How buying miles saved us money and scored a better seat

Oct 1, 2019

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

The best way to earn airline miles is by doing it with little to no out-of-pocket costs thanks to big, fat, credit card welcome bonuses or earning 3x to 5x points with spending in certain categories, jumping on transfer bonuses, etc. But sometimes buying miles can be good, too, even if you also like to earn miles via those other methods.

Recently, we bought more than $2,000 in Avianca LifeMiles in order to save money and increase comfort. Sound bananas? Hang with me for a minute.

First, the basics. Avianca is an airline in the Star Alliance along with United, Lufthansa, Air Canada, Singapore, EVA Air, etc. Just like you can redeem United miles to fly on partner airlines, you can do the same with Avianca miles. The difference is that the Avianca LifeMiles program likes to put its miles on sale much cheaper than United puts its own miles on sale.

Related: Guide to using Avianca LifeMiles

Right now, you can buy LifeMiles as cheap as 1.35 cents each via a really good sale. The program runs these sort of sales periodically, but not consistently. I won’t delve into the exact details of the sale as you can find those here, but do know that this round of discounted miles ends on Oct. 2, though my money is on it returning again one day.

LifeMiles uses somewhat of a traditional zoned award chart that has its own set of sweet spots. For example, a flight from Houston all the way to Montana on United is just 7,500 LifeMiles miles in economy each way. That’s outstanding.

Or, if you want to fly in a little more comfort, Houston to Orlando in domestic first starts at 15,000 miles each way. At paying 1.35 cents per purchased mile, those tickets are the equivalent of $101.25 and $202.50 plus taxes and fees respectively, not bad for either of those flights.

But this time around, my husband needed to make a work trip to Asia, Hong Kong to be exact. The set flight budget he had to work with for a round -trip ticket was in the $2,000 to $2,500 range, with premium economy being the normal type of seat you can purchase with that budget. Spending most of a roughly 20-hour journey, all told, sitting upright in regular old economy probably won’t kill you, but it also isn’t very fun, and certainly isn’t very restful for most. However, buying business class outright was a big fat not-gonna-happen at about $7,000 to $10,000 round-trip.

Confirmable upgrade space to Asia didn’t look great on his travel dates, so I set out to help in another way. Turns out that LifeMiles charges a comparatively reasonable 75,000 miles each way to fly from Houston to Hong Kong in business class. To give some comparison, United would want 90,000 miles each way for roughly the same line-up of Star Alliance partner flights.

For 150,000 Avianca LifeMiles and less than $100 in taxes and fees, he could fly in EVA business class the entire way to Hong Kong and back. At 1.35 cents per mile, that would come to $2,025 in purchased LifeMiles required. Add in the taxes and fees, and we’ll call it $2,125 to fly to round-trip to Asia in business class. That’s about 2x the cost of a paid economy ticket, but around the same or even less than premium economy for a much better seat and flying experience.

Related: Review of EVA Air Business Class from Houston to Taipei

EVA air business class (Photo by Ethan Steinberg / The Points Guy)
EVA air business class (Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)

If Europe is your target instead of Asia, the deal works in that direction, too. Business class awards from the U.S. to Europe on LifeMiles are 63,000 miles each way. That means this Lufthansa business class ticket would cost you $850 in purchased miles at 1.35 cents per mile. Add in the $5.60 in taxes on that one-way award and you have a deal that is again probably more than purchasing an economy ticket, but far less expensive than purchasing a business class ticket.

Before you go and stock up on LifeMiles, know that the system isn’t perfect. I don’t recommend speculatively buying miles or jumping in if you aren’t willing to deal with some element of risk — as in, something goes wrong with the booking and now you’re left holding a sack of miles. But in our case, we had an immediate need and within five minutes of purchasing the miles, we were holding a business class ticket on EVA for less than the cost of a premium economy ticket on the same route. That money was going to be spent regardless, so this was a much better use.

The one and only true downside to this type of travel is that you do not earn elite or redeemable miles on award flights the way you would on paid flights, but that trade-off was worth it in this case. If you like the concept of booking via LifeMiles but don’t want to spend money on purchasing miles, remember that you can transfer points to LifeMiles from cards such as the  Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card (2:1.5 ratio), American Express® Gold Card (normally 1:1 ratio, but better right now with a transfer bonus) and the Citi ThankYou program at a 1:1 ratio.

Have you ever strategically purchased miles to increase your comfort and/or save money on flights?

Featured image by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 80,000 Points


CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Plus earn up to $50 in statement credits towards grocery store purchases within your first year of account opening.
  • Earn 2X points on dining including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out and travel. Plus, earn 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
  • With Pay Yourself Back℠, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories.
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on eligible orders over $12 for a minimum of one year with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.
  • Get up to $60 back on an eligible Peloton Digital or All-Access Membership through 12/31/2021, and get full access to their workout library through the Peloton app, including cardio, running, strength, yoga, and more. Take classes using a phone, tablet, or TV. No fitness equipment is required.
Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.