Home Maximizing Rewards Key Rules for Buying and Spending Airline Miles

Key Rules for Buying and Spending Airline Miles

Get the maximum return on airline miles, whether buying or spending.

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Get the maximum return on airline miles, whether buying or spending
Get the maximum return on airline miles, whether buying or spending.
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Airline mileage programs can be rather complicated, but each offers great money-saving opportunities for buying and spending miles. Here are key rules for getting a maximum return on airline miles.

Buying miles only on sale

All airlines offer the option for buying miles in their mileage programs, but it can be a silly move to buy miles. They’re typically sold way above market value (in excess of 3 cents per mile). However, it has become common practice for airlines to run mileage purchase promos throughout the year, effectively lowering the price of purchased miles to around 2 cents per mile. With these mileage sales, buying miles no longer seems so silly.

Looking to international partners for good mileage award opportunities

Every airline either belongs to an alliance or has partners for earning or redeeming miles. US airlines tend to have good award availability on their international airline partners (though often not on their own airlines, strangely enough).

If you’re looking to fly long-haul on first- or business-class international carriers like Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Fiji Airways, Hainan Airlines, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Lufthansa, LATAM Airlines, Swiss, Thai Airways, or Turkish Airlines, purchasing points on a US partner airline and redeeming a points ticket can sometimes get you that business- or first-class seat for far less than retail price.

Buying miles only if seeking international flights in upper classes (and when it makes financial sense)

It’s almost never worth the time or effort to buy miles for flights in economy. However, when it comes to pricey international business- and first-class tickets, which retail for thousands, it may be worth the exercise of pricing out flights in cash versus a mileage ticket.

We’ll cut to the quick: Price out your desired ticket in cash on Google Flights and then search for availability of mileage awards on sites like Expert Flyer or through the comprehensive search engines of US airlines like American, Alaska, United, and Delta. Price out the ticket in miles and taxes. Calculate how much it would cost you to buy those miles to redeem a mileage ticket. (Each airline requires a different number of miles for an award ticket, so don’t assume they are all the same!) Then do the math and compare the two ticket prices.

Don’t stay loyal to one alliance and consider one-way tickets

We understand that it makes sense for elite status to stay loyal to a single airline alliance. However, when it comes to miles, don’t be shy about buying or redeeming miles on other alliances for free award tickets in business- or first- class. As mentioned, partner availability is typically generous with foreign airlines, but it isn’t always present for the days you want. Sometimes, you’ll find seats on the way there but not the way back, or vice versa. In these instances, consider doing one of the legs in business- or first-class with one airline partner or alliance and the other way with a different. Repeat the same method as above to compare costs.

Avoid miles stockpiling

Miles do not earn interest. Some may even expire in short time frames. The inception of tiered rewards systems, such as those now used by Delta Airlines, American Airlines, and United, has effectively devalued miles as airlines keep raising the cap on the number of miles charged for classic award tickets. Future changes are not likely to work in the consumer’s favor, so spend your miles now and DO NOT stockpile miles during mileage sales for future purchases. Only buy if you have identified a ticket already and a mileage purchase makes financial sense.

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Award-winning travel writer and economist Paul Rubio is a credit card enthusiast, whose sophisticated use of points and rewards has helped him travel to 125 countries for free. Paul is a Harvard graduate with a master’s degree in public administration and a master’s degree in economics. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from Boston University with a double major in economics and environmental policy and a minor in conservation biology. He attended both undergraduate and graduate schools on full scholarships. Paul worked in the field of wildlife conservation before embracing his writing talents full-time in 2008. Since then, he has won more than two dozen national awards for his exemplary work in travel journalism. The prolific writer contributes to a number of top-tier international, national, and regional publications including Condé Nast Traveler, Fodors.com, Palm Beach Illustrated, Private Clubs, and Robb Report.