Cashing In Q&A columns

Short a few air miles? Negotiating won’t work, but there are options


Our expert says don’t expect to talk your way into paying 25,000 miles for a 35,000-mile seat. However, if you’re flexible and willing to do some homework, you should be able to find a deal

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Question for the expert

Dear Cashing In,
Can you negotiate with airlines about frequent flier miles — like would they ever work with someone to pay only 25,000 miles for a trip that would cost 35,000 miles? And if so, how would suggest asking about that? –– Jack B.


Answer for the expert

Dear Reader,
Unfortunately, no airline I know of is going to hand over an award worth 35,000 miles if you only have 25,000 to spend, no matter how nicely you ask. I asked an American Airlines representative if there was any room for negotiation and, as I predicted, he pointed me toward their buyAAmiles program. Most airlines have similar programs in place that allow you to make up the difference if you’re short on miles.

If you’re a member of American Airlines’ AAdvantage program, you can buy the extra 10,000 miles for $305 (including a $30 processing fee but not tax). United MileagePlus will sell them to you through its Personal Miles program for $376.25. This may seem a hefty sum for topping off an award flight, but if that turns out to be less than half the price of a standard fare and it’s a matter of using or losing your miles, this might not be a bad deal.

If you’re trying to get an economy fare to Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean — a 35,000-mile award at the first-tier level for standard round-trip economy seating — that extra $300-376 would indeed be less than half the fare, possibly more like a third. The best deal available for a round-trip flight from Seattle to Belize in mid-November, for example, is currently about $800. A one-stop round-trip from Boston to Maui would be closer to $1,200. Both flights fall into the 35,000-mile award range if you’re flying from the U.S. — assuming you can find available award seats at that tier.

Airlines suggest saving on miles purchases by using your airline credit card. If you pay for miles with, for example, a United MilesPlus Visa or Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature card, you earn an extra mile (on United or American, respectively) for every dollar spent. That means fewer miles that you’d have to buy, right? Yes, but it’ll only take you so far. Here’s why:

  • Say your goal is to acquire 10,000 United miles without having to buy all 10,000 miles.
  • With United, you have to buy miles in 1,000-mile chunks. So you buy 9,000 miles for $338 and get a credit of 338 miles to your account.
  • That leaves you with a total of 9,338 miles — well short of the desired 10,000 miles.

You would’ve been better served buying the full 10,000 miles for $376 and keeping the extra 376 miles in your account as a bonus. Still, that’s just not much of a boost for your efforts.

If you don’t have a credit card that offers reward miles, signing up for one now would solve your problem in one fell swoop. Forget purchasing miles, or even using up the ones you have, you’d get the whole batch at once in sign-up bonuses. For example, the Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature and American Express cards all offer 30,000 bonus miles with your first $750 purchase. United MileagePlus Explorer Visa Signature card gives you 25,000 miles after first use and another 5,000 after first card use.

Assuming you have neither the right card nor the time (or inclination) to take on a new one for this purpose, I would suggest searching the airline’s frequent flier websites for deals being offered by its loyalty program. It’s possible you can find a way to patch together an award flight that only requires 25,000 miles.

United and American, for example, both offer Saver Awards that allow you to piece together two one-way flights as a way to use fewer miles. These work best if you’re flexible about dates and times. American Airlines’ Saver Awards, for example, go as low as 12,500 miles for one-way fares, even to and from Hawaii and the Caribbean. Now that’s a deal — assuming you’re willing to fly off season and probably at odd hours.

American is also offering special deals to Citi AAdvantage cardholders right now for travel completed by Dec. 31, 2011. Using a special code, cardholders can book round-trip flights to the 48 contiguous states for 17,500 to 20,000 miles, depending on the card. This may or may not help you get to your destination, but it’s always worth checking current deals, especially in the off season.

See related:Easy ways to maximize your rewards points

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