When Buying Points and Miles Is a Good Idea (and When It’s Not)

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Photo: Olena Yakobchuk (Shutterstock)

Buying points without a specific use in mind is typically a bad idea. Unless you’re a very experienced travel hacker who is okay taking on a little bit of risk, buying flyer miles or points is usually more expensive—or more hassle—than what they’re worth. Plus, airline and hotel programs can change what points are worth on a whim, and they often do so without notice, so it’s not a good idea to think of points and miles as a store of value (even though they can be quite valuable if you know how to use them).

When should you buy miles or points?

It’s only a truly good idea for anyone to buy points in a specific circumstance: you have a specific and immediate use case in mind for your points and there’s availability and the cost of the points is lower than the cost of booking your flights or accommodation otherwise.

Step 1: Verify that availability exists for your upcoming flight or hotel night

The first thing you need to do is verify availability—all the way. Don’t just stop when you see the calendar view that a reward is available for 30,000 points or whatever—you need to click through as far as you can to double check that the website won’t give you an error that there isn’t availability. How far you can get in the process without the necessary points in your account will vary from program to program, but do everything you can to verify that the availability is really there before you shell out the cash to buy additional points or miles.

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Step 2: Figure out how much you’ll need to spend

The next step is to calculate how many points or miles you’ll actually need to buy. This could be the full number of points or miles for the redemption, or some smaller number if you already have some in your account. After you know how many you need, it’s time to see how much it’ll cost you. Hotel and airline programs often offer bonuses on purchases of points or miles—Avianca LifeMiles offers regular sales, for example.

If a sale or bonus is going on, you want to make sure you know about it if you’re thinking about buying points or miles. Again, make sure you click all the way through so you see the final price.

Step 3: Compare the miles cost with the actual price

The final step is to compare the cost of buying points or miles with the cost of booking your flights or accommodation without using points, and pick whichever option makes more sense.

If you need to buy all of the points needed for a redemption, it’s an easier comparison: Which option costs more? But if you only need to buy enough points or miles to top off your account, it’s a tougher call. If you need to spend $20 to buy 1,000 points to top off your account for a 50,000 mile redemption so that you don’t have to spend $2,000 for the cash ticket, it’s probably worth it. But if you have to spend $500 to buy 25,000 points to top off your account for a 50,000 mile redemption to save yourself $600, it may not be. You have to keep in mind the value that you’re redeeming your points and miles for, your ability to earn points and miles, and how often you plan to redeem them.

Consider the miles and points you’re giving up

If you want to take things to the next level, you should take one more thing into consideration: How many miles or points are you giving up? When you book a cash flight or hotel stay, you’ll earn miles or points when you complete your flight or stay. When you book with miles or points, you won’t.

Figuring out how many points you’ll earn from a hotel stay is typically easy—it’s usually the base rate of the room times a number of points per dollar, and those with elite status typically earn a bonus on top of that. Figuring it out for flights is a bit more of a challenge.

You should consider the value of the miles or points you’re giving up if you want to fully understand whether or not it makes sense to buy miles or points for a specific redemption.

 

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