Recently American Airlines sent me the usual end-of-year enticement to buy AAdvantage miles with bonuses, especially for the largest number of miles offered (buy 150,000 AAdvantage miles, get 120,000 miles as a bonus).  So, should frequent business flyers bite on buying AAdvantage bonus miles?

Frankly, I thought the answer would be a resounding “NO!”  However, after doing so rudimentary analysis, the answer is, “Probably not, but it depends.”

Please note that I don’t claim my analysis which follows is statistically valid.  It’s just a random sample, a snapshot of dollar-based fares versus mileage-based fares in one market to get a feeling for the value of such frequent flyer mile purchases.

Furthermore, I looked only at American Airlines and one partner because only AA offered to sell miles to me with bonuses.  I don’t know know whether buying miles from other carriers might be better or worse.

Here’s how I compared the comparable value of miles to money:

  • Buying the largest number of miles (150,000) would cost $4,425 plus excise taxes ($332) and an AA “processing charge” ($30) = $4,787 total.
  • AA gives 120,000 “bonus” miles with the purchase, for a total of 270,000 AAdvantage miles for $4,787. That’s about $0.018/AAdvantage mile.
  • Just for comparison, on the same table of miles for sale, one can buy as few as 1,000 miles, which doesn’t come with any bonus mileage, for a total of about $0.06/AAdvantage mile. The more miles you buy, obviously, the cheaper the price per mile.
  • For this analysis, I assumed purchasing 270,000 AAdvantage miles (150 + 120) for $4,787.

So what is that worth?  The value range is almost infinite.  Depends on what days you want to travel, what city-pair markets, what class of service, and what degree of flexibility you wish to have in changing travel plans.

I arbitrarily chose RDU (my home airport) to SFO because I like San Francisco and seem to have frequent business reasons to go there for the market analysis.

I selected RDU/SFO on 11-Feb-17, returning SFO/RDU 15-Feb-17, once again at random, though I did want to go out a few weeks and away from the holiday season, reasoning that would produce more average fares and a better range of award ticket mileage costs.

Here are the results of my searches on AA.com:

DOMESTIC COACH CLASS ANALYSIS

  • For award travel in coach (all comparisons are RDU/SFO in February, 2017), “saver” tickets cost as little at 25,000 miles round trip.
  • For dollar travel in coach, the cheapest fares were $392-555 round trip. I used $392 for my analysis in order to base the comparison on the lowest possible fare.
  • 270,000 miles divided by 25,000 miles = 10.8 equivalent award trips X $392/trip (if I paid for it) = $4,234 in equivalent cost.
  • $4,234 less my basis for the 270,000 miles of $4,787 = ($553).
  • Therefore, using my 270,000 purchased miles for nonrefundable coach travel to SFO would not be a good deal. I would lose $553.
  • But the same analysis using the cheapest award “anytime” coach travel award (40,000 miles) against the cheapest flex coach dollar fare ($1,146) yielded a much more favorable return of $2,949 (270 divided by 40 = 6.75 X $1,146 = $7,736 equivalent value less the $4,787 investment = $2,949 saved).
  • Thus, if I used the 270,000 miles for the cheapest flex award coach seats (40,000 miles), the investment would really pay off.

DOMESTIC FIRST CLASS ANALYSIS

  • For award travel in domestic first class, “saver” tickets cost as little at 50,000 miles round trip.
  • For dollar travel in domestic first, the cheapest fares were $1,014-2,238 round trip. I used $1,014 for my analysis.
  • 270,000 miles divided by 50,000 miles = 5.4 equivalent award trips X $1,014/trip (if I paid for it) = $5,475 in equivalent cost.
  • $5,475 less my basis for the 270,000 miles of $4,787 = $689.
  • Therefore, using mileage awards for saver domestic first class awards would be worth $689.
  • The same analysis using the cheapest “anytime” domestic first class travel award (90,000 miles) against the cheapest flex first class dollar fare ($1,700) yielded a less favorable return of just $313 (270 divided by 90 = 3.00 X $1,700 = $5,100 equivalent value less the $4,787 investment = $313). Heck, that’s practically a wash and hardly worth the effort.

Bottom line in domestic comparisons is that it is not really worth it unless you need or just want to fly on flexible coach tickets that allow you to make frequent changes.  If so, buying the 270,000 AAdvantage miles might be a good investment.

INTERNATIONAL PARTNER AIRLINE ANALYSIS (BUSINESS CLASS ONLY)

I didn’t spend a lot of time researching partner airlines, partly because, except for BA, AA’s international partner airline overseas award travel mileages are not visible.  Because the partner awards don’t show online, you have to call a real AA rez agent and ask to look for partner award travel tickets for you.  So I did that for RDU to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania (JRO) for a two week trip in February, 2017.  Here’s what I found:

  • The cheapest award travel in business class was 165,000 miles round trip RDU/JRO on Qatar Airways. The routing is RDU/PHL on AA in domestic first class, then PHL/DOH (Doha) in international business class, and finally DOH/JRO in international business class.
  • The published (MRSP) business class fare RDU/JRO for the same dates in $8.304.
  • Occasionally, discounted business class fares on Qatar RDU/JRO round trip are priced on the Qatar website for as little as $4,400. I know because I flew on one this year to JRO for exactly that figure.
  • Using either the full business fare or the discounted fare yields a good return on the purchase of 270, 000 miles:
  • 270 divided by 165 = 1.64 X $4,400 (the discounted business fare) = $7,200 less the $4,787 investment = $2,413 return.
  • 270 divided by 165 = 1.64 X $8,304 (the full business fare) = $13,588 less the $4,787 investment = a whopping $8,801 return.

Similar comparisons on partner airlines (other than British, which is never a good deal) may or may not yield as splendid a return, and of course you would have to get the least expensive (in AAdvantage miles) award travel ticket, not a sure thing. But those variable assumptions would apply to any other possible domestic or international itinerary.

It’s a high risk game, and not one to be taken lightly. The airlines not only control the capacity of award seats, but of course can change the minimum number of miles required (pricing) for award travel at any time.  This year alone most U.S. airline frequent flyer programs have seen huge devaluations in earning potential (now revenue-based instead of mileage-based), in mileage required per leg, and in just plain award seat availability.  On top of that, award charts have become opaque or simply hidden entirely (e.g., Delta Airlines).

Speaking for myself, even after undertaking this analysis, I decided against purchasing any miles due to the sheer number of uncertainties over which I have no control.

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