Don’t let hard-earned miles go to waste. Airline financial folks begin to salivate when they see a pile of miles about to expire. You see, airlines carry a liability on their balance sheet for outstanding miles that are not being used. At any time, you could choose to redeem those miles and that would come at a cost (real or opportunity) to the airline.
That’s why expiration policies are in place. They retire the liability that airlines might carry needlessly from people who may not plan to (or forget to) use their miles.
If American, Hawaiian, and United Airlines accounts have no activity for 18 months, miles will expire. Alaska requires some form of activity within 24 months, while Southwest specifically mentions fliers must earn points by flying within 24 months to remain active. Air Canada is less generous; Aeroplan accounts expire after 12 months of zero activity, and Avios (British Airways and Iberia) points expire after 36 months of no activity. Delta and JetBlue miles never expire—although they reserve the right to close an account if a member does not respond after repeated communication.
Heaven forbid someone passes away, an airline can close a mileage account. But how would the airline know that? If family members have the mileage number and password, they can continue to redeem miles in someone else’s name.
If your account has already expired, some airlines see dollar signs and will let you buy back the miles that were once yours for a fee, which is almost certainly a bad deal unless you have an expensive trip to buy with miles in mind.
Here are 10 ideas to keep your miles from biting the dust in the first place.
1. Use a service to monitor them
Award Wallet will monitor your accounts for free and notify you when expiration is near. This is a great way to stay organized if you have multiple accounts.
2. Book an award or paid ticket
By redeeming miles on an award ticket or buying a ticket to earn miles, you reset the expiration calendar to the last date of activity. Don’t forget about airline alliance partners, which also count toward extending the deadline.
3. Stock up your magazine rack
Almost all domestic airlines participate in a free magazine or newspaper subscription program that allows you to use miles to get publications mailed to your home. They include popular titles like Time, People, The Economist, and the Wall Street Journal. Enter your frequent flier account information to see which publications are available in exchange for your miles. Some are as cheap as 400 miles. Don’t worry, when the subscription expires, the publication sends you a notice asking if you want to renew. Simply ignore it or sign up again using miles.
4. Donate miles to charity
Airlines like to be good citizens, and sometimes they do that at your expense. Look on the airline’s website for the option to donate miles to charity. This counts as activity on your account, which helps you, but also helps others in need. If you don’t have enough miles for an award or even a magazine subscription, sharing them with a charity is a saintly alternative.
5. Transfer or buy miles
Many airlines allow you to transfer miles to a hotel loyalty program account or another member for a fee. Even mobbing one mile would count as activity to reset your mileage balance clock. The best idea is to transfer miles from credit card programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards, which has no cost. Airlines also sell miles, and if you’re in a bind, this is perhaps the fastest way to restore your mileage expiration clock.
6. Get hungry
Through Thanks Again, many frequent flier programs partner with restaurants and retailers to award between 3 and 10 miles per dollar spent. This is one of those no-brainer opportunities that every frequent flier (or even infrequent flier) should be using. Simply register your credit card to start earning miles automatically whenever you dine or shop.
7. Shop ’til you drop
Speaking of shopping, you don’t even have to get out of bed to earn miles. If you are ever in danger of losing your miles, using an airline’s online shopping portal should do the trick, even as you lounge in bed.
8. Drive instead of fly
Rental car companies partner with airlines to provide a handful of miles when you rent a car. Pay attention to airline and car rental websites, which have frequent bonus offers. Sure, the car rental company levies a surcharge (typically just a buck), but it is worth it if you need to rent a car.
9. Invest in the market
Fidelity and TD Ameritrade are two online brokers that frequently provide bonus miles to those who make big investments via their services. This option may not be the most practical way to keep miles up and running, but if you like to invest online, it’s worth a look.
10. Audit your accounts annually
These are just some of the ways to earn miles and extend the life of your mileage balance. Airlines want to know that you are still engaged in their program, which is why they have these restrictions, and they make money each time one of their partners buys miles from their program. You can’t take a free dream vacation without miles, so it’s wise to check your account balances at least once a year to keep tabs on them.
Ramsey Qubein Ramsey Qubein is a freelance travel journalist covering hotels, cruises, airlines, and loyalty programs from around the globe.