There are plenty of ways to earn airline miles without ever leaving the ground. Signing up for a co-branded credit card, staying at a partner hotel, and renting a car are the most well-known, but there are some less-understood strategies that lead to cushy rewards, none more so than buying miles directly from the airline.
All airlines offer the option to buy frequent flier miles in lump sums through their websites. We know what you’re thinking: Why would somebody ever buy a bunch of miles? Well, we’re going to let you in on a little secret: Most U.S. airlines offer incredible opportunities for customers to cash in a surprisingly small number of miles to fly first or business class on their international partners. These mileage bargains are typically found on routes between the U.S. and Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, where seats in premium cabins typically cost between $4,000 and $10,000 dollars round-trip. Naturally, such a workaround isn’t easy. If you’re willing to do the math, though, buying miles is the key to getting a business class seat at a fraction of the cash price. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Buy miles for long-haul flights in premium cabins
Financially, buying miles only makes sense if you’re seeking first or business class tickets on international airlines. Airlines charge high prices for miles, and paying cash for a ticket in coach is more cost-effective than buying miles to redeem an economy mileage ticket. And though U.S. carriers like Alaska Airlines and United sell miles, they offer super-limited reward availability on their own flights and more on their international partners. The most valuable mileage redemption opportunities are found on carriers like Emirates, Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific, Virgin Australia, and Japan Airlines.
For example, 100,000 miles on Alaska Airlines can be redeemed for a round-trip flight between the U.S. and Beijing in business class on top-rated Hainan Airlines. You can redeem 140,000 American Airlines miles for a round-trip business ticket between the U.S. and the Maldives on Qatar Airways. That same number of miles on United can be used on Lufthansa or South Africa Airways for a round-trip between the U.S. and Cape Town.
Consider buying miles during promotions
Airlines typically sell their miles in excess of three cents per mile, which is expensive (that’s more than $300 for 10,000 miles). So we don’t recommend buying miles at full price. The story changes when promotions and bonuses enter the picture, effectively lowering the price of purchased miles. In such instances, like when mileage is priced below 2.2 cents per unit, buying miles can be highly cost-effective. You can learn about mileage sales by subscribing to your frequent flier program’s promotional emails.
Compare the cost of your ticket in cash versus miles
Before going for that latest promotion, you’ll want to price out your tickets in both cash and mileage. First, go on Google Flights, enter your desired dates, and determine the cash price for your ticket. After identifying your desired airline and its U.S. partner, go to the mileage search engine of the partner to look for mileage seats (you may have to be a bit flexible with dates). Calculate the price of your ticket by multiplying the number of miles you need by the cost per mile. Then, compare the two and decide the winner.
Sounds confusing, we know, but stay with us. Say you want to fly from Boston to Beijing this summer in business class on a direct, nonstop flight on Hainan Airlines (one of 11 Skytrax five-star airlines and the only one in mainland China). At time of publishing, the cheapest round-trip ticket in business class anytime between May and August prices out to $3,909 per passenger on Google Flights.
To figure out the cost in miles, go to Alaska Airlines website, check the “Use Miles” box, and put in the departure and arrival airports. Once you find mileage seats, click on them and go to the check-out screen to tally the total miles needed, plus the taxes. A round-trip flight between Boston and Beijing, leaving June 4, 2019 and returning June 17, for example, is 100,000 miles plus $407 in taxes. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan typically charges $27.50 per 1,000 miles, plus a 7.5 percent tax recovery fee. But with a 40 percent bonus promotion (which happens to run several times per year), this cost is reduced to approximately $21 per 1,000 miles, including the tax recovery fee. Buying 100,000 Alaska Air points with this 40 percent promo would cost $2,111, which with the $407 in taxes, equals $2,518.
Now compare the two ticket prices: Per passenger, a cash ticket is $3,909 and a mileage ticket is $2,518. That’s a savings of $1,391 per passenger—roughly 35 percent off the retail price. Do the same for your travel companion and you’re looking at savings in the thousands. Whoa!
As another example, let’s look at flying from Atlanta to Doha on Qatar Airways in late October. According to Google Flights, the cheapest cash price for a business class ticket is $8,522. Through AAdvantage, the same business class ticket during this time period prices out to 140,000 points round-trip plus $47 in taxes. During an American Airlines sale in January 2019, miles were as low as 2.14 cents each. At this price, 140,000 American Airlines miles cost $2,996. Add $2,996 and $47 to get $3,043, which compared to $8,522, is a savings of $3,043. Amazing.
The bottom line
When airlines put their miles on sale, follow these rules to figure out if the promotion makes financial sense for you. Those planning major international travels like a honeymoon or anniversary trip—and dread the thought of sitting in coach for 15 hours—surely stand to benefit from buying miles, so if you have something in mind, subscribe to those promotional emails now. The math may be tedious and the various award-charts complicated, but nothing starts and ends a flight knowing you paid a fraction of the price as your fellow passengers for that top-shelf Champagne and lie-flat seat.
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