Airlines offer travelers the chance to buy miles at a discounted rate, but using cards or shopping portals can be a better value
Dear Cashing In,
I have an upcoming trip on United Airlines, and they keep sending me emails asking if I’m interested in an “Award Accelerator” program that lets me earn bonus frequent flier miles by paying a small fee. I like the idea of getting more miles, but is it worth it to pay for them? — Deborah
Most of the major airlines have these sorts of programs. United has its “Award Accelerator.” At American Airlines, it’s called a “Mileage Multiplier.” Delta Air Lines breaks the mold by coming up with two words starting with different letters: Its program is called “Mileage Booster.”
They work pretty much the same: Shortly before your trip, or even when you’re checking in at a kiosk or ticket counter, you’ll have the chance to buy additional frequent flier miles. Sometimes the number you can buy is a multiple of the number of miles you’re going to earn by flying the route.The pricing varies, and you could receive different deals if you have elite status in a frequent flier program. It is generally a cheaper alternative than buying miles straight-up. But it’s usually not so cheap that it’s a good deal.
Before you jump at one of these seeming deals, do some quick math. I always approach these offers thinking in terms of what it will cost to get to 25,000 miles, which is typically the minimum you’ll need for a round-trip domestic coach ticket. So if you’re offered the chance to buy 1,000 frequent flier miles for $30, that might sound like an attractive offer … until you realize that if you paid at that rate, you’d spend $750 ($30 x 25) for the 25,000 miles for your “free” trip. You’d be better off just buying a ticket.
The deal improves only marginally by using an airline’s credit card. For instance, the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage World MasterCard (annual fee: $95, waived the first year) offers two points per dollar spent with American Airlines. With the numbers above, you’d have to spend $708 for 25,000 miles, once you include the double miles on your spending. Still a poor deal — unless you know of some exotic domestic destination that costs more to fly to than that. The average cost of a domestic round-trip ticket was $509 in the first half of 2014, according to The Associated Press.
Spending money on miles could make sense if you were on the cusp of an award threshold and needed only a few miles in a hurry. If you are close to the level for an award and have a little time, you could use an airline’s shopping portal to earn miles, or use a miles-earning credit card, if you have one.
In general, though, buying miles — or “accelerating,” “boosting” or “multiplying” them — is not a cost-effective way to reach an award ticket.