Many frequent flyer programs sell miles: and not just to their program partners. Regular members – that’s you and me – can also get in on the action. By buying points, there are potentially big savings to be had when you take to the skies.
Here at Point Hacks, we often round up the latest deals and offers. But if you’re feeling a little out of your depth, this guide should help you get a better understanding of the process, and the value to be unlocked.
Why would you want to buy frequent flyer points?
In short, the cost of buying and redeeming points can sometimes be less than the price of just buying that same flight.
The biggest catch, of course, is that not every flight can easily be booked using points. Reward seats can be scarce, particularly on long international routes popular with full-fare-paying passengers. But if you can make it work, the savings can be terrific.
The key frequent flyer programs for buying points
When it comes to buying points to savvily save on flights, there are 10 key programs to know about. Of course, many others sell points too – and often with great value attached. But for most Australian travellers, the 10 programs below will cover most bases.
- Air Canada Aeroplan – for Star Alliance flights plus a host of others, now including Air Mauritius, Bamboo Airways, Emirates, Etihad, Gulf Air and Virgin Australia.
- Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan – for oneworld flights.
- American Airlines AAdvantage – for oneworld and some Etihad flights, primarily long-haul.
- Avianca LifeMiles – for Star Alliance flights, primarily long-haul – although availability through Avianca can be much more limited than elsewhere.
- British Airways Executive Club and Iberia Plus (Avios) – for oneworld flights globally, primarily short- and medium-haul.
- Etihad Guest – for Etihad, Virgin Australia, Korean Air and an array of other partner airline flights.
- Marriott Bonvoy – for transferring to almost every frequent flyer program out there
- United Airlines MileagePlus – for Star Alliance flights, particularly to and from Asia for Australians, as well as Virgin Australia flights.
- Virgin Atlantic Flying Club – for Virgin Atlantic and partners – especially ANA.
- Virgin Australia Velocity – for Virgin Australia flights, as well as partners such as Etihad, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines.
Each guide linked above highlights each program’s most recent promotion – and yes, some of these will have ended. However, we keep all the information in each guide relevant, and update them with the details of new promotions as they kick-off.
The principles of buying points to use for Business and First Class travel
1. Wait for the right bonus or discount
To incentivise sales, programs that sell points offer discounts or bonus promotions quite regularly. This means that most of the time, it won’t be worth buying points at the ‘regular’ retail price when incentives don’t apply.
There’s just one exception: if you already have most of the points you need, and only need a few more for the journey you hope to book. Particularly if that journey is open for booking now – and there’s availability – it could make sense to buy a few top-up points and lock it in. But otherwise, wait for the next promotion!
2. Sign up for each program before the next promotion
While many loyalty programs happily sell points, some won’t sell them to new members. While there are many reasons for this, preventing fraud is often a big part of that.
It’s not uncommon for programs to sell points only to those who’ve already been a member for at least a couple of weeks, or better yet, a month or more. But remember, you don’t need to be a resident of a foreign country to use an overseas frequent flyer program.
3. Use multiple accounts, within the rules
Most frequent flyer programs that sell points or miles will limit how many you can buy – typically, per calendar year. But sometimes, those limits can be below the number of miles it takes to book your dream flight.
One legitimate way around this – particularly for a family hoping to travel together – is to buy points across multiple accounts. This does not mean signing up for several accounts in your own name. Each person should have one account only: but of course, many households have multiple people – and each person can have a separate account.
4. Buy points only when you’re ready to redeem
From time to time, airlines make changes to the number of points or miles needed to book various flights. Sometimes, these come with a fair amount of notice – but that’s not always the case, particularly with programs that use dynamic pricing.
That’s why we always suggest against buying points speculatively. While buying points can provide great value, it’s a move that’s best when you already have a plan to redeem the points you’ll buy. Better yet, when you’re actually ready to redeem them, as soon as they land in your account.
5. Research reward seat availability before you buy
On that note, remember that you can’t book every seat on every flight using points – at attractive rates, anyway. Before splashing your cash on points, make sure you can actually redeem them in the way you’d planned.
That doesn’t mean just having a goal. That means checking that reward seats are indeed available: which means you’d be able to spend those miles. If your travel dates aren’t flexible, check what’s available when you hope to travel before buying the miles.
6. Put a reward seat on hold, if you can
Now, this isn’t something you can do with most frequent flyer programs – especially those in Australia. But some overseas programs allow you to put a reward seat booking ‘on hold’.
That’s handy when you don’t have enough points or miles to book it right now, but will very soon. For instance, if you’re about to buy points or transfer them from another program. It’s a popular move for American Airlines AAdvantage members, as it reduces much of the risk of buying points, only to find that the flight you want is no longer available.
7. Make sure buying points is actually worth it
When booking reward flights using points, you always have to pay an amount in taxes and fees. Sometimes, this can also include hefty amounts in ‘carrier charges’. That’s industry speak for the airline charging you an extra fee just to redeem your points.
Of course, when you’re also buying points to make that booking, the cash outlay can quickly add up. You’ll want to be sure the cost of buying the points, plus what it costs to redeem those points, is still better than buying a commercial ticket. Of course, you also don’t earn points on reward flights, so consider that as well.
8. Consider exchange rates and use the right card to minimise fees
Most frequent flyer programs sell points under a foreign currency: most commonly, USD.
When spending significant sums in a foreign currency, using a credit or debit card with minimal international transaction fees can lead to big savings. Alternatively, spending abroad can be an opportunity to earn bonus points on international purchases – separate from the ones you’re buying, of course.
9. Know how to use the points before you buy
Having points is one thing, but knowing how to spend them can be another matter entirely.
Some bookings can be made online, while others can only be secured over the phone. And when you do have to call, it pays to know how to check reward seat availability first. If this all sounds confusing, it’s something you should familiarise yourself with before buying points.
10. Don’t underestimate the effort involved
Buying points to redeem for cheap flights is an active and time-consuming task. It’ll take you time to read, research and understand how to do it. You’ll also need to be prepared to put the time in to learn and understand the ins and outs of all the different options.
There are no easy wins, but with some preparation and knowledge, it’s certainly possible to come out ahead by buying and redeeming points to save on travel.
Steps to buying and redeeming miles
If you’re new to buying points, here’s an outline on the thought process from pondering to buying and then booking.
- Consider where you want to fly, and how you want to get there. In particular, think about the airlines that can take you where you want to go: either directly, or by taking a connecting flight.
- Of those programs running a promotion (where buying points becomes better value), see which programs are partnered with your airlines of choice.
- Check for reward seat availability on your chosen dates. Don’t forget to check that availability through the program you hope to book through, as different frequent flyer programs often have access to different seats. Call that frequent flyer program if you’re unsure.
- Once you’ve found a seat, check how many miles you need by using that airline’s award calculator or booking website.
- Double check how much you’ll also need to pay in taxes, fees and carrier charges.
- Search for the same itinerary: but this time, on a paid ticket. You’ll want to be sure the cost of buying points plus the co-pay amount is less than it’d cost to pay for a fare.
- If you’ve confirmed that you’re getting a good deal, buy those miles.
- As soon as they arrive in your account, redeem them. You can often book flights online using points and miles, but some routes and some partners may need a phone call.
Unless you travel widely and regularly, we usually suggest you don’t buy miles without having a specific redemption in mind – and indeed, that you can make that booking.
Here’s another tip specific to members of American Airlines AAdvantage. At step three, you can actually put the award on hold for up to five days without the miles in your account. That minimises the risk of buying miles to book a flight, only to find that somebody else beat you to that same seat.
Buy the miles, and call AA back to ‘ticket’ the reservation within the hold window, and you’re set.
What about hotel loyalty programs?
When it comes to buying points, you aren’t limited just to airlines. You can also buy points with many of the global hotel loyalty programs. As you’d be redeeming for a stay, it’s much simpler to check that you’re getting good value. Just compare the cost of buying points with the paid cost of the same stay.
While outcomes can vary, here are a few times when buying hotel points is more likely to represent good value:
- When hotels are generally expensive in a particular city, compared to other destinations.
- During peak periods or major events, when nightly rates for cash bookings can be elevated.
- At resorts known to have particular peak seasons, where nightly rates are again quite high.
- When you value flexibility and don’t see much value in booking prepaid rates. That’s because many points redemptions can be cancelled with no fee.
The key hotel loyalty programs that sell points are:
Buying points to spend on great value travel won’t be for everyone. For instance, business travellers reserving flights on the company dime, have to make their bookings a certain way in line with their employer’s travel policies.
But when you’re spending your own coin or have a bit more flexibility, buying points can provide some interesting opportunities. The biggest roadblock to navigate is just finding reward seat availability. If that’s all clear though, you’ll be set to fly: in comfort, without the usual price tag.
Featured image courtesy of Vincent Gerbouin/Pexels. This article was originally written by Keith Mason.
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