If you’re part of an airline or hotel loyalty program, you likely get bombarded with email offers encouraging you to buy more points or miles. Some of their special promotions can sound tempting. But is buying miles worth it?
Buying miles isn’t often a good strategy, as the miles can cost far more than they’re worth. However, there are some situations when it could be a smart cost-saving approach.
The problem with buying airline miles or hotel points
When you use your travel rewards credit card, you can earn airline miles or hotel points that can help you score free flights or upgraded perks. It’s a great way to indulge without breaking the bank; you’re getting miles or points just for using your credit card to pay for routine expenses, and you may even qualify for a lucrative sign-up bonus.
However, buying additional airline miles or hotel points is often not a good deal for the consumer. Airlines and hotels can sell those miles and points for much more than they’re worth, making them an expensive add-on.
For example, on a round-trip Southwest flight from Orlando to Philadelphia, points are generally worth about 1.5 cents each. But if you opt to buy additional miles from the airline, it’s $60 for 2,000 miles, costing you three cents each — double their typical value.
When you can earn those same miles or points for free by using your credit card or by booking travel, it usually doesn’t make sense to shell out your hard-earned money for them.
Plus, you may be able to get your points in other ways. For example, if you transfer your credit card reward points to an airline or hotel loyalty program — as you can with select American Express and Chase cards — you may get a higher rate of return for your points, making it a more affordable option.
4 times when buying miles or points could make sense
While buying miles or points isn’t often the best strategy, there are some exceptions to the rule. In certain circumstances, buying additional points or miles could even help you save money.
1. The airline or hotel is selling miles or points at a major discount
Throughout the year, hotels and airlines occasionally offer promotional deals. During these events, you can purchase miles or points and get a bonus or major discount, giving you more value for your money. Some of the offers can be significant, allowing you to get double the points for your purchase.
For example, Hilton recently held a promotion that offered a 100% point bonus when you bought at least 10,000 points. That meant you could buy 10,000 points and get a 10,000-point bonus, for a total of 20,000 points. Generally, Hilton points are worth about 0.6 cents each. But this promotional offer allowed you to buy points for just 0.5 cents each, helping stretch your dollars further.
Promotional offers are a great way to stock up on points to fill the gap when you’re booking travel. If you have a dream vacation you’ve always wanted to take, taking advantage of a promotional offer can help you afford it.
2. Your miles or points are about to expire
Miles and points are great perks, but they sometimes have an expiration date. If you don’t use them in time, you could lose those valuable rewards. That problem is like throwing money away.
One of the easiest ways to keep your miles and points active is to buy additional miles or points. Buying extra points or miles is quick and simple, and it’s often enough to ensure your rewards stay active.
However, before making the purchase, make sure the particular airline or hotel counts purchased miles or points as qualifying activity — not all of them do.
3. You just need a few more miles or points to complete your free booking
If you’re close to a flight or hotel redemption award but are just a few points short, you have a few options. You could hold off on booking your flight until you earn enough points with your credit card. But it could take you months to get enough points and for them to post to your account.
If you want to take a trip right now and don’t want to wait, it might be worthwhile to spend a little extra money to purchase miles or points to cover the cost. It’s still an added expense, but spending a bit more on points or miles can be far cheaper than paying for the total cost of a flight or hotel stay on your own.
For example, a flight on American Airlines from New York City to Austin would cost you about 20,000 miles, or $247 if you paid cash, for a basic economy fare. If you had 18,000 miles and needed just 2,000 more to book your flight, you could buy the additional miles for just $94. That purchase is significantly cheaper than the sticker price of a regular flight.
4. It’s sometimes cheaper to buy miles than to purchase a regular ticket
It’s often cheaper to just book economy fares on your own than to purchase miles. But when it comes to premium or luxury seating, it’s sometimes cheaper to buy miles instead of purchasing the fare in cash.
For example, a business-class fare from Chicago to London could cost you $6,973 with United Airlines. If you wanted to purchase your fare using miles, you’d need 155,000 miles.
But to buy 155,000 miles, it would cost you $5,830. Opting to buy miles miles over paying for the airfare with cash would save you more than $1,100.
In order to make the most of your miles you'll need to be flexible about your dates of travel and often book many months in advance. For families traveling together, it can also be challenging to find multiple redemptions available on the same flight. Always make sure you have a realistic plan to use your miles before you buy them.
Buying miles is rarely a good idea. But if you do your homework and take advantage of special offers in certain circumstances, you can snag a good deal and save money on your travel arrangements.
Otherwise, it’s probably a good idea to hold off on booking your trip until you can earn the rewards on your credit card or take advantage of a promotional bonus offer.