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Reader Tim asked the following question in the Ask Lucky forum:
Sorry if this may seem like a stupid question, but is it possible to sell miles? I flew Emirates once but have no intention of flying them again, so rather than wasting them I was looking to see if selling them was an option. If so, where can I do so?
It’s a question I see posted all the time, because not everyone digs into the terms & conditions of programs to figure this stuff out. As a general rule of thumb, it’s not illegal to sell miles. That’s to say that there are no federal or state laws as such which would put you at risk if you’re selling miles.
That being said, selling miles violates the rules of virtually all frequent flyer programs. And it goes beyond that — any type of bartering violates the rules, no matter what consideration is provided. For example, here are the relevant terms of the American AAdvantage program:
At no time may AAdvantage mileage credit or award tickets be purchased, sold, advertised for sale or bartered (including but not limited to transferring, gifting, or promising mileage credit or award tickets in exchange for support of a certain business, product or charity and/or participation in an auction, sweepstakes, raffle or contest). Any such mileage or tickets are void if transferred for cash or other consideration. Violators (including any passenger who uses a purchased or bartered award ticket) may be liable for damages and litigation costs, including American Airlines attorneys’ fees incurred in enforcing this rule.
As you can see, even including miles as part of a charity raffle violates the terms of the program.
Can you get away with selling miles in practice?
The above are the rules, but in practice can you get away with selling miles? It’s not something I’d do because the stakes are too high, but I do think it’s a topic worth addressing in general. If you’re selling miles on Craiglist or to strangers, that’s extremely risky. Airlines monitor activity in accounts, so if you’re redeeming miles for many different people with last names or large quantities of miles for others, they may watch especially closely. They even sometimes respond to people on Craigslist so they can shut their accounts down. So doing something like that is high risk.
Of course there are other situations which violate the rules just as much, but are much lower risk. For example, if you book tickets for a sibling and they buy you dinner a dozen times to repay you for it, that’s going to be tough for the airline to crack down on. It violates the rules just as much, but it’s all a function of how discreet you are about it.
Again, I’d advocate against selling miles, but I still figured I’d address the questions people could have.
The ways you can legitimately transfer/trade miles
Airlines will typically let you pay to transfer miles between accounts, though it doesn’t represent a good value unless you’re trying to “top off” an account for the purpose of redeeming an award ticket. It typically costs about a cent per transferred mile, except you’re not actually generating any value, since the same number of miles will be in the other account. Furthermore, getting compensated in exchange for transferring miles would still violate the rules, so you’re not actually being anymore “legitimate.”
One thing worth noting is that you can legitimately trade miles between accounts through points.com. However, it will almost always represent a terrible value, as the exchange rates aren’t “fair.”
Why is that allowed? Because points.com provides the back end technology for many airlines’ systems for selling miles, and a huge amount of value is being taken away when you exchange them. As a result, what they’re doing doesn’t really pose a risk to airlines’ mileage programs.
Be more strategic about crediting miles
This is probably a “bigger picture” point, but I think it’s worth noting that there are ways for even non-frequent flyers to credit miles strategically. For example, Tim flew Emirates, and credited those miles to Emirates Skywards.
Instead he could have credited the miles to Alaska Mileage Plan, where he’d probably be able to much more easily rack up additional miles, given that they have a US credit card, shopping portal, and partner with American and Delta (meaning he could credit other domestic flights to Alaska).
Then when it comes times to redeem miles, he could redeem just 12,500 miles for a one-way ticket on American or Alaska within the lower 48 US, for example.
Not only does a program allow one to rack up more miles easily, but it also allows you to redeem economically at lower thresholds.
So even if you’re not a frequent flyer, always be strategic about where you credit your miles. You have lots of options, so try to credit to programs which are good for “pooling” points, perhaps from various airlines you only fly occasionally.
Other ways you can redeem miles
If you’re in a situation where you have a mileage account with a small number of miles and no specific need, keep in mind you can usually redeem miles for merchandise. While it wouldn’t be my first choice for redeeming miles, when you have a small balance which would otherwise expire, it’s worth exploring.
For example, with Skywards miles there’s the Emirates High Street catalogue, where you can redeem miles for merchandise. The values aren’t good, though it’s better than letting the miles expire.
It violates the rules of virtually every frequent flyer program to barter miles. That isn’t to say you’ll always get caught if you do it, but it’s high risk.
Instead I’d recommend focusing on earning miles in programs where you can “pool” points from all kinds of activities, and then redeem them for flights. But worst case scenario you can always redeem a small mileage balance for some merchandise.