Is It Ever a Good Idea to Buy Hotel Points or Airline Miles?

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Buying loyalty points may be convenient, but it's rarely cheap.

Most major travel brands have their own loyalty programs, complete with points or miles that you can earn and redeem. In general, you can earn these hotel points or airline miles in three main ways:

  1. Using a rewards credit card
  2. Booking a hotel stay or flight
  3. Purchasing your points or miles from the source

It's easy to wax poetic about the value of a good travel rewards credit card. And the rewards you get for booked travel are icing on the cake of your necessary hotel stays or flights. But most experts will caution you against buying points or miles -- and with good reason.

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In many cases, buying rewards from a hotel or airline simply isn't worth the cost, as they can cost as much as $0.01 per point. You'll generally get more value for your dollar by paying cash for your booking, especially since you'll earn rewards on cash purchases that you won't earn if you redeem rewards instead.

However, there are the occasional situations in which buying points and miles can actually make sense -- even financial sense -- as well as times when the convenience can be worth the cost.

Discounts and sales can boost the value

The best reason to buy hotel points or frequent flyer miles is if you can get them on sale -- way on sale. Most hotels and airlines put their rewards on sale at least once a year, though many brands host sales a few times a year. The discount you can get varies a lot, though 20% to 30% is common, and 50% isn't unheard of for some brands.

With a good sale going on, the potential exists to spend less on the rewards for a given flight or hotel stay than you'd pay in cash for the same booking. Of course, this depends entirely on how you redeem those rewards, so it shouldn't be a spur-of-the-moment purchase. It's best to have a very specific redemption in mind -- and to do all the math.

Buying rewards can help bridge an award gap

Another common reason to buy a few points or miles is to top off your balance for a specific award redemption. For example, if a given flight costs 25,000 miles, but your balance is stuck at 24,000, then purchasing the extra 1,000 miles could be worthwhile to meet your goal.

This option works best if the cost of the miles you need is minor compared to what you'd pay if you used cash for the whole booking. If the 25,000-mile award flight normally goes for $500, for instance, then spending $50 for the extra 1,000 miles could be a good move, especially if you don't have any better options for using up those miles.

On the other hand, if the award flight would only cost you $150 to book in cash, then you probably shouldn't waste money buying miles. Here, you'd spend 33% of the cost of the flight on just 4% of the necessary miles. You'd be better off paying for the flight outright and saving your miles for a more valuable redemption down the line.

Purchasing rewards can bump your expiration date

One great thing about many types of credit card rewards is that they don't expire unless you close your account. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of airline and hotel loyalty programs. In many cases, your frequent flyer miles or hotel points have a ticking time clock that could run out -- and take your rewards with it.

If you're close to the expiration date on your loyalty rewards, then buying a few points or miles could be a good alternative to letting them expire. Most of the time, any kind of rewards activity will reset the clock, giving you another six months to a year to put your rewards to good use.

That being said, you should do a little digging to see if you can find other ways to earn some extra rewards before you spend money buying them. For example, many frequent flyer programs have shopping portals that you can use to earn a few miles on a purchase you'd be making anyway.

And, of course, there's always the good old co-branded card. Many major hotels and airlines have co-branded credit card options, including no annual fee cards, that could turn everyday purchases into hotel points or airline miles.

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