When Should You Buy Miles?

Filed Under: Advice

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 Mileage Plan

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):

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 AAdvantage

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 LifeMiles

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

With a specific use in mind, this promotion can be a great value, especially for first class travel on ANA or Asiana.

Bottom line

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?

Comments
  1. I purchased LifeMiles once because I didn’t have quite enough Citi points for an award. It was a harrowing experience – the website kept giving me an error saying I didn’t have enough points when I tried to purchase exactly the amount of miles I needed during the ticketing process. Then I had an “aha” moment and purchased 1000 more points in a separate transaction. Then it worked.

    Then, I had to cancel those tickets due to an emergency. I got the miles back, and months later purchased more miles to ticket a different trip. That actually worked flawlessly.

    I’d do it again, particularly during one of LM’s big sales. But their website is buggy and they make you wait days sometimes to get someone to ticket an award if the website crashes. That’s a huge gamble, so I’m hesitant to go through it again.

  2. Thanks to OMAAT I have been taking advantage of Alaskan, LifeMiles, and then Aegean recently to redeem for JAL F&C, ANA F&C, LH F, SQ C, and TG C all at an amazing value!

  3. James – they teach this in school too – when you put a picture or a diagram with text, you label it. Can I request you to kindly do that? Something like the name of the hotel, or the airline it is from, or whatever the picture is showing? Obvious ones don’t need it but at least a few that readers may not necessarily know of. Thanks!

  4. Very good broad-brush summary for buying miles. Of course buying miles is anathema for most Americans who are fervently in the grip of the ‘something for nothing’ culture, and are enthusiastically enabled by their banks who vie to push new super-dooper credit cards with mind-boggling sign-up bonuses even faster than AA has miles sales!
    As you allude to, many miles are redeemed for low value domestic flights, or otherwise simply allowed to expire. The airlines are aware of this, and this is no doubt factored into their bottom lines.

  5. This is really helpful, James. I have sometimes been tempted to speculate but always hold back.

    Mostly I just top off when needed for something last minute that comes up which from my experience (though not always timely) seems to be the most practical. LifeMiles is the exception I guess – but I am just starting to tinker with them so need a bit more real experience in actual booking before I consider it as speculative.

    On another (though I guess vaguely similar note) playing a bit with JuicyMiles has really helped me pinpoint values to actual redemption availability. I think this would be a great article for you to look more into. Delta has become so worthless with redemptions that (despite the better service…not by much though as it’s CLEARLY not Emirates etc,) I wonder why anyone ever bothers to actually fly them for miles. Or transfer to them. Most every one-way redemption comes in at 280K points in business to Europe as an example. The only sweet spots I see are an occasional Air France or KLM pop up from different places at competitive rates. On the other side are a plentiful array of Star Alliance and One World awards for under 100K in First and Business. Star Alliance being the best and leading me to think I should focus more with them for actual butt in seat paid flights.

  6. Interesting piece.
    What I really don’t get is why so many airline sites are soooo buggy or so ill designed. Esp for redemptions. It always makes me think that the guys designing it do not ever make a redemption themselves.

    Lifemile is always a surprise if it works and it frequently crashed. Just tried – and it did
    SQ is a disaster with their subtabs for SQ/8A/other and no monthly view. Not even to mention the space wasting, you keep on scrolling. Super inefficient
    Qatar, nothing is online. Essentially you fill a form and 3 days later you get a generic email that no seats have been found.

    There are plenty of blogs about deals, getting status, buying miles. Nobody ever writes about surcharges which are very different across programs. Occasionally there are some remarks about a website or ease of redeeming.

    Whichever blogger comes up with an analysis that shows PER ALLIANCE:

    1) a rating on earning for EC/PE for a random but significant # of flights within that alliance
    2) a rating on earning for BC/FC for a random but significant # of flights within that alliance
    3) a rating on average redemption rates
    4) a rating on achieving status
    5) a rating on the redemption experience (website design/reliability; online or offline)
    6) a rating on surcharges

    This does not have to be an absolute analysis, all can be ranked in high/medium/low or good/fair/bad.

    I would be very curious how such would look like. I’m still struggling myself with finding the right *A program (BC/FC flights only) and that is after many many years of flying and having earned and burnt millions of miles.

  7. I fly back and forth from Los Angeles to New York. I fly Jetblue and have a Jetblue credit card. They are selling miles at the moment. Is this a time it would be worth buying?

  8. Never found LATAM business class ticket from Brazil to US for less than 180 000 points one way. Usually 200 000 one way. Unless you fly from northern part of Brazil in a narrow body aircraft without a proper business class seat.

  9. @otavio. Being here as well half the year I agree. LATAM is completely worthless as a redemption partner. The only silver lining is that they often have Miami/S.P. business class (such as it is) for under 2K R/T which makes it, for me, more attractive as a purchase. Hoping with all hope that Azul takes over Avianca Brasil GRU-U.S. flights as I heard they are buying their A330’s and Campinas is such a pain.

  10. @ron. YES. Well said. That is exactly what I was getting at. Far more than anything now the actual redemption rates by average availability across an alliance is the real telling of how practical any program is and who should get our business. Playing with JuicyMiles has been an eye opener for me to see that United may (or may not) in the end be the best with American shortly after. This for paid butt in seats flying domestic. Delta is, for all practical purposes, a complete waste of money given ANY availability at non extortion redemption rates for Intl.

  11. @ Stuart

    Yes this is super tricky. But thats why such (rough) analysis would be helpful. Even on your Delta example. I recently did a BC round-trip flight BKK-AMS-HAV. On KLM. With a friend. I am Platinum with KLM, he is lowest tier Delta. The result however was that he ended up with twice the number of miles as I did. What I know, surcharges on Delta are also much friendlier than on KLM. And the website works whereas the KLM site can be buggy at times. For the time being I will keep my Flying Blue but is it the best for my Skyteam flying pattern? I don’t have the slightest clue.

    Likewise OW. I used to be top tier on MH as I flew them most. We are talking pre-collapse and pre-devaluation. At that time earn/burn was pretty good. Over the last few years this has become an utterly useless program and I dumped it. Then move to Qatar as I fly them frequently. Same story. Was not too bad until the ‘enhancements’ last year. Once again useless now. Even my existing miles I don’t get redeemed as every single bloody request comes back ‘no seats available’ eventhough I can see the seats myself. So where to go next? I’m looking at Finnair as I also fly them frequently. Is it the best for me? I do not have the slightest clue. Looked at AA as well but my last experience with AA was such that I won’t be flying them again for the next 75 years. Although I could still use their FF program of course.

    *A. Have been SQ PPS Solitaire for many years. Program is not really bad. But earning goes slow. Is it the best fro my pattern? Or would I be better off with United? Or Avianca with a website that is super buggy and a call center somewhere deep in the Amazon area? Or Aegean which gives me a quick status but is charging high surcharges? Once again, I am clueless.

    Therefore an analysis as per my earlier post would be super helpful as then people can pick the ‘best’ program based on their flying pattern, and their preferences/needs. And US flyers can easily add one more criterium for the CC sign-up bonuses, which for non-US flyers is a non-issue.

    I have been trying to make such analysis myself but got stuck as I do not have access to a lot of information needed to make such analysis. My guess is that many bloggers on this topic have accounts all over the place to maximize this game so they would have access to eg the website performance and surcharges.

    So far my rant 🙂

  12. “Loyalty programs regularly devalue”

    If only that were true. A regular devaluation would be one that happens at the same fixed interval, and would therefore be predictable.

    Unfortunately, I think James means “frequently” or “often” rather than “regularly”, because the devaluations are not at fixed intervals and are not therefore predictable. Which is obviously far less useful to us.

  13. @The nice Paul: You know, I was going to argue that despite your being denotatively correct, “regularly” has a connotative meaning of “something that happens with certainty, even if not on a fixed interval” — which is not exactly what’s conveyed by “often” or “frequently”, as those don’t imply certainty. I was going to tell you to get over it.

    Then I thought about it, and I realize that I lose my mind when someone misuses “literally” to mean something other than “literally,” and this situation is no different. Either I have to relax on “literally,” or I have to be more precise when using “regularly” going forward. I’m choosing the latter.

    I don’t know that a single word expresses the idea of “not on fixed intervals, but with certainty,” but perhaps “repeatedly” is closest.

  14. One obscure reason to buy award miles would be if you are a United elite, and you want to buy Premier Qualifying Miles when a PQM purchase promotion isn’t avialable. The only way I know of to do this is to buy award miles as an add-on to an existing ticket; the PQM’s are offered as an add-on to the add-on. (You might still want to do this even if the PQM purchase promotion is available, because the price is usually lower, though you don’t get much control over how many you want.)

  15. Ok sorry everyone for obsessing on something non-travel related.

    @The nice Paul: Merriam-Webster has this for one of the definitions of “regular”: “recurring, attending, or functioning at fixed, uniform, or normal intervals.”

    “Normal” seems to offer the possibility of non-fixed length between events, as long as it’s within some previously understood parameters. And, in fact, some of their examples seem to support this usage: “a regular churchgoer”; “regular bowel movements”. Surely a churchgoer can miss a Sunday or two and still be called regular, and poops are presumably not exact to the minute. At least mine aren’t.

  16. Hi James,

    I enjoy your posts. This is off topic, but I don’t see a way to contact you directly, and as the resident Aussie here I thought you might be the best one to answer my question. I’m traveling from Dubbo to Sydney (first visit to Oz) and because of the schedule would like to take Rex airlines flight rather than QF. Any concerns with on time reliability with Rex over Qantas? Looking at some online reviews, Rex was rather poor, but checking FlightAware the last week at least no problems. Thoughts?

    Thanks

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