Should I Buy Airline Mileage Multipliers During Check-In?

Jul 31, 2016

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TPG reader Robert sent me a message on Facebook to ask about buying miles:

“I fly every week for work, mostly with Delta or American. Both airlines offer mileage multipliers whenever I check in for a flight; are those a good deal or just a sucker punch?”

Airlines like to portray frequent flyer programs as a way to give back to loyal customers, but they also happen to be highly profitable. Loyalty programs can bring in billions of dollars of revenue annually; much of that is from selling miles to partners (like credit card issuers and other travel providers), but some is from direct sales to consumers. Buying miles isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but if the airline is coming out far ahead on those transactions, then you’re probably not getting the best deal.

The American Airlines Mileage Multiplier offers redeemable miles for roughly 3 cents apiece. You can certainly find awards that return that kind of value (even after the recent devaluation), but 3 cents per mile is well above what you’ll get for the average redemption. I list AAdvantage miles at 1.5 cents apiece in my latest monthly valuations; buying via the Mileage Multiplier costs roughly double that amount, so in general it’s a losing proposition.

Delta’s Mileage Booster offers somewhat better value, but it’s still not great. You can buy miles for just less than 2 cents apiece when you select the largest booster package (3,000 miles for $59); that’s well above my valuation of 1.2 cents apiece. Also, the Mileage Booster has some unfavorable terms if your travel plans aren’t set in stone: Any voluntary change made to your flight causes the bonus to be forfeit, so you won’t get the miles and you won’t get a refund!

If you need to top off your AAdvantage account, you’d be better off waiting for a mileage sale, where you can often buy miles for less than 2 cents apiece. Delta hasn’t offered a public discount or bonus for buying SkyMiles recently, so the Mileage Booster is a bit more attractive compared to the standard price of around 3.75 cents per mile. Still, there’s no reason to buy in advance; wait until check-in to minimize the risk of forfeiture.

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Buying extra miles at check-in isn’t a good deal.

I generally don’t recommend buying airline miles unless you need them for a valuable and immediate redemption, and if you’re out of other options. There are plenty of ways to get extra miles, including co-branded airline credit cards, transfer partners and other earning opportunities you might not think about normally.

For more ideas about how to boost your frequent flyer account, check out these posts:

If you have any other questions, please tweet me @thepointsguy, message me on Facebook or send me an email at info@thepointsguy.com.

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