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Get your math right before buying and spending airline miles

Buy miles directly from an airline’s website, rather than a broker online, to avoid fraud

Mileage programmes make a lot of sense when used right. The best use of airline miles is to buy redemption tickets, which usually end up costing more in cash. That is why they’re best used to buy last-minute airline tickets and for tickets in business or first class.

Most of the time, your airline miles would be earned by your own travel or by the use of a credit card that allows you to accumulate miles for every swipe. But there are times when it is not enough, and you need more for a trip. That is a good time to think about buying miles rather than waiting to earn the rest.

One instance when you could look at spending some money to buy miles is when you are close to the amount you need for a ticket. Let’s say you have accumulated two lakh miles for your dream trip, and there is an available redemption seat for your date of travel. You may be short a few thousand miles. You should buy the miles and ticket immediately rather than wait because someone else could be booking those award seats and you may be left with no tickets after saving for years.

Mileage redemption tickets really start to shine when you are looking for cheap tickets to fly business or first class. Buying miles to redeem for an international business or first class award ticket can be substantially cheaper than buying the ticket itself. Take the Avianca LifeMiles programme, which allows you to buy miles as well as book tickets on other Star Alliance airlines, for instance. Would you rather pay 40,000 to make up the miles for a business-class ticket between Europe and India on Swiss, or pay the full price of 2,00,000 for the same ticket?

Another case to buy miles: when your other miles are going to expire. Buying a few miles may help you reset the clock and extend the validity of your miles.

India has two key mileage programmes for airlines, but only one has an option to buy miles under special circumstances. Air India allows you to buy up to 50% of the number of miles you have in your account towards completing a ticket at the price of 1.25 per point bought. Vistara only allows you to earn miles for travel on its airline and Singapore Airlines, and via credit cards.

Other frequent flyer programmes like from American Airlines, United, Avianca LifeMiles and British Airways, sell miles via special sales. For example, LifeMiles had a special sale offering 1.45 miles bonus for each mile purchased, bringing down the cost of one mile to 0.95. Hence, you could buy tickets at 70% of the cost of a premium cabin ticket when you buy miles.

Whenever you want to buy miles, do the math. You should add up the cost of the miles you plan to buy along with any applicable taxes and fees on buying and redeeming them. Compare the cost with the cash price of the ticket. The equation would usually work better for miles on long-haul international trips and not so much for domestic trips. Some programmes such as Miles and More (Lufthansa, Swiss, Brussels Airlines) insist on charging fuel surcharges on award tickets which can be hefty. So, it might not work in your favour to buy miles and redeem with these mileage programmes.

When you decide to buy miles, make sure that you buy them directly from the airline’s website. Your friends or family or someone you met online may offer to sell you miles for cheap, but you might just end up buying stolen miles and be shut out from the programme for good. Avoid buying from mileage brokers online since they are contravening the rules of the programme to sell to you.

Don’t buy tonnes of miles and allow them to sit idle in your account. Miles are a depreciating commodity, since airlines can change their award ticket charts any time, and that usually works in their favour, not yours. So, buy closer to when you know you need the miles, and don’t store too many bought miles in your account.

Elevate Your Travel is a column for the business travellers by a business traveller.

Ajay Awtaney is founder and editor of Livefromalounge.com, an aviation website.

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