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As it does quite often, United is currently offering a bonus when you purchase MileagePlus miles. Through March 14, 2016, you can earn up to a 75% bonus when you buy at least 40,000 miles, with reduced bonuses available for smaller purchases. If you maximize this promotion by purchasing 85,000 miles for $3,198, including tax, you’ll receive a 63,750-mile bonus, bringing the cost down to 2.15 cents per mile. Here’s the breakdown:
– Buy 5,000 to 14,000 miles get a 25% bonus
– Buy 15,000 to 39,000 miles get a 50% bonus
– Buy 40,000 to 85,000 miles get a 75% bonus
TPG values United miles at just 1.5 cents each, but in some cases you’ll end up getting more value than that, as you’ll see below. Of course, you can also build your United balance by transferring points instantly from Chase Ultimate Rewards. You can currently earn 50,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 within the first three months with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card — if you transfer those points to United, you’ll then have 50,000 MileagePlus miles.
Should You Buy?
United has been known to offer up to a 100% bonus on purchased miles, and if that offer returns, you can walk away with even more miles for the same price. With a 100% bonus, you’d be paying 1.88 cents per mile, compared to 2.15 cents per mile with this current offer. Note that even at 1.88 cents, it may not make sense to purchase miles speculatively, as TPG values United miles at 1.5 cents apiece.
Based on the maximum bonus of 85%, the 50,000 miles required for a round-trip domestic business-class award would cost $1,075, including all fees.
That may be worthwhile depending on where you’re flying — in the example above, a last-minute transcontinental flight (JFK-LAX) will run you $2,838 round-trip in BusinessFirst, though advanced purchase rates are quite reasonable these days, at $1,200 round-trip.
You can get even more value out of an international business-class flight:
Take, for example, a round-trip flight between Los Angeles and Melbourne in United BusinessFirst. You can book the trip for 140,000 miles plus $92 in taxes and fees, assuming you’re traveling on United metal. At 2.15 cents per mile, you’ll pay a total of $3,010 for the trip, including taxes and fees.
The same flights would run you $8,992 if you paid cash, giving you a value of 6.4 cents per mile. Beware that miles can take up to 48 hours to process, however, which might complicate your redemption plans if availability is limited.
Ultimately, if you’re planning to travel on an expensive international business or first-class flight, it may make sense to purchase these discounted miles. However, for domestic travel, even in premium cabins, you’ll probably get a better deal by booking the trip with cash.
Which Card to Use?
Note that United mile purchases are processed by Points, so you will not earn a category bonus for travel or airfare. For that reason, you’ll be best of charging your purchase to a card that doesn’t award bonus points on category spend, such as the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express.
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
- Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- Named Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, July 2016
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
- No foreign transaction fees
- 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
- No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards