Buying and selling frequent flyer miles and upgrades

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A client recently asked what happens if you don’t have the miles you need for a ticket.  He wanted to know if he could buy miles to top up his account, so that he’d have enough to book the award he wanted.  The answer is yes: You can buy miles (in two different ways).  But it’s generally not to your advantage to do so.  Here’s how it works.

Buying miles directly from an airline.  Let’s say you have 77,000 miles, and need 80,000 for an award.  You could buy the last 3,000 miles directly from the airline so that you have enough to book the award you want.  However with the airline setting the pricing, you can be sure you’re not getting a great deal.  If airlines sold miles at a competitive rate, frequent flyers would buy them by the millions to save money.  With so many ways to earn miles, this option is best used only when time is of the essence, as it’s the fastest way to get miles into an account.  Never buy more than a few thousand miles directly from an airline, as it won’t be to your advantage.

Pro: Fastest way to get miles into an account.

Cons: Expensive on a per mile basis, limits on the number of miles you can buy in one year.

Sell miles

Buying or selling miles and upgrades through a broker.  If you Google, “Buy frequent flyer miles” you’ll get results from so called mileage brokers, who will “sell” you miles in bundles.  These purchases are airline-specific.  What these brokers are doing is finding people who want to earn money for their mileage balance.  The broker pays the seller a small amount of revenue per mile (usually about one cent) and sells the miles to someone looking to book an award ticket.  But how do they do this if miles can’t be transferred between accounts?  The broker facilitates the transaction, and once payment is received the broker instructs the seller to book the ticket in the buyer’s name.  Booking a ticket for someone else with your miles is allowed under program rules.

The problem with buying or selling miles or upgrades this way is that it’s against frequent flyer program rules.  As such, if the airline finds out that you have bought or sold a ticket, it can cancel the ticket and even freeze or confiscate the offending account.  It’s a very risky way to book a ticket.

Pro: You can sometimes end up with a reasonably priced business or first class ticket.

Cons: Many, including poor compensation for sellers and risk of ticket cancellation for buyers.

As you can see, buying and selling miles is either a poor value (from the airlines) or a high risk, low reward situation (from brokers).  Savvy travelers would be better off putting the effort into learning how to earn and redeem miles effectively.  Acquiring the knowledge of how frequent flyer programs work is a far better investment and will yield benefits and savings for years to come.

Have you ever bought or sold miles before?  What was your experience?

About the Author

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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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