
How much you’ll pay varies widely based upon whose points and miles you need. We’ll get into some more specific pricing later, but the standard price per airline mile generally ranges between 2.5 cents to 3.5 cents per mile – with hotel points costing much less. Most airlines and hotel chains require you to buy in increments of 1,000. Further, many cap the number you can buy in a year.
Before we go any farther, know this: You should only ever buy points directly through the airline or hotel. Steer clear of the third-party vendors who sell miles in bulk.
Doing so violates the terms and conditions of almost every airline, who can turn around and shut down your account as punishment – or worse. That’s not worth the risk.
Top Off Your Account
Buying miles can make sense if you’re just a few thousand miles short of booking that trip you've been chasing. Let us give you an example.
Let’s say you’re looking to fly business class to Europe, and the one-way flight you're looking at costs 80,000. After spending $3,000 to get one of the recent welcome bonuses on the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express, you’ve got about 73,000 SkyMiles. Pricing with Delta SkyMiles
That means you’re 7,000 miles short of what you need to fly in style to Europe.
You could use Delta’s Pay with Miles feature and use 70,000 miles to bring the cost of the ticket down by $600. While the Pay with Miles feature can work great when tickets are cheap, that’s not a good use of SkyMiles on a business class fare that costs thousands of dollars. Of course, you could always pay cash upfront for the ticket, too.
In this scenario, your best option would likely to buy 8,000 SkyMiles directly from Delta (which requires mileage purchases in multiples of 2,000). At $280 out of pocket, buying the miles is the obvious solution in this case.
Let this be a lesson to you: You should never buy miles without a specific purpose or redemption in mind. Airlines constantly devalue their frequent flyer programs with little to no notice, jacking up rates to book flights overnight. That makes spending money to accumulate miles a horrible decision unless you turn around and spend them quickly.
And let us stress: This situation is the only one in which we would ever buy Delta miles. While many airlines sell miles at better rates or offer big sales to purchase miles, Delta isn’t among them.
Big Sales on Miles & Points
Some of the biggest and best airlines for booking award flights seem to constantly sell miles with big promotional discounts or bonuses.
That means it's typically worth holding out for a bonus unless if you're under the wire to book a flight, or just need a few thousand miles. These bonuses vary widely by carrier, ranging from 35% to 140% or more on the miles you buy. Not every airline does it, but those who do generally hold a mileage sale at least three or four times per year.
Right now, several airlines are selling miles with some decent bonuses. American Airlines seems to sell its miles at a discount monthly, including a current promo for up to 35% off that runs through the end of September. Alaska Airlines regularly sells miles at a big discount, including a recently expired promotion for as much as a 40% bonus. LifeMiles, a strong but quirky frequent flyer program of Colombia’s Avianca and a Star Alliance partner, is currently selling miles with up to a 140% bonus.
Among the other major U.S. carriers, United sells its miles at a discount a few times a year, as does Alaska Airlines – an amazing way to book flights on airlines like Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Emirates. Unfortunately, Delta hasn’t held such a sale in many years.
Thrifty Tip: If you’re not signed up already, register for all the major airline frequent flyer programs. Many airlines require you to be a member for a certain period of time to be eligible for these bonuses.
Fly Business or First for Cheaper
If you don’t have the miles and you’re going to fork over the cash for an expensive ticket anyway, it can be much cheaper to buy the miles. Especially if you’re booking at the front of the plane. Let’s crunch some numbers on a few quick examples.
Why not start with the best? Qatar Airways has one of the world’s best business class cabins. However, a spot in their shiny new QSuites’ business class cabin from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Doha (DOH) could easily run you $6,100.
Since you can book Qatar award flights with AA miles online, buying miles might make sense in this situation. Remember that sale we mentioned above? To buy the 70,000 miles required to book that exact same flight, you’d need only spend $1,693 with this promo.
By buying the miles, you could fly Qsuites for 1/3 of the price.
Or want to fly to Asia in Cathay Pacific's first class? Using Alaska Mileage Plan miles is the best way to do it, as it will cost you just 70,000 miles each way from the U.S. to Hong Kong (HKG) or onward throughout Southeast Asia. With a 40% bonus, you could buy all the miles you need to fly it for roughly $1,400 – a fraction of the standard cash price.
Just remember: When you book with miles, you won’t earn miles in return. Paid business and first class fares are among the best ways to rack up miles. You need to do the mental math to decide whether the miles you’d earn outweigh the extra cost.
To be clear, this strategy isn’t for everyone, and it rarely makes sense to buy miles outright when booking in economy. But it’s a great way to save some serious money when flying first or business class if you don’t have the miles already.
Pay with the Best Card
Just as with any purchase, you should use the credit card that gets you the best bonus on your spend if you’re buying miles. Some airlines process the purchase of points as if they were straight airfare, including both LifeMiles and American mentioned above. That means your obvious choice is the Platinum Card from American Express, as that gets you 5x points on any travel purchase.
With its 3x point bonus on travel, the Chase Sapphire Reserve is a good second option.
But not all points and miles purchases will work this way. Some airline and hotel programs are run through brokers like points.com, meaning you won’t get the airfare spend multiplier. In this case, your best bet is whatever card in your wallet gets you the best return on everyday spending. With 1.5 points per $1 spent, the Chase Freedom Unlimited is a solid option.
Buying airline miles is a tricky piece of the points and miles world. While it should never be your go-to for booking travel, buying miles can sometimes be the most cost-effective way to make it happen.
Now that you know the basics, read up on three programs that stand out when it comes to buying points and miles.
Just be sure to think it through your situation before buying a boatload of points. We can’t stress this enough: Don’t buy miles unless you have a specific redemption in mind. It’s not worth the money.
Lead photo courtesy of Chris Lundberg via Flickr