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When does it make sense to buy miles?

Sometimes, you can’t earn miles fast enough. You save and save for that free trip to Europe or Asia, but you feel that it’ll take years to reach the required number of miles. Or, you see a great award sale, but you’re a few thousand miles short with no plans to fly before the offer expires. What’s a miles maven to do?

The airlines will tell you that the answer is to buy miles. All of the major U.S. airlines and many of the low-cost carriers offer mileage-purchase services. You can buy miles for yourself or for a companion. This option may seem like the perfect way to boost your mileage account quickly. In reality, it’s a rather expensive way to get a free flight.

The test

I looked at four purchase-miles programs—American’s BuyAAMiles, United’s Personal Miles, Delta’s Buy Miles for You, and US Airways’ Buy Miles. For each airline’s program, I calculated the final cost of purchasing 1,000, 5,000, and 25,000 miles in one transaction. Each airline calculates its mileage cost slightly differently, but the main components of the cost are price per mile, a 7.5 percent federal excise tax, and a transaction or processing fee.

The costs

The following chart shows each airline’s prices for mileage purchases.

Airline Cost for 1,000 miles Cost for 5,000 miles Cost for 25,000 miles
American $60 (6 cents/mile) $178 (3.6 cents/mile) $702 (2.8 cents/mile)
Delta $30 (3 cents/mile) $148 (3 cents/mile) $739 (3 cents/mile)
United $65 (6 cents/mile) $183 (3.7 cents/mile) $707 (2.8 cents/mile)
US Airways $60 (6 cents/mile) $200 (4 cents/mile) N/A

You’ll notice that the cost per mile goes down as the number of miles purchased goes up for all airlines except Delta. The reason for this price discrepancy is that the transaction fee of $25 to $35 has a greater impact on the total sum when fewer miles are purchased. Delta charges no separate transaction fee, and therefore its per-mile costs are the same regardless of number of miles purchased.

The results

The current value of a mile is between one and 1.5 cents. When you buy miles, you pay a greatly inflated price, anywhere from 2.8 to six cents per mile. Looked at this way, it doesn’t make financial sense to purchase miles when you can earn them through flights, hotel stays, credit card purchases, online shopping, and many other activities.

Realistically, the value of the miles is not the industry standard but their value to you. Is it worth it to pay $30 to $65 to boost your account so you can book a free flight for your next vacation? Depending on the cost of an equivalent ticket, I’d venture to say that $60 is a small price to pay for a flight.

However, I would hesitate to pay $148 to $200 to get the extra 5,000 miles I needed to book an award flight. While 5,000 miles is only one-fifth of a domestic award, $200 is most likely more than a fifth of the total price of a comparable ticket. In other words, I wouldn’t pay $200 to buy 5,000 miles in order to get a free ticket that I could have purchased outright for $350.

And what about buying 25,000 miles, enough for a free domestic ticket? Forget about it. Most economy-class tickets to destinations in the U.S. cost far less than $750. You’ll be wasting your money and your miles.

If you need a quick thousand miles, you should certainly consider the buy miles options. But for larger amounts, stick to the tried and true methods of earning miles, like flying and using an airline-affiliated credit card. These methods may be slower, but they’ll be easier on your wallet.

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