I frequently get questions about transferring or buying frequent flyer miles. The most recent was straight to the point:
"How can I transfer miles to someone who isn't a family member?"
The short answer is, "You can transfer miles to anyone, for a price, and with some limits." The question brings up the larger topic of buying and transferring frequent flyer miles, generally. The rest of this answer covers materials that many frequent flyers—especially those who keep up with Tim Winship's excellent coverage—already know. But if you're a bit of a novice, keep reading.
The easiest way to let someone else take advantage of your frequent flyer miles is to use them for an award issued in that person's name. This doesn't cost anything more than whatever fee your airline charges these days for issuing any award. Airlines have no stated limits on who can receive an award or on the number of awards you can transfer—certainly you can include family, friends, and coworkers.
Airlines do, however, have rules against selling, trading, or bartering awards, which means that an airline might require you to prove you know the person receiving an award that's based on your miles. The major downside to this kind of transfer is that you have to know the way the recipient wants to use the benefit—a general destination area, class of service, and such.
Despite the fact that selling awards breaks the airline rules, you can still sell off excess mileage through one of the few remaining coupon brokers. But you have to sell your miles as awards, not miles.
Regardless of how you do it, transferring an award is the best way to move your miles. It entails no costs other than the usual issuing costs you'd pay to get an award for your own trip.
Most big airlines these days allow you to transfer limited amounts of miles from your account to someone else's account. There are no restrictions on the individual. However, you pay a fee:
- Alaska, Delta, and US Airways charge 1 cent per mile plus a fixed per-transaction fee of $25 to $35.
- Continental, Northwest, and United charge 1.5 cents per mile; Northwest and United add fees.
- American sets prices for specific mileage brackets; if you transfer at the top of each bracket, you pay 1 cent per mile plus $30.
- Southwest does not provide for transfer of its points.
Each line establishes its own rules about the number of miles you can transfer out of your account, the number of other accounts to which you can transfer, and limits on the number of miles in each transfer. All the ones I checked allow transfer of enough miles for a "saver" domestic round-trip award. Check your airline's website for details.
The airlines aren't doing you any favors by "allowing" such transfers. In fact, what they're really doing is selling the miles twice: They sell miles to their credit card issuer for about 1 cent a mile, then collect the same amount for the transfer. It's money in the bank.
Points.com operates a system for transfers among a few airlines. However, the choices are very limited and the "exchange" rates are lousy. You're better off paying.
If You Want More Miles for Yourself
If you're interested in adding to your miles rather than using them, most big lines allow you to buy a limited number of miles each year to "top off" your account. But the prices are stiff: anywhere from 2.5 cents to 6.7 cents per mile. I can't see why those lines impose maximum annual purchase limits: If I were running an airline, I'd sell miles all day at those prices to anybody who wants them.
If you need more miles, you're obviously better off having someone transfer miles for 1 cent than buying for 2 cents plus. If you don't know anybody, Points.com maintains an exchange bulletin board, and you may also find some on craigslist or eBay.