Buying points and miles: 3 times when it may be worth it
Most of the time it's smart to ignore these offers, but not always
Travel expert who writes the "Have Cards, Will Travel" column for CreditCards.com
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When hotel and airline loyalty programs email you with offers to sell you more points, how do you know if it is worth buying points to boost the mileage balances you’ve been banking from your credit cards?
Say, for example, that you have 40,000 miles in your United MileagePlus account that you earned from spending last year on your United Explorer Card. You want to purchase two tickets to Europe, for which you’ll need approximately 100,000 miles. When United offers to sell you 60,000 points, should you shell out the cash to bump up your points balance quickly to buy those award tickets?
The short answer is: It depends.
The truth is that 90 percent of the time, buying points isn’t a bargain, and you can send these email offers directly to the trash. But what about the 10 percent of the time when it is worth taking advantage of a points purchase deal?
In my experience, there are three occasions when you should pay attention to points sales: when you have a need to top up your account and no other quick way to earn points, when a points deal is really deeply discounted, and when you have an opportunity to use the points for far greater value then they cost.
To figure out when it’s a good deal to purchase points in each of these three scenarios, you’ll need to use your math skills and your common sense. Let’s explore each of these three areas and then return to make a decision about a possible points purchase.
You need to top up your account for an award
There are times as a rewards points collector that you might find yourself in a situation in which you’ve been saving points from your credit card spending for a while, the ticket you want is available, and you have almost enough points to book the trip of your dreams.
Your options: You could earn more points through some additional credit card spending to earn the points you need, but it would require a full statement cycle for these miles to post. Or you can buy points to top off your account so you know you’re good to go on your dream trip.
In this scenario in which time is of the essence, buying a few points – or even paying a fee to transfer points from a friend – may be the easiest thing you can do.
A real-world example: When Rose Trafford, a points collector I met at Frequent Traveler University Chicago, needed to use points to get to a wedding, she was a few points short of her plane ticket. Her options were to pay for miles or pay a lot more for a very expensive plane ticket.
“I paid $40 to receive a transfer of 4,000 Delta points from a friend [$10 per 1,000 miles]. She wasn’t going to use the points, and I was going to have to pay $70 to just buy them,” Trafford explains.
“Even though I knew that the price was outrageous, I needed them to get to the wedding, so I made the points purchase,” she says.
Mathematically, this wasn’t a great value for a points purchase, but common sense won the deciding vote.
The point purchase deal is deeply discounted
For the past few months IHG has been offering an 80 percent bonus on points purchases, meaning you could purchase up to 100,000 points for $1,000 and then get 80,000 points for free. When I saw this offer in my mailbox I thought to myself, “That looks like decent value, but I already have a stash of points from my IHG rewards credit card, so I’ll pass.”
Note: In recent days, IHG has launched an even more plum offer to targeted members – a 100 percent bonus on buying points (through Aug. 22), according to The Points Guy.
Real-world example: Fast-forward a couple of weeks. I got a call from a family member asking for help with a travel challenge. The family of four had purchased some low-cost airline tickets back at Christmastime with plans to spend the first week of summer in Aruba.
Now that the trip was closer, however, they couldn’t find a hotel or vacation rental property for under $300 per room per night. At the going rates, accommodation for the four of them was going to cost around $4,000 for the weekend (two rooms for seven nights) – much more than they’d expected.
After a bit of searching across hotel sites that let you apply points to a rental stay to help solve their dilemma, I located the Holiday Inn Aruba Beach Resort which had limited rooms available at an IHG “members only” rate of $219+ per night, or $3,920 with taxes for two rooms for seven nights.
When I realized that this hotel offers these same rooms at a rewards rate of 20,000 points per night, I quickly remembered that IHG buy points bonus.
For $1,000 my family members were able to buy 180,000 points – enough to book nine room nights at this property at the 20,000 points rate. Rather than paying $280 per night at the discounted member rate, they paid only $111 per room by using purchased points.
See related: How to stay at the best hotels for under $100
Because IHG has a cap that allows each loyalty-club member to purchase a maximum of 100,000 points per year, we had to get creative to complete the booking. We had another family member purchase the remaining points and then book the last five nights at the same rate.
In this case mathematics proves that purchasing points was definitely worth it. The total cost for the full week-long stay for two rooms totaled $1,554. A savings of $2,366 below the lowest available prepaid rate.
And believe it or not, we could have sweetened this deal. If we had already received either of the new IHG credit cards from Chase (the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card and the IHG Rewards Club Traveler Credit Card) that launched in April, we’d have been eligible to get a fourth night free when using points to pay for three nights!
You know how to squeeze a lot of value out of the purchase
The third scenario in which you might consider buying points is when you have your sights set on an aspirational ticket which has a price tag way beyond your means – like a first-class ticket in Cathay Pacific’s suites from the U.S. to Hong Kong. (Retail price? Approximately $18,000 one way).
To purchase this same ticket with points through Alaska Airlines you’d need 70,000 miles each way – a reward ticket that is a first-class bargain on its own.
If you have the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card there is a good chance you’ve got 30,000 miles in your MileagePlan account to get yourself started. But even if you don’t have a single Alaska mile, you can still get a steal on this seat.
Alaska Airlines periodically offers MileagePlan members 40 percent bonus on point purchases. For example, earlier this year, MileagePlan members were able to buy 60,000 miles at a time with a bonus of 24,000 miles for a cost of $1,733.75 (approximately 2 cents per mile).
Real-world example: If you used 30,000 of these points to purchase an economy class ticket on Cathay Pacific one way from New York to Hong Kong, you’d have paid approximately $620 for points to purchase the award ticket.
In this case, purchasing points wouldn’t make sense since the ticket costs about the same to buy outright at $628 (and you’d earn points from the flight with the purchased ticket).
If you bought these same 84,000 miles, however, and used 70,000 of them to purchase that $18,644 first-class ticket on the same JFK-HKG routing, you’d actually only being paying a little over $1,500 for your ticket – and you would have 14,000 miles to spare. If you do the math, you’re redeeming the points at a value of nearly 27 cents each, when you’ve paid only 2 cents apiece for them!)
What we learn from this example is if your goal is simply to get a flight from JFK to HKG, you’d be wise to leave the points offer aside and pay for the economy ticket. If your goal, however, is to have a first-class experience in the sky that you’d never pay for otherwise, then the points purchase is a way to make that dream a lot more affordable.
The real win from the points purchase comes when you can squeeze the maximum value out of the redemption.
Should you buy the points or miles?
Now that you’ve learned a few tips, what do you think? Should you buy the points in our United example above?
Without a special points purchase bonus, United offers 60,000 miles at a price point of $2,100. If you comparison shop the cost of two tickets to Europe, you could most likely purchase your airfare at a much lower cost than purchasing the points.
If you could wait a little longer, your best bet would be to earn some more points on your United Explorer Card until you had enough points to get an award ticket, and then pay for the second one.
If it were up to me I’d pass on a points purchase in this example, but would take another look if an offer with a 40 percent bonus or more appeared in my inbox.
Purchasing miles isn’t always a great deal, but if you’re willing to do the research when an offer comes around, it could save you thousands on a single trip!
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