Generally speaking, buying airline miles isn’t a good idea, because the price at which they’re sold usually exceeds the value of what they can be redeemed for. There are lots of other ways to earn miles, including through flying, credit card spend or promotional bonuses.
But in certain cases, it can make sense to buy miles. Here’s when to consider doing so — and why it’s usually smarter not to.
Why buying miles is generally a bad idea
Consider the following example of a miles purchase option from American Airlines:
When we last checked, a purchase of 100,000 AAdvantage miles would yield you 60,000 bonus miles, which is a very good 60% bonus. Nonetheless, this purchase of 160,000 miles would set you back $3,209, meaning you’re purchasing those miles for 2 cents each.
NerdWallet values American Airlines miles at 0.7 cent to 1.7 cents each, so by purchasing miles, you’re paying more than what the miles are worth, on average. This is generally true even when there’s a generous bonus involved.
When it could make sense to buy them
1. If you need to top up an award
Let’s say you want to fly from New York to London in business class on American Airlines. This type of award at the MileSAAver level costs 57,500 miles + $5.60 in taxes, as long as you fly on American. What if you only have 55,000 AAdvantage miles in your account?
When we last checked, you could purchase 3,000 extra miles (available in increments of 1,000) for only $90 to get you that business class seat. Buying miles is a great idea in this case.
2. If the price of a ticket is more expensive than buying miles
If you want to fly in business or first class, tickets are usually very expensive. If you don’t have the miles, you’d have to be comfortable parting with a lot of cash for a business class flight. For example, a nonstop round-trip flight in American Airlines first class from Los Angeles to Tokyo priced at a whopping $20,057 when we checked.
That same flight in miles would cost you 160,000 AAdvantage miles + $56.
If you have no miles but really want to fly in first class, you could buy the miles needed to pay for the award. Although buying those miles would set you back $3,208 when we last checked, that’s a lot cheaper than buying the first class ticket outright.
Although buying miles this way isn’t for everyone, it illustrates how expensive miles purchases can make sense for booking premium cabins at hefty discounts.
3. To keep miles from expiring
If you have airline miles that are about to expire, one way to keep those miles active is to buy more miles.
Let’s say you have miles with American that are about to expire. A cheap way to keep those miles active would be to shop through the American Airlines eShopping portal, earning more miles for your purchase. However, if you need the miles to get into your account very quickly, you might not have enough time for the shopping portal miles to post to your account. In that instance, buying miles is an option.
However, even in this scenario, you’d be buying 2,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles for $80, which means you’re paying a very high 4 cents per mile just to keep your old miles active. Given how expensive it is to buy airline miles in such small increments, use this option only as a last resort.
4. If there’s a great bonus on purchased miles
Although purchasing miles is usually a suboptimal way to top up your account, if the airline or hotel is running a significant bonus or discount, a miles purchase can be the right move. It all depends on what you plan to do with your miles.
What credit card should you use?
The following airline frequent flyer programs let you buy miles directly from the airline website:
- American AAdvantage.
- Avianca LifeMiles.
- British Airways Executive Club.
- Delta SkyMiles.
As such, purchases made from these airlines will be treated as travel spend. So in this case, using the respective co-branded airline credit card would be a good idea since you would earn the bonus category spend.
Certain other programs process their miles and points purchases through Points.com, in which case you wouldn’t earn any bonus category spend. The miles purchase can still be a good way to meet the minimum spend requirement on a new credit card.
The bottom line
Buying miles is expensive and seldom makes sense. However, if you have a compelling reason for making the purchase (e.g., for an award top-up or for an expensive premium cabin ticket), then it’s good to know the option is there.
More From NerdWallet
- 4 Ways to Quickly Rack Up Miles for Your Next Flight
- How to Get Started With Frequent Flyer Programs
- Should I Get an Airline Credit Card?
Elina Geller is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The article 4 Times It Makes Sense to Buy Airline Miles originally appeared on NerdWallet.