While there's a burgeoning branch of the frequent flier family that grumpily mutters "Good riddance" when their miles expire, they're still a small if vocal minority. For most, the loss of frequent flier miles is emotionally equivalent to losing a wad of cash. Or to having their pockets picked.
Paradoxically, while it's easier than ever to lose one's miles to more stringent expiration rules, it's also easier than ever to keep them alive.
The Evolving Life of Miles
There was a time when the world of expiring miles divided neatly between the legacy airlines and the low-cost carriers. Expensive miles, you might say, lived longer than cheap miles.
The standard policy among the full-service carrier programs was that miles expired after three years, unless there was account activity — either earning or burning — in which case the miles were extended for another three years. In stark contrast, the discount carriers, led by Southwest, took a harsher line: Miles expired after just 12 months and could not be extended. In other words, use 'em or lose 'em.
But since the summer of 2007, when the mainline carriers tightened up their rules, the two factions have moved toward common ground in the middle. The legacies now require activity every 18 to 24 months. And at least two of the low-cost carriers, Southwest and JetBlue, have distanced themselves somewhat from their original consumer-unfriendly policies.
Today, a Policy Smorgasbord
For simplicity's sake, it's often said that the new industry standard is that miles expire after 18 to 24 months if the member has no account activity during that time. In the main, that's accurate. But the details and exceptions belie any attempt at generalizing.
For example, AeroMexico's 24-month policy also might appear of a piece with other airlines'. But where most airlines will prolong the life of miles if there is any activity — miles earned or redeemed, for anything — Club Premier miles will only be extended if the member completes a paid AeroMexico flight.
Southwest credits in its Rapid Rewards program expire after 24 months, but unlike other airlines, Southwest's credits cannot be extended by new account activity. Expiration is terminal.
AirTran has different expiration schedules for its base members (12 months) and members who have earned elite status or hold an A+ Visa credit card (24 months).
Midwest finds itself alone among the larger U.S. carriers with a three-year expiry rule. But that policy is due for an update — the company recently announced that, effective next year, its miles will disappear after two years.
So, surface similarities notwithstanding, expiration rules often differ in important respects (see below for a summary of 18 airlines' expiration policies). And they're in constant flux. Which brings us to the first rule of miles…
Know Thy Program
Do you know the expiration rule governing the program you participate in? And, as important, do you know when the miles in your account will expire?
With the answers to those two questions in hand, members of programs with extendable miles are solidly positioned to keep their miles alive indefinitely. Because in the great majority of cases, all it takes is a single transaction that either increases or decreases the member's account balance to reset the expiration clock.