The Unofficial Guide to Buying Airline Miles

Here are a few tips on when purchasing miles is worth it, and when it’s not.

While there are many creative ways to stock up on frequent flyer miles, I go about collecting them in two pretty common ways: purchasing plane tickets and signing up for rewards credit cards. But one of the best, alternative ways to add miles to your account is to buy your frequent flyer miles.

For many people, buying frequent flyer miles is something they’d never consider. Why pay for something you can get for free?

But for many collectors, there are times when it makes perfectly good sense to buy. Yes, there is a small outlay of cash involved but the benefits --both to your lifestyle and finances-- are more than worth it.

Here are a few scenarios for when it’s best to buy, as well as a few tips to make sure you’re getting the most out of each of your purchases.

To Top off Your Account

Purchasing frequent flyer miles can be done directly on your loyalty program’s website by look for the “Buy, Gift & Transfer” tab. The price of a mile varies from airline to airline, but on average the cost is about 2.5 to 3.5 cents per mile. If you’ve got your eye on a reward, are close to redeeming but are not quite there yet, considering topping up your account with a quick purchase. Buy enough to reach your goal, redeem and enjoy your reward. That’s what loyalty is about.

To Keep Your Points From Expiring

It happens to the best of us and can be one of the most demoralizing events for collectors.

We save up enough miles for a free flight but wait too long to redeem them for that much-needed vacation. Many frequent flyer programs expire with inactivity, so for a quick and easy solution, buy extra miles to keep your account active and use them before you lose them.

To Take Advantage of Discounts on Mileage

Many airlines routinely offer deals where you can purchase discounted miles or will give you bonuses when you purchase within a certain time frame.

Depending on the airline or the deal, these bonuses can significantly decrease the price per mile, making it a great time to buy a handful to fill up your account. For example, American Airlines recently celebrated its 35th anniversary and offered AAdvantage members 35 percent off any purchased or gifted miles. The Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan offers members a discount of 35 percent or more when they buy miles as they’re booking an upcoming Alaska Airlines flight. And IHG Rewards Club recently launched a buy points campaign offering 100% purchase bonus at all levels for 96 hours, giving members the opportunity to literally double their rewards. I always keep an eye out for these kinds of deals, especially when I’m getting close to reaching my redemption goal.

Before Purchasing Your Miles, Here Are a Few Things to Consider

1. Get out your calculator
Before you purchase a mile, calculate how much each one will cost you. For a simple formula, subtract the total amount you’ll have to spend on your purchased miles from the dollar value of your ticket and divide that by the number of non-purchased rewards you’re redeeming. Also be sure to take into account taxes and fees on the flight, as fees especially can vary significantly from airline to airline.

2. Make sure awards seats are available
If you’re redeeming a flight with airline miles, your flight options might be limited, as there are only so many reward seats available on each flight. And keep in mind that availability changes quickly: available reward seats that are available this morning might not be there tomorrow or even this afternoon. Also remember that when you purchase miles, it can take up to 72 hours to get into your account, so plan accordingly, or available rewards seats might be booked before the miles are processed and added to your account.

3. Purchase miles with your rewards credit card
If you’ve done all the math and it’s worthwhile to buy miles rather than earn them, be sure to purchase the miles with your rewards credit card. That way, in addition to adding those purchase miles to your portfolio, you’ll be rewarded with even more miles for your purchase.