Flight cancellations and delays are frustrating experiences. It's natural to consider all options to get your travel plans back on track, and buying airline miles may be one of them. However, before you purchase, it's important to understand when this strategy makes sense and when it doesn't.

When Does it Make Sense to Buy Airline Miles?

There are specific scenarios where buying miles can be a worthwhile strategy:

If You Need to Top Up an Award

If you need more miles for an award flight, buying a few additional miles can help you complete the redemption. Airlines typically sell miles in increments of 1,000 with costs around $30 per batch (so 3,000 miles might cost you roughly $90). Check the specific airline's pricing and minimum purchase amounts before buying.

If the Price of a Ticket is Way More Expensive than Buying Miles

While buying miles outright is typically not the cheapest way to book flights, there are times when it may make sense. Here's why, and what to consider before doing so:

  • Last-minute premium cabin travel: If you need to book a last-minute flight in first or business class, cash prices can be astronomically high. Sometimes, buying miles, even at a slightly higher price-per-mile, can still be significantly cheaper than purchasing the ticket outright.
  • Promotions and bonuses: Airlines often offer generous bonuses when you purchase miles. In these cases, the effective price-per-mile can drop substantially, making it a tempting option.
  • Always consider alternatives: Before buying miles, explore these options which might offer better value:
  • Transferring points: Points from programs like American Express Membership Rewards often transfer to airline partners at a better ratio than buying miles directly.
  • Credit card bonuses: New cardholder sign-up bonuses can offer tens of thousands of miles, enough for a free flight!
  • Shopping portals: Even everyday online purchases through airline portals can rack up extra miles, reducing your need to buy them.

To Keep Miles From Expiring

Thankfully, many major airlines have eliminated expiration dates on their miles, giving you more flexibility. However, programs like American Airlines and British Airways still have time limits on inactivity. Here are several ways to keep your miles active in these programs:

  • Use the airline's shopping portal: Earning miles through everyday purchases made via the airline's online shopping portal often resets your expiration date.
  • Buy a small number of miles: Even purchasing a minimal amount of miles qualifies as account activity and keeps your balance valid.
  • Utilize your co-branded card: Regular spending on your co-branded airline credit card, even for small purchases like groceries or coffee, demonstrates account usage and prevents expiration.
  • Redeem or donate: If you have a large balance of miles at risk of expiring, consider redeeming them for gift cards or merchandise. Donating them to a charity is another way to utilize those miles and avoid losing them.
  • Consider selling: If you have unused miles you know you won't use, The Miles Market offers a convenient way to sell them and recoup some of their value.

If There's a Great Bonus on Purchased Miles

Occasionally, airlines offer significant bonuses when you purchase miles. In these cases, buying miles (even at a slightly higher price-per-mile) could be a cost-effective way to book premium cabins. These promotions can drastically reduce the effective cost per mile, potentially turning a first or business-class flight into a surprisingly affordable option. Keep an eye out for these promotions, as they can offer excellent value, particularly when those high-priced premium seats are your goal.

What Credit Card Should You Use?

The right credit card can significantly enhance your airline mile earnings and unlock valuable travel perks. Here's what to prioritize when choosing one:

  • Bonus miles on relevant spending: Focus on cards that reward the things you buy most often. Dedicated airline credit cards offer the highest bonuses on flights and airline purchases. General travel cards might reward dining, groceries, or even gas – choose what fits your lifestyle.
  • Elite status perks: Cards can sometimes get you priority boarding, free checked bags, and most importantly, lounge access. These perks add comfort and convenience to your travels, especially if you fly frequently.
  • Premium travel cards: Cards like the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®, Chase Sapphire Reserve®, and The Platinum Card® from American Express often come with high annual fees. However, they offset this with luxurious benefits like airport lounge networks, travel credits, and point transfer bonuses that can unlock amazing redemption opportunities.

How To Avoid a Devaluation

Loyalty programs are subject to changes, and sometimes those changes can reduce the value of your miles. Here are some proactive strategies to mitigate the impact of devaluations:

  • Use your miles actively: Avoid hoarding large amounts of miles for extended periods.
  • Monitor industry news: Stay informed about potential devaluations through blogs and specialized websites.
  • Maintain flexibility: Be open to alternative routes or dates to optimize the use of your points.
  • Diversify your portfolio: Spread your miles across different airline programs.
  • Leverage transferable points: These currencies offer flexibility as they can be transferred to various airline partners.
  • Consider hotel points: In some cases, hotel points can be transferred to airlines at advantageous rates.

When is Buying Miles a Bad Idea?

It's important to understand that buying miles is often not the most efficient way to get the maximum value for your money. Miles, like any currency, have value and you want to avoid overpaying. Airlines incentivize direct mile purchases as it benefits them. Consider transferring points or earning miles through credit card spend and shopping portals before resorting to buying miles outright.

How Can I Earn Miles Without Buying Them?

Fortunately, there are several ways to accumulate miles without making direct purchases from airlines:

Transfer Points From a Transferable Points Currency

Transferable points programs provide excellent flexibility and value. Here are the top five programs to consider:

  • American Express Membership Rewards: A well-established program with a vast network of airline partners. They frequently offer transfer bonuses, increasing the value of your points.
  • Bilt Rewards: A newer and unique program offering strong airline transfer partners and the added benefit of earning points on rent payments.
  • Capital One Miles: Provides a good variety of airline transfer partners, making it a solid choice for diverse travel needs.
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards: Offers excellent transfer partners and frequent bonuses, particularly when paired with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® or Chase Sapphire Reserve®.
  • Citi ThankYou Points: Features a selection of airline partners and occasionally provides transfer bonuses for additional value.

Earn Miles Through a Credit Card

Credit cards remain a powerful tool for earning airline miles. Here's how to maximize your earning potential:

  • Welcome bonuses: New card sign-ups can offer substantial mileage bonuses.
  • Regular spending: Look for cards that reward daily spending habits.
  • Consider your airline: Choose a co-branded airline credit card if you primarily fly with a specific airline.
  • Evaluate your options: Factors like credit standing, fees, and overall rewards should guide your card selection.

Earn Miles Through Shopping Portals

Major US-based airlines offer shopping portals where you can earn bonus points or miles on your online purchases. Combining these portal earnings with credit card rewards can significantly boost your mileage balance.

Buying airline miles can be a smart strategy in specific situations, especially when flight delays or cancellations arise. However, it's essential to weigh the costs and benefits before making a purchase. Always consider the value you're getting per mile and alternative ways to earn or transfer points. By understanding the best times to buy miles and exploring other methods of earning them, you can maximize the value of your miles and make the most of your travel experiences.

Need extra miles for an upcoming trip? Check out The Miles Market for competitive prices on the miles you need.