Is Buying Airline Miles Ever a Good Decision?

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Thinking of buying miles directly from an airline? You should probably reconsider.

If you have a frequent flyer account, you may have already noticed that you can buy miles from the airline instead of earning them through your trips or credit card spending. Most airlines will have this option listed prominently in your online account, and some will also run promotions when you can purchase those miles at a discount.

This may seem like a useful way to boost your mileage balance so you can travel more, but when you dig into the numbers, you'll see that buying miles this way is rarely a good decision.

Why buying miles is a bad idea

The problem with buying airline miles is the lack of value. You'll usually end up paying more for the miles than you can realistically expect to receive when you redeem them.

Although the value of airline miles depends heavily on the flight you book, economy award tickets will generally get you about $0.01 to $0.015 per mile. Business- and first-class tickets can be a better deal and get you $0.02 or more per mile, but these award tickets are also much scarcer.

Here's the standard cost of buying miles (without any promotions) with the four major U.S. airlines as of August 2019:

Carrier Total cost to buy 10,000 miles Cost per mile
American Airlines $330 $0.033
Delta Air Lines $350 $0.035
Southwest Airlines $275 $0.0275
United Airlines $350 $0.035

Data source: Respective airline websites.

Airlines do frequently run promotions, but even then, the cost is typically still at least $0.018 to $0.02 per mile.

Unless you can score a great award ticket, you'll probably lose money by purchasing miles.

The only situations when it makes sense to purchase miles

Even though we just established that buying miles is a bad move from a value perspective, there are two situations when it could be in your best interest to do so:

  • You have miles that are about to expire. With most airlines, miles will eventually expire if you have no account activity for a certain amount of time (12 to 18 months is common, but this depends on the airline). One way to keep your account active is to buy miles, so making a small purchase can ensure your other miles don't expire. Check the airline's rules first to verify this will actually prevent your miles from expiring.
  • You need extra miles for the award ticket you want. If you have miles, but not quite enough for the award ticket you'd like to book, then it could be worth buying the extra miles. Just make sure that the ticket you're booking will still be a good value for the miles and cash you're spending to get it.

Smarter ways to get miles

It's always nice to book your airfare in miles and trim your travel costs, but you're not really cutting costs if you had to purchase the miles in the first place. That's why it's better to earn miles instead of buy them. 

Here are the best ways to do that:

  • Travel credit cards: With a travel rewards card, you can earn a sizable sign-up bonus, with some cards offering 50,000 miles or more when you meet their minimum spending requirements. To give you an idea of what that's worth, 50,000 miles can be enough to cover two round-trip domestic flights. You'll also earn miles/points every time you use your travel credit card.
  • Airline shopping portals: Almost all the big airlines have their own shopping portals with a list of different retailers. All you need to do is log in to your frequent flyer account, go to the shopping portal, and choose the retailer you want. When you make a purchase, you'll earn bonus miles. This could be a fixed amount of miles or a rate per $1 spent, depending on the retailer.

Don't overpay for your miles

While buying miles may seem like a good deal initially, if you do the math on what it will cost, you'll see that these offers rarely work in your favor.

You're better off earning your miles through credit cards and shopping portals, because when you've paid for miles, it usually means you've overpaid.

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