Travel Rewards Credit Cards

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Feb 11

Does it make sense to buy miles from the airlines?

My inbox is filled with offers from airlines offering to sell me miles directly.  No need to get on a plane and earn them, I can have more reward opportunities with the swipe of a credit card.

That last sentence should be the clue that these deals are almost always bad.  They want you to pay for the opportunity to use a reward.  Sounds kind of like buying a ticket, doesn’t it?

Of course, one could argue that by not incurring the costs associated with having you as a passenger, the airline should be able to sell those miles to you much more cheaply than if you actually flew for them.

Except that’s rarely the case.  Let’s use this offer that I received today from United Airlines as an example.  United is offering me miles at “up to 40% off” the normal price.  Of course, you have to buy a lot more miles to get that 40% off.  Smaller purchases will get you 25% off.  So if I want to buy enough miles for a “saver award” at United to fly domestically, I’d need 25,000 miles which, at their “special” price, would cost $705.47.  And that’s just for a saver award!  Refer to this post to read about your chances of getting one of those tickets at a “saver award” rate. You’d be much better off just buying the ticket outright, which will likely cost you significantly less than $700.

There is one, and only one, occasion that I can think of in which buying miles makes sense, and that is if you can purchase a small amount of miles that will put you over the threshold for an award.  For example, let’s say that you have 49,285 miles in your US Airways account and have found an award flight that will cost 50,000 miles.  US Airways will let you buy miles in small quantities, as low as 1,000 miles.  Those 1,000 miles will cost you $35, which is a terrible price for buying miles, but it beats missing out on an award ticket.  In this case, and in this case only, does it make sense to buy miles.

If you really need the miles and have no intention of flying in the near future, the cheapest way to buy them is probably to make a purchase through an airline’s online mall, as discussed here.  You’ll get miles for something that you would have purchased anyway.  Scroll down to the bottom of that page for links to each of the major airlines’ online malls.

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