Buying frequent flyer miles: Deal, or no deal?

American Airlines is offering bonus miles to AAdvantage® members who buy additional miles through Feb. 8. Depending on when, where and how you travel, purchasing additional miles could make financial sense.

For example, Dallas-headquartered American (NASDAQ:AAL) is offering a bonus of 42,500 miles to members who buy from 100,000 to 150,000 miles. A purchase of that size would cost approximately $4,316 including the miles, Federal excise tax and processing fee but, with the bonus, would net 192,500 miles. That works out to about 2.2 cents per mile.

American Airlines Boeing 737 departs Sea-Tac Airport, SEA, NYSE:BA, Seattle
American Airlines jet departs Sea-Tac Airport

At this writing, certain round-trip Business Class tickets from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International (CGD) in late May could be obtained using 115,000 miles, at a value of $2,530. Purchasing the same ticket would cost around $6,500, meaning that an AAdvantage member who bought the miles in our example would save around $4,000 before the taxes and fees associated with using frequent flier miles, and would still have 77,500 miles to apply to future travel.

One challenge in using miles for flights is that the number of flight choices is usually smaller. This example award flight would be purchased using a Business/First MilesAAver award, would have two stops, and it would take more than 20 hours to complete the journey. Flight choices with a single stop were not available for Business/First MilesAAver miles.

Shorter flight schedules with a single stop could be purchased using Business/First AAnytime awards for 270,000 miles, worth about $5,940. That would still represent a significant savings over the cash price of a Business Class ticket, which ran about $12,000 on the itineraries with a single stopover.

The carrier is also offering bonuses when miles are purchased in small increments. For example, a purchase of 20,000 to 39,000 will earn a 7,000 mile bonus while a purchase of 40,000 to 59,000 will earn 15,000 additional miles. Buying 60,000 to 79,000 miles will net an additional 22,500 miles, and buying 80,000 to 99,000 miles will get AAdvantage members 30,000 miles more.

Do the math

If you are considering such a purchase, do the math before moving forward, taking into account your travel style and future travel plans. Also, bear in mind that tickets purchased farther in advance often come at a substantially lower price than those purchased at the last minute.

Finally, if you are planning to purchase additional miles, consider the advantages of moving to the next higher bonus category. For example, purchasing 99,000 miles would net 129,000 total miles with the 30,000 mile bonus at a cost of $2,860, per Moving up to 100,000 miles would cost $2,889 and would buy a total of 142,500 miles, meaning the additional 13,500 miles cost an additional $29, or less than one-quarter cent each; a real bargain for those additional miles.

Frequent travelers who maintain frequent flier accounts with more than one airline may also want to consider which carrier offers the best chance of actually being able to book a seat using those miles.

The 2018 annual survey of award seat availability conducted by the IdeaWorksCompany showed that passengers’ ability to book a “saver” seat using accrued miles on U.S. carriers ranged from a high of 100 percent of the flights operated by Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) to a low of 72.1 percent of the flights operated by Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL).

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Photo by Carl Dombek
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