When Do I Outright Buy Miles?

I’ve noticed many articles talking about taking advantage of sales on miles as a good idea if you want to “top off” your mileage account.  Rather than simply top off, I think it is good sometimes to outright buy a ton of a miles if you are planning certain kinds of trips.   It all depends on what you are willing to pay for anyway, what you are hoping to get out of your trip, and understanding what you are giving up.

I thought of writing this post while talking with a friend of mine, Art Carden, about when to use miles, when to hope for an upgrade, and when to pay for first.  While our talk wasn’t specifically on this topic, it got me thinking about what we travel bloggers tend to write about.

We talk about these amazing vacations we take for free because we earn points.  Then we talk about how to earn these points (credit card sign ups, flying bonuses, etc).  But it isn’t as cut and dry as this.  Earning points through these methods isn’t the only path to luxury travel.  Sure, it is the path to luxury travel for free, but if you were planning on taking a luxury vacation anyway, there are ways to get it cheaper.  

Let’s say you plan to go to Paris over your spring break.  You are named Jeanne, so you are loyal to US Airways and you check that out first.

a screenshot of a flight schedule

Okay, a bit pricey, but not too far off from what you would expect for a trip to Europe.  Ouch on the connections though.  It makes me nervous when my LAST flight in a series of connections is the international one.  If one thing goes wrong early in the day, you could potentially miss your flight.

So I check out Lufthansa.  Same alliance, and I know the connections will be in Europe instead of the US, so I feel more comfortable with my options there.  And hey, look!  It’s cheaper!

a screenshot of a computer

I’m about to book and then I remember this article I read on a great blog (aw, you flatter me) about how it is sometimes worth it to buy miles.  I whip out my frequent flier and credit cards, and prepare to save.

Let’s check out the award chart!

*For ease of this exercise, let’s ignore off-peak.  There is no off-peak.  We’ll discuss off-peak later. These are not the off-peaks you are looking for.

a screenshot of a travel chart

In the “low season,” (which I’m not sure yet whether  my spring break falls into or not), it is 60k points for the same ticket.  So I check out Lufthansa too.

a close-up of a sign

60k for economy, no matter what time of year.  Sweet, okay.  Let’s go buy miles.  Conveniently, there’s a 100% bonus sale on US Airways miles.  Points-earning credit card in hand, I get ready to buy.

a screenshot of a member registration form

WAIT A SECOND!  Even with the 100% bonus, it costs more to buy the miles than to pay outright for the ticket.  Not to mention a few hundred dollars in booking fees if I actually go to book this trip.  What was Jeanne talking about?! Worst blog post ever.  Downvoted. TL/DR.

Hang on a second.  The key here is, if you were planning on taking a luxury vacation anyway.  Let’s say for chutes and ladders, I decide to price out business class flights to Paris.

a screenshot of a flight schedule

Ouch.  Four times as much as a regular ticket.  When a business class ticket is four times as much, in my mind at least, it rings “totally not worth it.”  I might look into upgrade with miles options (which can be complicated), using a Chairman’s upgrade if I’m lucky enough to be Chairman (and am traveling alone), or robbing a bank.

But Lufthansa was cheaper that US Airways before (and has better flight options for this itinerary).  Surely it will be cheaper than US Airways!

a screenshot of a flight schedule

Ouch.  We are looking at a price increase of over $4,000 on Lufthansa.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Remember the award chart from before?  6ok miles for coach, 100k for business class.  Let’s see how much that costs.


a screenshot of a computer

For ~$2,000 (the $1,750 plus booking fees), we can book a ticket on Lufthansa that normally costs about $5,000.  That’s a savings of $3,000.  No credit cards involved (other than the one you purchase with), no gaming the system, no late nights waiting to register for a promotion, and no exchanging dollar coins into the bank (long story if you don’t know this one).

What do I miss out on?  I miss out on about 8,300 elite qualifying miles and redeemable miles.  And I wouldn’t lose any sleep on that.  I could spend the $3,000 on ten round trip tickets to San Francisco instead, earning myself 60k in elite and redeemable miles.  Or I can outright buy Chairman status (but earn no redeemable miles) for that.

This ticket is still $1,000 more than a ticket in coach.  That’s a lot of money.  But it is a way to have a luxurious trip for much less than the going price.  $5,000 per ticket for a dream vacation is out of reach for most people, but $2,000 puts it a lot closer.  (And heck, even the 1% may still want to save a buck or thousand).


About Jeanne Marie Hoffman

Former bartender, still a geek. One equal part each cookies, liberty, football, music, travel, libations. Stir vigorously. +Jeanne Marie Hoffman Jeanne on Twitter

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  1. Good post. It’s helpful to get back to the basics of why something is worth writing about and how it may be useful today.

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