by Bill Hazelton
Almost anyone who travels or owns an airline credit card can expect to receive regular offers to purchase additional miles on their card. With constantly changing travel prices, it’s easy to wonder, but difficult to truly know, if it's actually a good deal to buy additional airline miles to get you those rewards that you’d really like.
The short answer is that it depends. While the incremental cost is relatively low (often miles are sold in 500 mile segments), the cost of buying enough to qualify for a free ticket (usually a minimum of 25,000 miles) can add up quickly. Also, keep in mind that reward seats for the minimum number of miles tend to sell out quickly so you may need to purchase even more miles that you think to get that free ticket.
In general, depending on the time of year you need to travel, some online research and smart buying strategies can help you buy a ticket for less than the cost of using miles for an award ticket. That very same research will tell you what your "value threshold" for miles should be.
For example, let's say an airline lets you buy miles at a rate of $10 for every 500 miles. The cost of a reward ticket (assuming you find an available seat for 25,000 miles) would be $500. An economy ticket, not purchased around a busy holiday travel season, can likely be purchased for less than $500 so buying miles wouldn't be an ideal fit.
Where buying miles often makes sense is when you need just a few more to push you over that rewards threshold required to qualify for a rewards ticket. To continue the above example, if you had 24,000 miles in your rewards account and needed 25,000 to book a rewards ticket, you essentially can get your airline ticket for $20 by purchasing two 500 mile blocks and then booking the flight with the requisite miles.
Many airlines will also let you use miles to upgrade to a higher class of service, which is often times the most economical use of miles. You can purchase a non-refundable economy ticket for a low price, then cash in miles for an upgrade. While you may want to upgrade to first class service, many airlines now offer an enhanced section of their economy cabin that features more leg-room and priority boarding. For a few thousand additional miles, this option can be a great deal for the budget conscious traveler.
Keep in mind that award seats will sell out far in advance of busy travel holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. While prices will be higher to fly at these times of year, this is another time of year to consider using your miles and getting the most value out of them. Because you'll want to book the ticket as early as possible before award seats sell out, this can be another time when it makes sense to purchase miles to get yourself to that requisite rewards threshold. For example, if you know you need to fly across the country on the day before Thanksgiving and can plan months in advance, an award ticket may be a great deal compared to the cash cost of the same ticket, and if you need to buy a few miles to raise your award balance to the right threshold, buying some miles probably makes sense.
Finally, keep in mind that some airlines now let you use miles for many more things than just free airline travel. If you don't have enough for a rewards ticket, but you do need to cash in the miles, ask the airline about other offers as they may very well offer other discounts, including airport lounges or even magazine subscriptions for a relatively modest amount of miles.
This is a guest contribution from Bill Hazelton, CEO of Credit Card Assist, where he offers a wide variety of tips, news, advice and recommendations on all things credit card-related.