Buying Airline Miles: A Strategy That Can Be Worth Having in Your Travel Toolkit

If you are new to frequent flyer programs and airline miles, you might be surprised that you can not only earn miles by flying or through other activities like that, but that you can also buy them outright.

In most cases, doing so does not present the best value. However, if you are systematic about it – only picking the right deals for the right purposes, you can potentially save hundreds if not thousands of dollars on your travels.

Continue reading to learn everything you need to know about buying frequent flyer miles. I’ll talk about when you should (not) be doing so, how to buy them, as well as what the most important things to keep in mind before you enter your credit card details are.

A Guide to Buying Airline Miles

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When Should You Consider Buying Airline Miles

Roughly speaking, there are three situations in which it’s worth considering buying airline miles. Let’s take a look at these situations one by one.

Before continuing, though, keep in mind that in the vast majority of cases, it’s only possible to buy award miles. I.e. the miles that can be redeemed for flights and other rewards, not the miles that get you closer to achieving an elite status.

When You Are A Bit Short on Miles for an Award Ticket

This one is fairly simple.

Let’s say that you have 6,500 award miles in your account, but you want to redeem your miles for an award ticket that costs 7,500 miles. And, let’s say you have no other use for the miles and no plans to earn more miles with the airline in the near future.

If that’s the case – and if the airline sells miles – then it might be worth buying the missing 1,000.

Even if the miles were relatively expensive, $40 let’s say, more or less any flight you could use the miles combined with the bought miles for would offer you more value than that. In this case, unlike in most other cases, I consider the 6,500 miles that you have no use for by themselves to have no value.

When Your Existing Miles Are About to Expire Due to Inactivity

In most frequent flyer programs, miles expire after a certain period of time. Sometimes it’s a period of time after you earn them, other times it’s a period of time since your last activity (earning miles, redeeming miles, etc.).

If the latter is the case – and if you have no plans to fly with the airline or its partner airlines to earn miles, to redeem miles, or have no other way of “keeping your account active” – it might make sense to buy miles if your program allows it.

This, of course, only makes sense when the amount of miles you have in the account is significant.

After all, it wouldn’t make sense paying $30 or $40 dollars, for example, to “save” 1,000 miles. In that case, just letting them expire – or donating them if possible – would be a better option.

When They’re on Sale and You Have a Ticket You Need to Buy

The last situation I am going to talk about is, by far, the most interesting and exciting one.

Every now and then airlines put miles on sale, allowing you to buy them at a fraction of what they are normally sold for.

In this case, buying the miles can present a great value if you happen to be looking for a specific ticket at the time. While you can also buy miles to stock up on them without any specific use in mind, I don’t recommend that much (unless you really know what you are doing) for reasons that I will outline towards the end of this article.

Whatever the case, though, there is one simple formula that you will have to remember in this case:

Total Cost of an Award Ticket = Number of Miles Required x CPM + Taxes and Fees

If you are wondering what “CPM” stands for, it’s “cost/cents per mile.” In other words, the amount you have to pay for each mile that you buy.

To show you the above formula in action, let’s take a look at an actual example.

Fairly often, Alaska Airlines offers its miles for sale with up to 50% bonus miles on top of the ones that you buy. I took advantage of that offer about two years ago, buying 53,200 miles for $1,123.38 (including a 40% bonus).

That means that I paid $0.0211 (2.11 cents) per mile (I got that number by dividing the amount I paid by the number of miles I received for that).

I bought the miles planning to use them for two tickets:

Buying Airline Miles to Fly First Class
Buying Alaska Miles is one of the cheapest ways to fly Cathay Pacific first class.

The first ticket cost me 25,000 miles and $47.50 in taxes and fees. Since I paid 2.11 cents per each mile, the mileage portion of the ticket cost me $527.50, and the ticket cost me $575.00 in total. Not bad for a seven- and a ten-hour flight in business class, I would say.

The second ticket cost me 27,500 miles and $91.20 in taxes and fees. Doing the same math as above, the total cost of the ticket came to $671.45. While that would be expensive for a regular economy class one-way intra-Asian ticket, certainly a bargain for the same in first class.

In most cases, just like with my Alaska Airlines miles, you will get the most bang for your buck if you buy miles to spend them on premium class international flights. However, sometimes, miles can also present a great deal when spent on short, but expensive routes (like New York – Washington DC, for example).

How to Buy Airline Miles

First, a word of caution.

If you Google “buy airline miles,” you will find some “brokerage” services that offer miles at a low price. These services generally use transferable credit card points to sell you miles. This is, however, in violation with most (if not all) frequent flyer programs’ terms and conditions.

As such, I HIGHLY advise you against using these services.

If you do so, your frequent flyer account might get banned, you might lose all your miles in that account, and also those that you bought, of course. In the worst case, you might show up at the airport just to find out that your ticket has been cancelled.

Don't Buy Miles from Brokers
Don’t buy miles from mileage brokers – while not illegal, it’s against each programs’ terms and conditions, and so it is quite risky.

Instead, I only recommend buying miles through official channels. In other words, only when the airline itself sells the miles – whether directly, through a third-party processor like Points.com, or through a deal site like Groupon.

If you want to buy miles for either of the first two situations I talked about earlier – to top-up or log some activity in your account – just Google “buy [airline] miles.” If your airline sells miles, one of the top results should point you to the right page.

On the other hand, if you are looking for good deals, I recommend monitoring one of the many frequent flyer blogs that share news, like One Mile at a Time.

Airlines that oftentimes sell miles at a price that can present a lot of value include:

  • Alaska Airlines: Miles can be bought directly from the airline’s website, and the purchase is processed via Points.com.
  • Avianca: LifeMiles are often on sale at a price that can present great value when booking Star Alliance business and first class award tickets.
  • Iberia: Miles, which can also be converted into British Airways Avios, are on sale on Spanish Groupon every now and then. I wrote a tutorial about how to take advantage of these offers here.
Airline Miles on Sale
Every now and then, I get an email like this from LifeMiles. The percentage varies.

Remember that with some airlines – like Alaska Airlines, you will need to have an account that is “aged.” In other words, you can’t open an account and buy miles right after that. Instead, you will have to wait a few days or longer depending on the program.

As such, if there is any program that you might want to buy miles in, I recommend you open an account as soon as possible just in case that the program has a similar rule in place. Opening an account is free and usually only takes a couple of minutes.

Three Things to Keep in Mind Before Buying Miles

Unlike with buying regular tickets, there are a lot of nuances and important things to keep in mind before you buy miles.

Let’s take a look at the most important of those.

Miles Can Lose Value

Depending on your country, your money might gradually be losing its value due to inflation. It’s a similar case with miles – except it tends to happen in steps rather than gradually and it is completely out of your control.

What I mean by the latter is, that unlike with money which you can convert between different currencies, (except for some rare cases) you cannot transfer miles between different airline programs.

As for the former, airlines are known to devalue their miles every now and then.

In some cases that means a blanket increase in award costs (for example, the price of a certain ticket increasing from 5,000 miles to 7,500 miles). In other cases, it means a switch from a fixed award chart to dynamic pricing of awards (for example, the price of a certain ticket increasing from 5,000 miles to a range between 5,000 and 7,500 miles depending on the date of your travel and so on).

While airlines often do these things with advance notice, it might still be hard to use your miles before the devaluation takes place. Especially for the reason I will talk about in the next section.

Because of that, I only recommend buying miles if you have an immediate use in mind.

Airline Mile Devaluation
One-way business class awards between Tokyo and Singapore booked using Delta SkyMiles used to cost 40,000 miles regardless of the airline or route. Then, the airline introduced dynamic pricing, and they cost anywhere between 40,000 miles for some itineraries and 80,000 for others. When I checked now, the minimum price seems to have gone up to 45,000 miles.

Award Availability Can Be Difficult to Come By

This is, perhaps, the most important thing to keep in mind.

Even if there are empty seats available for sale on a certain flight, that does not necessarily mean that they are also available for purchase using miles. In many cases, you will be able to find award seats from point A to point B. Availability on some routes – and airlines, though, might not be as easy to come by.

As such, you will either need to be flexible in terms of your travel dates or in terms of the airline or route you are willing to fly. That’s especially the case when booking business and first class awards.

Award Availability
While only economy class awards are bookable for the first flight and only business class awards for the second flight, both of the flights in both classes can be bought with cash.

Award Booking Rules Vary Depending on the Program

Finally, keep in mind that booking awards is in many cases not as straightforward as booking revenue tickets is. The booking rules vary not only depending on the program, but also depending on the airline that your flight will be on.

Just to give you a couple of examples of the type of rules I am talking about:

  • Some programs will allow you to book award tickets until the very last minute while others will stop selling tickets for miles a couple of days before departure.
  • Some programs will allow you to change or cancel award tickets for very little extra fees while others will be more expensive.
  • Some programs will require you to choose from automatically provided itineraries while others will let you build an itinerary that you like as long as there is availability and it is within the allowed routing rules.
  • Some programs will allow you to book award tickets for a certain partner airline online while others will require you to call.

The exact rules, of course, depend on the program you will be using as well as on the actual airline that you will be flying with. As such, before committing money to buying miles, make sure to do your research.

Summary

If you haven’t heard about the strategy of buying airline miles before, it might be a bit challenging to wrap your head around it. However, with a bit of understanding of how frequent flyer programs work, it can unlock great travel opportunities.

While there are many airlines that sell miles, most of those offers are rarely worthwhile. I’d say that the two airlines that most consistently run deals during which buying miles might presents a great option in some cases are Alaska Airlines and Avianca (LifeMiles).

Before jumping at one of the two airlines’ – or other – opportunities to buy miles, though, make sure you are aware of a few things. The two most important ones are the facts that airline miles can be devalued at any time and that award availability can sometimes be quite limited.

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No, I am not going to tell you how to fly in first class and sip Dom Perignon for free…

But, I am going to introduce you to a couple of ways you can experiment with to try a business class flight without having to spend thousands of dollars.

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  1. Pingback: No DBS, you shouldn’t be buying miles from mileage brokers | The MileLion

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Get Your FREE "Four Ways to Try Business Class Without Breaking the Bank" Guide

No, I am not going to tell you how to fly in first class and sip Dom Perignon for free…

But, I am going to introduce you to a couple of ways you can experiment with to try a business class flight without having to spend thousands of dollars.

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