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Mileage Brokers: The Little-Known Airfare Deal Gotcha

Look online and you’ll find dozens of agencies that claim to offer “discounted” premium economy, business, and first class air tickets. Most are legitimate, but you have to watch out for one important gotcha: fares that tote “unused points.”

Some fares that seem too good to be true are just that: They’re created when mileage brokers buy up frequent flyer miles—which violates airline terms. These agencies say they buy “unused” frequent flyer miles from businesses, and sell award tickets to the public based on use of those miles. That’s a big risk for the buyer.

The Mileage Broker Deal Risk

Selling frequent flyer miles is against airline rules, and airlines enforce them at least some of the time—meaning your ticket could be voided. The appeal is that frequent flyer award tickets at the usual “saver seat” level are notoriously hard to find in premium classes. These agencies may buy their miles at prices low enough to apply them to the much higher “any seat” award mileage levels and therefore be able to sell tickets at low prices—but using purchased miles is still risky.

For example, Delta SkyMiles policy states:

“… tickets obtained through prohibited sale or barter transactions are VOID, invalid for travel, and will be confiscated. Persons trying to use such tickets will not be permitted to travel unless they purchase a ticket from Delta at the applicable fare.”

Your No-Risk Option: Consolidator Fares

While mileage broker deals can seem pretty sweet, you don’t have to use purchased frequent flyer miles to find discounted premium economy, business, and first class options. The traditional “consolidator” system is still operating: Non-mileage broker agencies negotiate contracts with airlines to sell seats at discounted below-published-fare prices.

These days, most don’t show their discounted fares for specific itineraries online other than as examples: Instead, services can require you to submit trip dates and details, and the agency privately emails or messages a response. These tickets are completely legitimate and violate no airline rules.

The one risk you run with either type of discount is that flash sale fares elsewhere can be well below supposedly discounted prices. Fares you arrange through either buying miles or a consolidator don’t vary when an airline runs a sale, so they can sometimes be higher than fares an airline is openly touting.

As long as you aren’t overpaying, consolidator premium class tickets aren’t risky. Always check for flash sale fares before you buy. And before you buy, make sure that the agent you’re using is not basing your ticket on purchased miles.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse (including hotel guest rights) every day at SmarterTravel.

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