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There are all kinds of strategies you can use to earn airline points/miles, and that’s true whether you’re a frequent flyer or not. For example, you can earn airline rewards by using an airline credit card or a flexible travel credit card for all of your spending, or by shopping through airline rewards portals or joining an airline’s dining club.
However, you can also buy airline points or miles outright if you want to rack up a stash quickly or you just need to top off your account. But just because you can buy airline rewards, doesn’t mean you should. There are only a few situations where buying airline rewards makes any sense at all, meaning you’ll be better off earning rewards in other ways the vast majority of the time.
When you should buy airline points or miles
So, when does it make sense to purchase airline points or miles? Here’s a rundown of the main situations where you might want to consider it, as well as the steps you should take to find out if it makes sense in your situation.
1. When you can use miles for a flight with a high cash price right away
First off, you may want to consider buying miles if you’re planning to book a pricey fare with cash and the cost of purchased miles works out to less than you would pay. This scenario usually makes the most sense when you’re about to buy an expensive international fare in a premium cabin. However, you’ll need to make sure to buy the miles and lock in the award before it disappears, as they often do since award availability can change by the day (and even by the hour).
For example, you can typically buy Air France / KLM Flying Blue miles through the Flying Blue program for a little over 3 cents each when the program is not offering a bonus on purchased miles.
This means you can typically buy 20,000 Flying Blue miles for around $610, or 62,000 miles for around $1,891.
While that definitely seems like a lot, it could pay off when you need to book a pricey flight. For instance, maybe you need to fly from New York City to Rome, Italy this summer and you desperately want to fly in Business class with a lie-flat seat. In that case, it may be possible to find business class fares for as low as 62,000 miles plus $217 in airline taxes and fees.
In the meantime, the cash price for this type of one-way flight works out to $3,599.
So, how do you know this is a good deal? In this scenario, you would subtract the $217 in airline taxes and fees from the cash price to get $3,382. At that point, you would divide the remaining cash amount by 62,000 miles to get a per-mile price. When you do, you’ll find that this per mile price works out to 5.4 cents each ($3,382 / 62,000 miles = 0.054). Since you could buy miles for a little over 3 cents each, you would get a better value with this strategy than you would if you paid for the flight with cash instead.
You could also just do the math based on the cost of the miles and what you can get in return. In this case, buying 62,000 Flying Blue miles costs $1,891. When you add in the $217 in taxes and fees required for the Business class flight award, you can see the total cost works out to $2,108 (much less than the $3,599 cash price).
2. When you’re short a few thousand miles for an award you want
Another scenario where it might make sense to buy miles is when you’re only a few thousand miles short for a reward redemption you want to make. In this scenario, you can still get a good deal on purchased miles whether they’re expensive or not. After all, not buying miles could mean missing out on the award flight you want all together.
Fortunately, most frequent flyer programs that let you buy miles offer them in fairly small increments so you can easily top off your account. For example, American AAdvantage, Air France / KLM Flying Blue and Delta SkyMiles all let you buy as little as 2,000 miles.
3. The airline is offering a bonus for purchased miles
From time to time, many frequent flyer programs offer a “bonus” for purchasing miles, which typically translates to a discount off its regular rates. Buying during one of these promotional periods is obviously better than buying when a bonus isn’t offered, but that doesn’t mean you should buy miles just for the fun of it.
Unless you have a specific redemption you want to make, you should really only buy miles if you have a goal for them. In any other scenario, you should only buy miles if they’re offered at a price that’s less than what they’re normally worth.
For example, the American AAdvantage program is currently offering up to a 35 percent discount on purchased miles (at the time of writing this article). However, for purchases of fewer than 150,000 miles, the discount is less than 35 percent.
Either way, the value just isn’t there to make the purchase unless you have a concrete reason. For example, our internal points and miles valuations show that American AAdvantage miles are typically worth 1.0 cents each on average, yet the program is asking members to pay $3,668.44 for 150,000 miles. This translates to more than 2.4 cents per mile, or more than twice as much as this type of point is worth.
4. When you need to “reset the clock” so your award miles don’t expire
Buying miles is a strategy you can use to “reset the clock” when your airline rewards are about to expire. This move can work well when you only have a few days or weeks to show some activity in your account before the expiration date, so you need to make something happen quickly.
However, since there are several free ways to earn more miles — including through co-branded credit card spending, airline shopping portals and frequent flyer dining clubs — you should only use this option as a last resort.
When you shouldn’t buy airline points or miles
For the most part, there are two main scenarios when you should not purchase airline points or miles:
- You don’t need them right now
- The points/miles cost more than they’re actually worth
In either case, you’re better off focusing your energy on all the free ways you can rack up airline points and miles. For example, you can look into earning a credit card sign-up bonus from one of the best airline credit cards, or you could explore some of the best flexible credit card rewards programs that let you transfer rewards to your favorite airlines and hotels. You can also look into airline shopping portals and dining clubs, which make it possible to earn points/miles for online shopping and dining out.
Which credit card should you use to buy airline points or miles?
The best credit card for buying airline points or miles will depend on the method you can use to purchase them.
Some frequent flyer programs don’t sell points/miles directly, but you can buy them through a third-party site called Points.com, which features over 60 airline, travel and financial partners. In this scenario, the points/miles you purchased with a credit card would not code as a travel purchase, so you wouldn’t have the opportunity to maximize your purchase with bonus points/miles on travel.
That said, several frequent flyer programs let you purchase points/miles directly on their websites. Some of these programs include Air France / KLM Flying Blue, American AAdvantage, Avianca LifeMiles, British Airways Executive Club, Delta SkyMiles, Southwest Rapid Rewards, United MileagePlus and more.
In these scenarios, you could opt for a flexible travel credit card that lets you earn bonus rewards on all purchases made directly with airlines. Some solid flexible travel credit cards to consider are the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, Chase Sapphire Reserve® and American Express® Gold Card, to name a few.
However, if you want frequent flyer perks like free checked bags or priority boarding, you could opt for an airline credit card that offers bonus rewards on airline purchases. However, you’ll want to tailor your card selection to the program you use the most and want to buy points/miles with.
If you’re more interested in the American AAdvantage program, for example, consider signing up for the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®* or the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®*. If you’re a Delta flyer, on the other hand, you may want to look into cards like the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card or the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card.
The bottom line
At this point, you may have a few lingering questions. For example: Is buying airline miles a good deal? And: Is it worth it to buy airline miles at all? Unfortunately, the answer to both of those questions is usually no. Buying airline miles only makes sense in a few situations, and you’ll probably need to do some basic math before you decide. When you do run the numbers, you’ll almost always find the math isn’t in favor of buying points/miles.
Finally, remember all the ways you can earn airline rewards without paying for them, including signing up for a co-branded airline credit card (where you can earn a sign-up bonus and ongoing rewards on bonus category spending). With some research and planning, you can get all the miles you need (plus some) without paying for the privilege.
*The information about the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® and Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.