Why Buying Points And Miles Isn't Saving You As Much As You Think

For many of us, racking up miles and points is the same as beefing up your savings account. The bigger your reserve is, the more equipped you are to book flights when wanderlust strikes or when your pals drag you to an impromptu trip on the opposite side of the country. When you have tons of miles at your disposal, you don't even have to burn through your cash when buying airfare. The miles are as good as cash itself, so all you need to do is get in touch with your airline and go through the redemption process to exchange your miles for plane tickets.

Collecting points and miles is fairly easy. Many airline credit cards offer bonus points for certain purchases in specific categories like restaurants, supermarkets, and gas stations. Sometimes, it may take only a few trips to Target to accumulate the points needed for a roundtrip flight to your home state. Card companies also often offer welcome bonuses when you apply and get approved for a card, with some even guaranteeing as many as 120,000 points so long as you meet their spending requirements.

If all this sounds too much work for you, though, you also have the option to buy miles and points. Airlines are almost always selling miles, and you can choose to take the bait if you want to earn miles in one fell swoop. However, doing so is not always the smartest choice, financially speaking.

Points and miles can be devalued overnight

As enticing as it is to accrue miles and points by simply paying for them outright, you'll only stand to lose money, especially if you're not going to redeem them in the immediate future. Airlines are notorious for amending their redemption rules without notice, so there's always a risk of your purchased miles devaluing overnight. For example, the flight you're looking to book may cost 25,000 miles one day, only for the airline to change it to 40,000 miles the next day. The money you spent buying miles just to meet the threshold will have been for nothing, and you're better off buying the ticket with cash instead.

"It's not an issue so much of how you use the miles, but when you use them," consumer advocate and travel expert Christopher Elliott explained to MapQuest. "Miles are a depreciating asset. When you put them in the bank, which is your frequent flyer account, they immediately begin to lose value, and you can see that very clearly. Roughly once a year, the airline will 'enhance' its program, and in 'an effort to serve customers better,' will increase the redemption levels for tickets and that means that your miles have just lost value."

Additionally, miles and points sold by airlines usually cost more than their actual value, with some costing three times as much. In this case, buying those miles is basically overpaying for flights, resulting in unnecessary spending on your end. 

When is it worth it to buy miles?

Make no mistake. You usually get the short end of the stick if you choose to buy miles, though a handful of cases make sense to just jump the gun and do so. If, for instance, you only need less than 1,000 points to reach the threshold required for redemption, then buying a couple hundred miles shouldn't hurt your budget much. For another, when your airline offers discounted points, and it so happens that you can redeem them for the dates and destination you want, buying them is a no-brainer. You'll need to roll up your sleeves and do some crunching, though, just to ensure that you're getting the bang for your buck. "Whenever you can get 10 cents a mile, that's a good deal," Airfare Watchdog founder George Hobica told US News & World Report. "If you're getting two or three cents per mile, it's not a good idea."

As a general rule, you should only buy points and miles if you'll get to save money for your overall trip. "Can you use your points to do something you can normally never afford? That is the best use of [them]," Jared Kamrowski, the founder of Thrifty Traveler, shared with Money. The only other time it's recommended to buy miles is if you have existing ones expiring soon, and you need to top up to maintain them. Otherwise, buying miles shouldn't be on your list of options, unless the flights come out cheaper.