When Should You Buy Points?

Besides credit card signup bonuses, maximizing your return on daily spending, and the advanced stuff like manufactured spending, one additional method to acquire loyalty points in some circumstances is by outright buying them from the loyalty program. 

While it doesn’t quite have the same satisfying feeling of “travelling for almost free” that you might get from some of the other ways to earn points, and it’s not going to be a strategy that works at all times, many situations may arise in which purchasing points could be a good deal.

Most of these situations rely on airlines and hotels putting on promotions that allow you to purchase points at a discount from the regular rate, and these promotions come and go frequently, their durations varying from as little as a few days to a whole month. Let’s look at a few situations in which it might make sense to buy points outright, and hopefully you’ll be able to apply this analysis next time you receive one of these special offers in your inbox. 


1. Buy Points to Top-Up Your Account for a Redemption

Imagine that you’ve planned out a major redemption with a certain loyalty program, but you’re just shy of having enough miles to book it. You’ve found your desired routing, located all the award availability, and set up the rest of your trip to perfectly align with these flights. All you’re missing is that final couple hundred or couple thousand miles before you’ll have enough to book the whole thing.

If it’s a program like Aeroplan where you can instantly transfer over your Amex MR points to top-up, then that would be the best option. Otherwise, if there’s no quick and easy solution to earn that extra small amount of miles, then it may well be in your best interest to purchase them outright, since you’d (presumably) still be getting great value on your redemption even if you have to spend some money. 

And even if you’re still way off having enough miles for a major redemption, buying those additional miles to make the trip happen can still be a viable option compared to the alternative of paying cash out-of-pocket.

As an example, consider American Airlines AAdvantage, which regularly allows you to buy miles on a sale. Their current offer, expiring May 31, allows you to acquire up to 150,000 miles at a discount of up to 40% off – you’d pay US$2,676 ($3,603) for the 150,000 miles, which works out to be 2.4 cents per point (cpp) in Canadian dollars.

Now, if you randomly offered me American AAdvantage miles at 2.4cpp each, I would almost certainly laugh you off, since that’s a very steep price to pay. But if I had in mind a compelling use of AAdvantage miles in which I was confident of getting higher value than 2.4cpp, then that’d be a different story.

A friend of mine recently purchased 50,000 AAdvantage Miles for US$1,145 during one of their regular “buy miles at a discount” promotions. Since he already had an existing balance of 80,000 AAdvantage miles, he was able to redeem a total of 130,000 AAdvantage miles for a pair of business class flights to Papeete from Hawaii. And since the cash price for a single economy class ticket was around US$1,000, he felt he was getting a great deal, since he ended up being able to fly two people in business class for around the same price.

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Of course, this use-case relied on the loyalty account holder already having an existing balance of miles, so it’s not necessarily generalizable to everyone’s situation. Nevertheless, it demonstrates an instance in which, given an existing desire to book a certain flight and the otherwise prohibitive cash prices, it made perfect sense to take up American AAdvantage’s offer to buy miles at a discount.


2. Buy Points to Save Money on Premium Flights

The above example assumes that you have an existing balance with a certain loyalty program, and that you’re buying points to make up the difference for a specific usage of the points. However, what if you’re completely new to a loyalty program and haven’t even collected a single point yet? Would it still make sense to buy points?

Depending on your travel habits, it certainly could. Specifically, if you’re someone who would otherwise pay cash for premium class flights or five-star hotels and resorts, then it might well be a good deal to buy points at a discount and use those points to book your desired flight, instead of paying the full retail rate.

Take the example of Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, which I had actually mentioned in my article on “10 Tricks to Save Money on Flights”.

A one-way business class ticket from Canada to South Africa can run you $3,000; alternatively, you can take advantage of Alaska’s sweet spot with Cathay Pacific by buying 62,500 Alaska miles and using those miles to book Cathay Pacific business class to Johannesburg with a free stopover in Hong Kong.

 
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If you bought those miles during one of Alaska’s 50% bonus promotions, you’d only spend US$1,241, or about $1,672, which is a significant discount compared to buying a full-fare business class ticket.

 
 

Unfortunately, Alaska’s most recent 50% bonus promotion ended a week ago, but we tend to see similar promotions of 35–40% many times throughout the year (and the 50% bonus event at least once a year). 

Of course, you’ll need to make sure that there’s award availability on your desired flights before you pursue this strategy, so it’s best to check for availability first before making a major points purchase like this.

Cathay Pacific business class

Cathay Pacific business class


3. Buy Points to Save Money on Premium Hotels

A similar idea also works well with luxury hotels and resorts. Let’s take a look at Hilton Honors’s current 100% bonus promotion, in which they’ll match your entire points purchase, up to a maximum of 80,000 points.

Hilton regularly sells points at 1cpp, so with this promotion, they’re essentially selling you up to 80,000 points at 0.5cpp.

If you wanted to stay at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui (a beautiful resort, from what I hear, and miles better than any of the Marriott Bonvoy options), a free night would cost you 80,000 Hilton Honors points. Therefore, you could purchase 80,000 points under this promotion and get Hilton to match it, resulting in two nights at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui for only US$800.

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That’s still a significant splurge, no doubt. But compared to the retail rate of 121,580 XPF for two nights (~$1,528)? It’s a pretty handsome discount. 

But it can actually get even better, if we tie it back to the first example of buying points to top-up your account. Let’s say you’ve been hitting the US-issued Amex Hilton credit cards, and have already accumulated a healthy 160,000 Hilton Honors points.

Now if you were to buy 80,000 points under the promotion and get Hilton to match the additional 80,000, you’ll have enough points for not four, but five nights at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui, because Hilton offers a Fifth Night Free benefit on points redemptions.

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So that US$800 outlay is going towards three additional nights at one of the best resorts in Bora Bora. If you’re the type to use your points for aspirational once-in-a-lifetime trips, then the opportunity to buy points under lucrative promotions to reach your goals should not be overlooked.

Conrad Bora Bora Nui

Conrad Bora Bora Nui


4. Buy WestJet Dollars for Member Exclusive Fares

Now, the above examples focus heavily on business class and First Class flights and fancy hotels. That makes sense when you think about it – those types of redemptions are where you get the most value on paper for your points, so by buying points to “capture” some of that value, you still end up doing quite well for yourself. 

But even among the more ordinary types of flights, like an economy class flight across Canada, there are opportunities to buy points and save money as a result. I touched upon this idea when I wrote about WestJet’s Member Exclusive fares.

Basically, Member Exclusive fares allow you to book WestJet flights at a fixed price point, which can often represent an attractive discount compared to the full retail fare. Long-haul flights within Canada, like Vancouver to Toronto, are priced at 125 WestJet Dollars (WSD) plus taxes and fees one-way, whereas the cash price can often reach $300+ on a popular route like this.

However, Member Exclusive fares are designed for loyal WestJet members, and so can only be booked with your WestJet Dollars balance, and not with cash. While the WestJet RBC World Elite MasterCard can earn you 250 WSD, what should you do after you’ve applied for that card?

Well, you can actually buy WestJet Dollars through Points.com, in order to book any Member Exclusive fare that catches your eye!

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Every possible purchase amount of WestJet Dollars comes with a certain markup, and the below chart shows you the “sweet spots” of which amounts you should buy.

Take note of the various “break points” at which the markup increases, where you can get a better deal by being smart about how you make your purchases. For example, you should never buy 2,100 or 2,200 WSD outright – instead, buy 2,000 WSD and then either 100 or 200 WSD in separate transactions, and you’ll end up saving money on the markup.

Each account is allowed to buy up to 3,000 WSD per year, and if you’re a frequent traveller on domestic economy class flights within Canada, I think this could represent a great investment. Member Exclusive fares do follow their own “award availability” of sorts, but it’s not nearly as restrictive as Star Alliance awards – you’ll probably find available space about 60–75% of the time, especially if you plan more than a few weeks in advance.


5. Buy (or Acquire) Points on a Speculative Basis

One question that might come to mind is “Should you buy points without a redemption in mind?”

While it may be tempting to buy some points when they’re on a discount, it’s almost never a good idea to do so if you don’t have a specific plan for using those points within, say, the next 6–12 months. You might have a dream trip brewing in the back of your mind, but if the availability doesn’t work out or there’s a devaluation to the program’s award chart, your miles might not end up getting used as you had originally planned.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t occasionally some ways to acquire points at a tremendous discount, though. These usually take the form of a loyalty chain’s promotions that turn out to be far more generous than they originally intended.

One example might be the 2015 IHG Rewards Priceless Surprises sweepstakes, when an afterthought in the terms and conditions allowed members to earn 50,000+ IHG Rewards points simply by hand-writing and sending in 94 postcards.

The cost of doing so? Maybe $15, plus a few hours of work. The value 50,000 IHG Rewards points? At the time, a free night in some of the best InterContinentals around the world, or ten nights at lower-tier Holiday Inn Express properties. A no-brainer if I’ve ever seen one.

Then there’s also Iberia’s famous promotion last year, in which they handed out 9,000 Iberia Avios just for making a single Iberia booking. People soon descended like vultures on the $33 one-way flights between Palma de Mallorca and Madrid, earning a handy 9,000 Iberia Avios per booking at an insanely low effective price of 0.37cpp. (And it turns out you could freely convert these Avios into British Airways Avios as well!)

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There’s no way to plan for these types of awesome opportunities to acquire points, but they’re always showing up at least once every few years, and when they do you’ve usually got to act quickly!


Buying Points: The Logistics

If you’re interested in purchasing points, I should mention a few quick things about the actual process itself. First off, if you’re buying points from a US-based loyalty program, like American AAdvantage or Alaska Mileage Plan, then you’ll usually be hit with sales taxes if you input a Canadian billing address during the checkout process. 

As you can imagine, this can quickly eat into the already tightened value that you’re getting from buying points in the first place. Thankfully, the way around this is simple: use a US credit card and a US billing address to buy points from these programs. 

Another consideration is which credit card you should use when purchasing points, and the answer will depend on which category of transactions the purchase ultimately falls under. Some programs process your points purchases as a transaction with the airline or hotel itself, in which case it’d fall under the “travel” category, and would be eligible for category bonuses like 2x the points on the Amex Gold Rewards Card or the Amex Platinum Card.

However, other programs use a third-party vendor like Points.com to complete the transaction, in which case it’s just a general-category purchase like any other, so you can use any card on which you’re looking to complete a minimum spend. Among the above examples, American AAdvantage processes points purchases directly as an airline purchase, whereas Alaska, Hilton, and WestJet go through Points.com. 


Conclusion

Buying points allows you to capture the value in points programs without necessarily putting in the work to earn those points at a very low cost. It’s key to crunch the numbers and keep track of previous promotions to ensure you’re not overpaying, but whether you’re short a couple hundred points for that big redemption, looking to save money on aspirational flights or hotels, or taking advantage of a unique member-only perk like WestJet’s Member Exclusive fares, there are numerous situations in which buying points could be advantageous.