There are many ways to boost your frequent flier balances. The most obvious seems to take flights—and lots of them. But truth be told, most airline miles are earned on the ground. They’re accrued through the likes of welcome bonuses on cobranded credit cards, monthly spending on said credit cards, and earning opportunities through partners on hotel stays, car rentals, shopping portals, and more.
There’s also another way to land large sums of frequent flier miles: Buy them directly from the airline. In fact, all airlines offer the option to purchase miles in their loyalty programs through their respective websites. At first the idea of buying a bunch of miles may sound odd, but in some cases, it’s a cost-effective move that can end up saving you hundreds or even thousands on airline tickets. Here are some scenarios when it may be a good idea to purchase miles, along with a few things to keep in mind if you plan to do so.
Buy miles only during promotions
Airlines typically sell their miles at a premium, often in the range of 2.5 cents to 3.5 cents per mile. That’s a high price for a lump sum of miles (e.g., $2,500–$3,500 for 100,000 miles.) So, in general, we don’t recommend buying miles at full price. On the other hand, promotions and bonuses could make the price more attractive. For example, during one week in late January 2023, Air Canada Aeroplan ran a promotion in which buying 60,000+ points would lead to a 100 percent bonus. This bonus effectively brought the cost of an Aeroplan point down from 2.6 cents to 1.3 cents (US$). For two weeks in February 2023, American Airlines offered up to a 45 percent discount on purchased miles (getting the full 45 percent discount required buying 150,000 AA miles). The full discount effectively lowered the purchase price of AAdvantage miles from 3.5 cents each to 2.07 cents per AAdvantage mile.
Usually, you’ll need to buy a larger quantity of miles to get the full promotional discount, so read the promotion carefully to avoid disappointment (and paying higher prices). Also, recall that all loyalty programs are not created equal: 100,000 AA miles is not the same as 100,000 Air Canada Aeroplan points. (The best way to grasp this concept is to think of the airline miles of different programs as different foreign currencies.)
Do the math: Buy miles when it’s cost-effective
In general, the costs of airline tickets in both cash and miles have skyrocketed in the past year, but there are still some bargains when it comes to mileage redemptions. This is true specifically for flying first or business class on international airlines that partner with North America–based airlines.
In January 2023, for example, this writer used 170,000 Alaska Airlines miles to fly round-trip from Miami to the Maldives (via Doha) in business class on Qatar Airways. Many of those Alaska miles were obtained during mileage sales in which 60 percent bonuses were awarded on purchased miles, reducing the cost of Alaska Miles from 2.95 cents to 1.85 cents per Mileage Plan mile. In essence, my round-trip ticket cost $3,145 (170,000 miles at 0.0185 cents each) plus $145 in taxes and fees, for a total of $3,290. Now, compare that to the cash price of the cheapest round-trip flight in business on Qatar Airways around the same time, a sum that ranged between $5,500 to $7,400 depending on the dates. My ticket cost by purchasing miles was nearly half the cash price.
Now, before you start thinking that miles are better than money, note that getting this golden ticket required tremendous planning and flexibility. I had to scour almost an entire year’s worth of mileage ticket availability on Alaska’s flexible search tool to find a handful of dates (over 330 days) offering mileage tickets at the lowest price of 85,000 each way in business between the United States and the Indian subcontinent. Then once I found those seats, I priced out what the ticket would cost in cash using Google Flights and decided that buying miles was the way to go for my selected dates. On other dates in January 2023, the ticket priced out at 340,000 points round-trip, a sum for which buying miles would make zero sense.
While doing in-depth searches and figuring out the math is worth it for international tickets on the cheap in business (and sometimes economy), it’s often a lost cause on North American routes, in both business and economy. Since most North America–based airlines use dynamic pricing for domestic routes, the algorithm drives the price higher in miles than in cash (even when accounting for miles purchased at promotional rates).
That said, those who are willing to pay the high price of refundable domestic tickets (which are often double the price of nonrefundable tickets) may want to investigate the option of paying in miles. Why? Many frequent flier programs, including those of Delta, United, and American, allow the cancellation of mileage tickets without any penalties and with the full refund of miles. So, in essence, you are getting a refundable ticket when you get a ticket through mileage programs.
Don’t stockpile miles unless you are a mileage pro
Next time you see a promo for buying miles at a discount, you may ask yourself: Is this the time to buy airline miles on speculation? The short answer is no unless you are highly confident in maximizing the value of your miles—and soon. Sadly, miles aren’t getting any more valuable. In fact, there have been many negative changes to frequent flier programs over recent years, namely mileage devaluations and decreased inventory of award tickets. Every few months seems to bring another bombshell. One of the most recent is American Airlines’ elimination of static MileSAAver and AAnytime awards by spring 2023 in favor of a more robust dynamic pricing model (in which the customer almost always pays more miles). We don’t see the situation getting any better, especially as more people jump on the loyalty program bandwagon (and airlines look to become more profitable).
Be careful when topping up your mileage balance
Those who are close to an amount required for an award ticket may be inclined to top off their balance by buying the last few thousand miles. Again, do the math to see if it makes sense.
Let’s say you are eyeing an AA flight from Miami to Boston in mid-June that’s only 12,500 miles in economy. You have 10,000 miles in your AAdvantage account. AA is running the same “up to 45 percent off purchased miles” promo it ran in late February 2023. You think it may be wise to buy the remaining 3,000 (mile purchases must be rounded to the nearest 1,000 miles). Well, at such a low quantity, the promo discount is only 5 percent (not the 45 percent when you buy 150,000 miles). Combine the high retail price of miles with a processing fee and it comes to $107.24 for 3,000 miles. Buying this specific ticket outright would cost $159. Spending $107.24 to have enough miles for a redemption ticket would not be a wise choice.
In some cases, it’s a good—even great—idea to buy airline miles, but in many cases it’s not.
When airlines put their miles on sale, check award availability and do the math to see if the promo makes financial sense for you. Nothing’s better than scoring a business-class ticket on the cheap with miles and paying a fraction of the price for a lie-flat bed, top-shelf champagne, and gourmet meals. But nothing’s worse than paying more for a ticket in miles than its value in cash price.