Needing to buy a flight from New York to Vienna recently, I first looked at a variety of paid options including one-way economy class tickets with Turkish Airlines and TAP Portugal. After spending some time searching for flights, though, I remembered that LifeMiles is having a sale right now and decided to take a look at whether there was any availability through the program.
Sure enough, Austrian’s non-stop flight was available for my preferred date and so I decided to buy the miles. While I bought Alaska miles and Avios in the past, this was my first time buying LifeMiles. Below’s my experience and most of what you should need to know before buying LifeMiles.
What Are LifeMiles?
LifeMiles is the mileage program used by Avianca, a group of airlines in Latin America including Colombia’s flagship carrier. That does not, however, mean that you need to travel to, from, or within that region to be able to benefit from buying LifeMiles.
That’s because Avianca is a member of Star Alliance and you can use LifeMiles to book flights with other Star Alliance airlines like Lufthansa, ANA, United, and so on.
On top of that, LifeMiles often runs promotions where it sells miles with a significant bonus. Naturally, it’s at those times when buying LifeMiles makes the most sense. In fact, buying these (and other) miles rarely makes sense when they are sold at their full retail price.
How Much Do LifeMiles Cost and How Many Can You Buy?
When there is no sale going on, you can buy LifeMiles for $33 per 1,000 miles, i.e. at 3.3 cents per mile. That said, several times a year, LifeMiles runs promotions in which it offers a bonus on purchased miles.
During these promotions, the bonus is tiered depending on how many miles you buy and typically maxes out at around 150% (i.e. for every mile you buy you get a mile and a half extra). With the current promotion, the maximum bonus is 145%. The tiers and their respective cost per mile are as follows:
- 1,000 – 20,000 miles: 125% bonus -> 1.47 cents per mile
- 21,000 – 50,000 miles: 135% bonus -> 1.40 cents per mile
- 51,000 – 200,000 miles: 145% bonus -> 1.35 cents per mile
Normally, you can buy up to 200,000 LifeMiles per calendar year including any bonuses.
That said, you can register using One Mile at a Time’s link to get a higher bonus (up to 150% in this case) and to be able to buy up to 200,000 miles before any bonuses (up to 500,000 miles in total).
What Can You Use LifeMiles For?
As mentioned earlier, in addition to booking Avianca flights, use can use LifeMiles to book flights with other Star Alliance airlines. In fact, chances are that if you are buying LifeMiles you will not be using them on Avianca flights.
In my case, I bought 58,750 miles for $825 to book an Austrian Airlines business class flight from New York to Vienna. In addition to the miles, I also had to pay about $50 in taxes and fees.
In other words, buying the miles allowed me to get a one-way long-haul business class ticket for $875. That’s about $375 more than the cheapest one-way economy class flight on the route was. I found the premium reasonable considering the ticket is in business class and non-stop. On a side note, the same flight as the one I booked cost $1,500 in economy.
Aside from that, a popular use of LifeMiles – and one I hope to try in the not so distant future – is to redeem 87,000 miles for a Lufthansa first class flight between the US and Europe.
Actually, long-haul business and first class awards in general tend to offer good value (still considerably more expensive than buying a cheap economy class ticket, though). That said, you might also find some value in booking shorter flights which would otherwise be very expensive if bought as a normal cash ticket.
All in all, I recommend you create an account on LifeMiles and play around with the search engine a bit. By taking the required mileage amounts your searches will yield and multiplying them by the per-mile cost, you will get an idea of how much your desired ticket would cost.
Once you know that, it should be fairly easy to decide whether it makes sense to buy miles to use for the ticket or not.
How to Buy LifeMiles
Buying LifeMiles is very simple. All you need to do is create a LifeMiles account if you do not have one, register for the One Mile at a Time promotion if you want the extra bonus, and then go to the “Buy Miles” section of the program’s website.
There, unless you want one of the preset amounts of miles, click on “Choose an amount” and type in the number of miles (in thousands) that you want to buy. The thing to keep in mind is that the amount you enter at this point is exclusive of the bonus miles.
The total number of miles you will receive will show up in the next “Payment” step. Here, you will need to provide your payment information and confirm your purchase.
What’s worth noting here is that you will not be able to proceed unless all of the required fields are filled out. However, because of the way the form is set up, you will have a problem with this unless you live in the United States or in some other country with 5-digit postal codes.
To “fix” this problem, simply put “00000” into the postal code field and you should be able to proceed with the purchase without any problems.
How Long Do Purchased LifeMiles Take to Post?
While most people report having their purchased LifeMiles posted to their account instantly, there are also people on FlyerTalk saying they had to wait anywhere from forty minutes all the way to a couple of days. In my case, the miles took between four and five hours to post.
Before the miles were posted, I reached out to LifeMiles via Twitter and was told that “once you bought miles, the system is updated in 24 hours after the transaction, so we recommend that you wait until tomorrow.” When The Points Guy asked a similar question but related to credit card point transfers, the answer they got was “account balances might not update until around midnight El Salvador time.”
Considering that my balance was updated sometime between midnight and 1AM El Salvador time and the answer that The Points Guy got, it might be reasonable to assume that if your miles do not post right away then they will likely post past midnight El Salvador time.
5 Things to Be Aware of When Buying LifeMiles
While buying LifeMiles can certainly provide great value, there are also some downsides to keep in mind. That’s especially the case if you haven’t used the strategy of buying miles before.
#1: Award Availability Can Be Limited
To plan travel using miles, a certain degree of flexibility is needed. That’s mainly because award availability can be quite limited depending on the time and route you need to travel and the class you want to travel in. Just as an example, business class availability on flights between Japan and Europe is abysmal right now.
As award availability can come and go, it is important to keep checking regularly even if the first time you search doesn’t yield any results. It’s also important to be flexible to an extent – to be willing to take longer one-stop routes or to fly to other nearby cities and make separate travel arrangements from there.
In the case of LifeMiles, the availability in some cases might be worse than through other Star Alliance programs too – some airlines restrict their flight’s availability to select partners.
#2: Miles Lose Value Over Time
In theory, you could buy 50,000 miles for a flight that costs 50,000 miles today, and next week that same flight could cost 100,000 miles. While extreme changes like that are uncommon, over the long term, award tickets tend to go up in price.
As such, in general, you shouldn’t plan on buying miles just to keep them sitting in your account for an unknown period of time. The longer you let them sit there, the more likely it is that they will lose value relative to the value they had when you bought them. Instead, as much as possible, you should be buying miles with an immediate or a relatively near-term use in mind.
In my case, I bought 58,750 miles and spent 58,000 of those as soon as they were posted in my account.
#3: The Miles You Buy Might Not Post Right Away
As mentioned earlier in the article, while LifeMiles tend to post instantly, that is not always the case. While rare, they might even take a few days to post. Keep that in mind when buying miles for relatively immediate use.
If you need to depart in a couple of days, there is a small but non-zero chance that you might not get your miles in time to book your flight. In other cases, by the time your miles post to your account, the flight that you were planning to book using them might be gone.
In most cases, you will not encounter this problem, but it is worth keeping in mind depending on your situation.
#4: The Flight You See As “Available” Might Not Be Available
While not limited to Avianca’s LifeMiles, there are numerous reports of people seeing “phantom availability” through the program’s booking tool. What that means is that your search for a flight will yield results, however, the found flight(s) end up being unbookable.
This can be problematic if you find your flight, then buy the miles, and then realize that the flight is not bookable. Since LifeMiles (or any other company for that matter) will not refund your purchased miles, make sure that you have some alternative uses for your miles in case the flight you want to book with them is actually unavailable.
#5: LifeMiles Charges High Cancellation/Change Fees
Unlike some other programs, canceling and changing tickets booked with LifeMiles costs money.
To make a change, you will need to pay $150. To cancel your ticket, depending on the flight you booked, you will have to pay between $50 (short-haul economy) and $200 (long-haul business/first). Additionally, you will be forfeiting a $25 booking fee which LifeMiles charges on all award flights.
The other slight annoyance is that changes can only be made via phone.
How to Book a Flight Using LifeMiles
Booking flights using LifeMiles is simple. Simply go to the website, log-in, go to the “Travel” section and search for your flights. Once you find an itinerary that suits you, make sure you have enough miles in your account, click on the flight/class you want to take, and go through the process on the screen.
Just like when buying miles, you will need to fill out all the required fields including postal code and “personal identification number” (PIN). As it is impossible to proceed without filling these out, I put “00000” in the postal code field and “0000” in the PIN field. The booking was finalized without any issues.
Summary: Should You Buy LifeMiles?
In my case, buying LifeMiles was an easy decision as Austrian business class has been on my wishlist for quite some time and – needing to fly from New York to Vienna – LifeMiles offered a decently priced way to do so. Similarly, if you have some very specific premium class flight you want to take, buying LifeMiles can be a great option for doing so.
However, if you are not sure what you will use the miles for in the relatively near term, then do not buy them. With award availability being sometimes difficult to come by and miles losing value over time, you don’t want too many unused miles sitting in your account, (almost) no matter how cheap they were to buy. Plus, the sales are quite frequent anyways, so there is generally no need to rush.