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Should I buy airline miles?

June 26, 2020
7 min read
Delta's Premium Select cabin onboard a retrofitted Boeing 777-200ER
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It's no secret that the coronavirus pandemic has left the travel industry reeling. Amid bankruptcies, furloughs and layoffs, many travel companies are trying to weather the storm — and find better streams of revenue.

Airlines selling miles directly to members is a common occurrence in the world of points and miles. But in recent months, several airlines are running promotions on these purchases to entice travelers considering taking a trip in the coming months. Though some offers are better than others, there's one over-arching question to answer: Does it make sense to buy airline miles?

Whether you should purchase airlines miles or not depends on whether you plan to use them soon, your confidence in the airline's solvency amid a global pandemic and whether you earn points from the purchase.

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Here's what you need to know.

Do you have immediate plans to use your miles?

Generally, we don’t recommend buying miles without an immediate plan to use them. We’re still in a global pandemic — with many parts of the world still closed to international travelers. While some states and countries have begun to reopen as coronavirus cases tick down, there’s no telling when (or if) they’ll have to shutter again. Make sure to keep your respective airlines’ change and cancellation policies in mind before you book your ticket — otherwise, you could be met with surprise fees if you have to cancel.

If you don’t plan to travel immediately — but you still want to earn miles — you’re better off earning points and miles through credit card welcome bonuses and everyday spending.

Should you buy miles in a pandemic?

Like I indicated above, there are inherent risks when buying miles right now, given the pandemic. Several airlines, including South America's Avianca, have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. While Avianca LifeMiles operates as a separate company from the airline and wasn’t included in the bankruptcy filing, that isn't the case with other airlines on shaky financial ground — like Virgin Atlantic.

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Chapter 11 means that the company can continue to operate as it goes through the bankruptcy process. Avianca has specifically stated that it plans to “right-size” and resume flights, so we’re confident that the airline will make it through bankruptcy without going belly-up.

RELATED: Do frequent flyer miles survive airline bankruptcies? It depends

If the airline does go under, LifeMiles members could lose the ability to redeem miles on Star Alliance flights — even if it’s a separate entity. You probably won’t lose your miles, but LifeMiles are one of the best ways to book Star Alliance awards given the low taxes and fees tacked on. For instance, for just 87,000 miles and $5.60 in taxes you can fly Lufthansa first class from the U.S. (like New York) to Frankfurt. Aeroplan — the loyalty program of Air Canada (another Star Alliance carrier) — tacks on $800 or more in fuel surcharges for the exact same flights.

What if your flight is canceled?

Let’s say even if you do have an immediate flight and your airline survives the pandemic — your flight could still be canceled. It’s a serious possibility to consider, as many airlines remain grounded or continue to adjust their flight schedules. And with ongoing uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, frequent cancellations may continue for months.

While some programs have been pretty customer-friendly, others have used the pandemic to implement stealth devaluations by removing award charts or adding new fees for booking award travel. You are entitled to a mileage refund on your award ticket if the airline cancels your flight, but you can't then return the miles and get your money back for the initial purchase. That means you could be potentially stuck with miles in a program that could devalue at any point.

Will you earn points?

Many buy miles promos are processed through and not the airline directly. If you're just looking to top up an account, that isn't the end of the world, but it does mean that you probably won't earn points with a card that has a travel category bonus.

That said, you can still earn some solid rewards on certain cards, and some of the best options that fit this bill include The Blue Business®️ Plus Credit Card from American Express (2X Membership Rewards points on the first $50,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1X, giving you a 4% return based on TPG valuation) or Chase Freedom Unlimited (1.5% cash back or 1.5x Ultimate Rewards points if you have a premium Chase card for a 3% return based on TPG valuation).

However, if you’re trying to meet a credit card spending requirement, buying miles can help you get it done faster. You can check out our guide to the best cards for everyday spending for additional suggestions.

The major exception to this rule is American miles — the airline reportedly codes mileage purchases as airfare, so you’ll want to use a credit card that earns bonus miles on travel, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express or Chase Sapphire Reserve, for the highest returns on your mileage purchases.

Bottom line

With the current state of the travel industry, it’s a pretty uncertain time to buy miles. Airlines worldwide have been hit hard by the coronavirus-fueled travel downturn. There’s also no indication that the virus will be contained by the end of the year -- or even slowed down by the end of the summer. So unless you have immediate plans to use them in the next few weeks, you may want to hold off on buying miles for now.

Featured image by Delta's Premium Select cabin onboard a retrofitted Boeing 777-200ER (Photo by Benji Stawski / The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.