One of the Worst Deals in Travel, and You’ll Never Believe Who’s Buying It (Maybe Even You)

When you buy tickets from an airline, or check-in online or at a kiosk, you may be asked whether you’d like to buy additional frequent flyer miles … usually some multiple of the number of miles you’ll be flying. This may go under the moniker, mileage maximizer.

Since the offer is based on what you’re going to fly, at the time you’re a passenger, it’s natural to think you’re being offered some sort of limited-time ‘deal’.

Usually you’re being charged ‘full price’ for the miles, some amount hovering around 3 cents apiece depending on airline.

Sitting on hold for the Executive Platinum line at American just now I was told by the recording to ask the agent about Mileage Maximizer. I could buy miles for award tickets or upgrades. Never mind that my American and US Airways combined balance is a healthy seven figures (and not starting with a one).

I sat there pondering buy miles for an award ticket. But.. that’s usually going to be a very bad deal. Who is going to do that?

  • By miles at 3 cents, you have to get more than 3 cents worth of value
  • Which means it has to displace something you would have otherwise spent 3 cents on in the present (not some future, where you’d discount value based on time, and not something that merely cost 3 cents but you wouldn’t have spent the money on).
  • And you have to be more flexible using miles rather than money, to get the availability you need
  • While not earning miles for award tickets or status on the award ticket you book.

If you wouldn’t buy miles at 3 cents apiece through the purchase miles page on the airline’s website, why would you pay the same amount when prompted at check-in?

And this reminded me that airlines offer this because people do take them up on it. And it’s not who you’d think.

Elite frequent flyers have more miles already than general members, on average. And they’re also presumed to be more savvy about the frequent flyer program than general members. So elites should rarely if ever buy these miles.

And yet elites are much more likely to be the ones opting in to mileage maximizer. That’s something I’ve been told over and over. Elites like the airline’s miles more. They like the program, which is why they’ve chosen to become elites in it. So they’re also the ones who like the miles enough to buy them.

Do the math. You may be nodding your head and thinking this is obvious, you wouldn’t buy miles this way. But enough people do — elite frequent flyers — that this bears repeating. It almost never makes sense to buy mileage maximizer miles in conjunction with a flight.

There are a couple of narrow exceptions:

  • Alaska sells miles for ~ 2 cents apiece in conjunction with a paid flight. (They’ve been known to follow up with people buying tickets, buying the miles alongside those tickets, and refunding tickets.)
  • United sells elite qualifying miles in conjunction with redeeming miles when booking paid travel.

I wouldn’t buy Alaska miles speculatively at 2 cents apiece, but it’s cheaper to top off an Alaska account this way than it is to buy through normal channels. And it’s a reasonable way to top off an account towards a specific award you want to redeem for and that’s available.

Meanwhile, depending on the price (and it varies, with price going up as the year-end approaches and customers become desperate) it can make sense to buy qualifying miles from United instead of buying airline tickets and spending time on a mileage run. Of course this requires you to either be exempt from the revenue requirement for status, or to have exceeded the required revenue but not flown enough miles.

Beyond this, though, just say no to mileage maximizer.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It’s one thing to degrade your website with crappy buzzfeed headlines, the dumb world/worst typos are just funny.

  2. And on the mete of the article, how much of this is just a way for business flyers to get personal miles as a business expense that gets reimbursed?

  3. I wonder if the Elites are expensing it on business flights? If it’s on somebody else’s dime it’s always a deal. I guess this would depend on how the charge shows up. When somebody does a bonus point deal (special rate for extra points) at a hotel it’s not usually obvious from the hotel bill.

    Not ethical, in my mind, but it happens.

  4. Please stop with the sensationalism of these headlines. Your readers respect your professionalism, and it pains us to see some of these editorial choices. I’ve never before felt the need to complain about something so valuable (your blog) that I’m getting for free, and I apologize that my first comment after year of reading is negative. Headlines such as these have just gotten to be a turn-off for many. I can understand that they are fun to write, and can even be an outlet for your humor. I do really appreciate what you provide for the community. I’ll continue using your links for my credit card applications as the need arrises. Thank you for your time.

  5. I have to second Jacob’s comments. These awkward, buzzfeed-like headlines seem to have proliferated lately. I’m 100% sure they work, but they sure are grating, especially for those of us who have been reading for years without them. It’s always been your level-headed, down-to-earth approach to the hobby that I’ve appreciated, Gary, and that’s why this shift has been a bit off-putting. Would love to see those dialed back a bit. And keep up the great work.

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