You will often see posts here at OMAAT about airlines and hotels selling miles at discounted rates. Before I discovered OMAAT many years ago, I thought the only way to acquire miles was to earn them through traveling or spending lots.
But selling miles is BIG business for loyalty programs. They have recognized that they can increase the revenue of their loyalty businesses by simply selling million of miles to their members, on the assumption that most members won’t redeem them for a value more than the cost they bought them for.
Of course we are all about maximizing value and travel experiences here at OMAAT, and there are plenty of ways you can redeem miles you have bought for a value far more than you paid for them.
But how do you decide when to buy miles, and what is a good price?
Of course you should only be buying miles where you can obtain the same or higher value when redeeming them.
When does it make sense to buy miles?
Here are some situations where buying miles can be a good deal.
Occasionally buying miles speculatively, but only where the price or offer is unusually good
This is where you might not have any travel planned, and no immediate use for the miles, but might see the miles discounted to a great low price (such as a 100% or higher bonus) and you may wish to load up on miles to increase your balance.
Most times I would not recommend doing this.
Loyalty programs regularly devalue, whether by way of an official increase in award rates or a change to availability or routing rules, which means that the miles might be worth less tomorrow than they were today. Some programs do this without notice to their members.
Unlike other assets you may invest in, miles will usually only decrease in value, so will not be worth more than they are right now.
Occasionally we will see an offer that is so good, that it is too good to pass up, and even if the program does devalue before you are able to redeem the miles, you’re still coming out ahead. Back in the good old US Airways Dividend Miles days, the program would regularly have Share Bonus promotions where you could purchase miles in their program for exactly one cent each.
Even after a potential devaluation, I could easily obtain more than one cent of value redeeming these miles. So I would often buy speculatively because I could redeem them for so much more than it cost to purchase them.
But it is much rarer to see miles priced so cheaply that they should be speculatively bought. The regular promotions programs like LifeMiles, AAdvantage and Hilton run to sell points at a discount are not low enough that I would recommend purchasing speculatively.
On the other hand, the Iberia 90,000 Avios promotion last year wasn’t technically a miles sale, but is a rare example of where miles could be so cheaply ‘bought’ that it was smart to acquire them even without an immediate use for them.
In the rare instances where we think miles are being sold at a price so low they can be speculatively bought, we will certainly advise you of this.
Topping up your account for a specific redemption
You may be earning miles with a specific redemption in mind, which requires, say 200,000 miles to redeem. You might have 195,000 miles and see that the exact product you wish to redeem for (perhaps a premium flight or hotel room) is available on the dates you want to travel.
But you might have no travel for the next month that would earn additional miles in that program, and while you may have a credit card that earns the necessary miles, they may not sweep into your account for another month.
So in this situation if you are concerned your dream product may disappear by the time you earn the missing 5,000 miles organically, for peace of mind, you may decide to purchase the remaining 5,000 miles (as most miles purchases are instant), in order to lock in your dream trip.
Ideally the miles you purchase will be on sale, noting purchasing a small amount usually will only provide a small bonus/discount.
Programs where you will not otherwise earn miles
Say you’re a regular United traveller, and have a United MileagePlus credit card. You earn and redeem plenty of miles on United and other Star Alliance airlines but you’re loyal to the one program, and alliance.
But then you read a review of Qatar Airways’ fabulous QSuites product and think ‘I really want to try that.’ The problem is, you could have millions of United miles, but because they do not partner with Qatar Airways, you cannot use them to redeem for a QSuites flight.
So, you may see American AAdvantage miles are on sale, and find a QSuites flight, crunch the numbers and decide the cost of buying the necessary miles outright is worth the value of the product you will redeem for.
So although you may have zero AAdvantage miles because you never fly American or oneworld airlines, it would make sense to purchase the full amount of miles in a miles sale purely in order to fly a product you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to.
For me, I fly British Airways and oneworld airlines quite a bit living in London, but I like the redemption value, availability and range of airlines offered through Avianca LifeMiles. So although I earn a lot of Executive Club Avios naturally/organically, I’ve regularly bought LifeMiles as well.
When it is cheaper than purchasing a revenue ticket
Now this isn’t going to work for everyone in every situation and as a general rule, if you are purchasing coach/economy tickets especially, it will usually be cheaper to just buy a revenue fare.
Say you need to fly from Boston to Mumbai, one way, in business class with only one stop on a particular date. You can see one way revenue fares are expensive — the cheapest one stop option is Turkish Airlines at just over $4,000.
But at the same time you see Avianca LifeMiles is having a sale on purchased miles, and you can buy the required miles, for, say 1.5 cents each.
You check the LifeMiles award chart and see that a redemption between these cities costs 78,000 miles per person, each way. You also check and see that the exact same Turkish airlines flights available for sale are available for redemption.
Adding the, say, $200 taxes and fees involved in booking the routing as an award, you could save $4,000 by using miles you purchase. If you spend $1,170 purchasing the miles (78,000 x 0.015) you are coming well out in front.
Ben explained this a bit in a video a few weeks ago:
Now remember you would not earn any miles from the redemption versus booking the revenue fare with cash, so you might calculate that you will forego, say, $200 value in earned miles by purchasing miles to redeem instead.
But you are still coming out well in front, so in this situation it would make sense to purchase the miles, assuming the stars all aligned with a miles sale and award availability.
Note this is just one example and you may find it cheaper, or a similar price, to purchase a premium revenue fare (especially on return itineraries).
In this case it would be better to purchase the revenue fare as you’ll earn miles on the flight, may have more options for schedules and routings (versus restrictive award availability) and the revenue fare may have more flexibility than an award booking if you need to change it.
To stop miles from expiring
Most miles, whether they are hotel or airline miles, don’t actually last forever, regardless of how long you collect them for. Different programs have different policies, but many miles for example will expire three years after they have been earned/bought (if they have not been redeemed).
But these programs may have an option of keeping those miles from expiring provided there is any earning or redeeming activity in your account. There are various ways of earning miles in order to keep other miles from expiring, you may wish to credit a flight, purchase something from the program’s online ‘e-store’ portal, or earn some credit card miles.
You may receive an email from your loyalty program advising you that your miles will expire in 30 days unless you show some earning activity. And that flight you wish to credit, or that purchase you plan to make through the e-store may not credit for 4 – 6 weeks.
If you have a large balance of miles potentially expiring, or if you can’t redeem the miles before they would expire, it is potentially worth paying a small amount in order to keep those miles active. So even if the program is not having a miles sale that month, purchasing the smallest amount (say 1,000 miles) at full price may be the surest way to ensure your 100,000 miles balance does not expire.
If you are in this situation where you have a large balance that is about to expire, along with ensuring there is some earn activity so they do not expire, start thinking of a use for the miles!
Best programs for buying airline miles
If you’re looking to purchase miles for discounted travel, versus topping off an account or trying to keep miles from expiring, there are some key programs to consider.
Alaska frequently sells miles for between 1.97¢ and 2.11¢ each, and you can purchase a total of up to 150,000 miles per calendar year. However, if you’re an Alaska elite member there’s no limit to how many miles you can buy.
To give a few examples of some of the great uses of Mileage Plan miles (all of which allow stopovers on one way awards):
- Cathay Pacific first class from the US to Asia for 70,000 miles
- Cathay Pacific business class from the US to Australia for 60,000 miles
- LATAM business class from the US to South America for 45,000 miles
- Hainan business class from the US to Asia for 50,000 miles
- Fiji Airways business class from the US to Australia/New Zealand for 55,000 miles
- Icelandair business class from the US to Europe for 55,000 miles
- Korean Air business class from the US to Southeast Asia for 60,000 miles (roundtrip required)
In some cases Alaska doesn’t have access to some partner award seats. This is especially common on Cathay Pacific, Emirates, and Qantas. It is something to be aware of, so I’d recommend looking into this before buying any miles.
American typically charges anywhere between 1.72¢ and 2.13¢ per purchased mile during a promotion, and there’s a cap of purchasing 150,000 AAdvantage miles per account per calendar year. AAdvantage accounts less than 30 days old aren’t eligible to purchase miles, so it’s better to sign up now if you think you may be wanting to purchase miles in future.
As I mentioned above, buying American miles can make very good sense for business class awards on Qatar, or perhaps Etihad, along with some first class awards. Just be sure you’re purchasing on the lower end of the price range for speculative trips.
American allows five day holds on award tickets, so in theory you can hold award space and then purchase miles, which eliminates any risk of buying miles while award space disappears.
Avianca often sells miles for under 1.5¢ each (1.35¢ isn’t unheard of when stacked with the frequently-offered OMAAT reader promos). LifeMiles is a tricky program, and their availability doesn’t always match what other programs see, but they do allow one-ways and don’t have carrier imposed surcharges.
When it comes to redeeming LifeMiles, Avianca is in the Star Alliance, so check out the Star Alliance award chart for redemption rates. To give a few examples of one way premium cabin redemption rates (there are no fuel surcharges on any awards):
- US to Europe in business class costs 63,000 miles
- US to Europe in first class costs 87,000 miles
- US to Southeast Asia in business class costs 78,000 miles
- US to North Asia in first class costs 90,000 miles
I am proud to say I have bought and redeemed millions of miles over the years. They have allowed me to book and then enjoy countless travel experiences that I would never have been able to otherwise afford or earn enough miles for organically.
I shudder when I hear of people constantly buying miles speculatively, as often the value of the miles will decrease before they use them, therefore in effect increasing the cost they paid for them, and the buyer may regret buying them in the first place.
But there are several situations where it does make sense to buy miles, and if you fit into the scenarios above keep your eyes out for the next miles sale in your favorite loyalty program!
Which program(s) do you purchase miles in?