Purchasing frequent flyer points or miles is a foreign concept to most Australian travellers.
Virgin Australia doesn’t allow its Velocity members to purchase points at all, while Qantas only lets you buy points to top-up an account before you book an award flight.
But its a very different scene in the USA, where most airlines not only let you buy frequent flyer miles in bulk but often run special promotions offering extra ‘bonus’ miles for your money.
Why should Australian frequent flyers care? Because these miles can often be used to book fights with partner airlines such as Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Emirates and Korean Air – at prices which are far less than you’d pay those airlines for a cash ticket in business class or even first class.
Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan promo
Qantas partner Alaska Airlines is running one such promotion this month for their Mileage Plan frequent flyer scheme with bonus miles of 20-40% on top of your purchase through to September 30, 2013.
The amount of bonus miles depends on how many Mileage Plan mikes you buy. Between 30,000 and 40,000 miles lands you the top bonus of an extra 40% more miles.
From 20,000 to 29,000 miles earns a lower bonus of 30%, while a purchase of 1,000 to 19,000 miles comes with a 20% bonus.
Using Mileage Plan miles for Qantas flights
Alaska pegs a one-way Qantas business suites award flight between Australia and the USA at 55,000 miles in business class.
Under Alaska’s current promotion, US$1,182.50 will buy you 40,000 miles which qualifies you for a 40% bonus of 16,000 miles.
That adds to 56,000 miles, so for just under US$1,300 (including taxes and surcharges of around US$116) you’re getting a business class ride to the US.
A one-way business class award on Cathay Pacific between Australia and Hong Kong requires only 30,000 miles – which you can get by purchasing 24,000 miles with a 30% bonus of 7,200 miles for only US$709.50.
Other Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan partners include American Airlines, Aeromexico, Air France, British Airways (although there's usually a fuel surcharge on BA award redemptions), Delta, Emirates, Fiji Airways, KLM, Korean Air and LAN.
How to buy Mileage Plan miles
In order to buy Mileage Plan miles you’ll first need to join the Alaskan Airlines frequent flyer scheme (it’s free).
When you log onto your Mileage Plan account you’ll see a Buy Miles option, so it’s pretty straightforward.
(Alaskan Airlines is actually one of many airlines which uses a third-party company called Points.com to sell points.)
Under the current promotion, a maximum of 40,000 points can be bought at a time – which means you’ll actually end up with 56,000 miles thanks to the 30% bonus.
Fortunately there doesn't seem to be a limit on the number of transactions made, so you should be good to make several purchases.
It’s worth noting that some hotel loyalty programs such as Hilton HHonors and Starwood Preferred Guest will also let you transfer your spare points into your Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan account, which could be an alternative to making several purchases.
However, because airlines can and do devalue frequent flyer points or miles over time, it might not be wise to plough too much money into buying Mileage Plan miles just to have them in the bank, so to speak.
When purchasing miles it’s usually best to do so only if you have a specific trip in mind, and buy just enough miles for that redemption ticket.
Booking an award flight
Once you've bought the required number of miles, the process of booking an award flight is fairly straight-forward.
With the exception of Cathay Pacific and LAN, award bookings for all of the other Mileage Plan airline partners can be booked on the Alaska Airlines website by selecting the 'Use Miles' option when searching for flights.
Unfortunately, to book award travel on Cathay Pacific or LAN you'll need to telephone Alaska Airlines a call. This is a pain for Australians as the airline’s reservations call centre is based in the US, so fire up Skype to keep your international call costs under control.
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