Don't Let Your Frequent Flier Miles Expire

Today, with the wealth of options available for both earning and redeeming miles, it's easier than ever to move the mileage needle. Buy a T-shirt online at Gap.com, or one of the hundreds of other online retailers that participate in the airlines' mileage malls. Redeem as few as 400 miles for a magazine subscription. Or buy 1,000 miles (the typical minimum purchase) for around 3 cents apiece.

Keeping Miles Alive

A few other mileage do's and don'ts:

Perhaps the most reliable way to keep miles alive is by using the credit card affiliated with the program. Link the card to a recurring auto-payment and the life of your miles will be extended month by month, indefinitely.

More generally, it's much easier to stay abreast of impending expiration dates if you focus your loyalty program participation on a single scheme that best complements your travel and consumption behavior. (That approach also gives you the best chance of reaching award thresholds, and earning elite status.)

If frequent flier awards are a priority, don't participate in a program that irrevocably terminates miles sooner than you can reasonably expect to reach an award threshold. In Southwest's program, for instance, if you don't earn 16 credits within 24 months, the first-earned credits will begin disappearing and you'll never have enough credits to earn an award ticket. For an infrequent flier, that makes the Rapid Rewards program a Sisyphean scheme.

Hello, Your Miles Will Expire on ...

It may come as a surprise to many whose miles have suddenly disappeared, but most airlines do attempt to alert program members when their miles are in danger of expiring — in spite of their clear vested interest in terminating as many miles as possible.

When miles expire, the airlines benefit in two ways. First, from an accounting standpoint, it reduces their outstanding liability. And second, if the member pays to reactivate his miles (see below), the airline benefits from the added revenue.

On the other hand, with their sophisticated computer systems and robust databases, and the negligible cost of e-mail communications, airlines would clearly be on the wrong side of fairness and decency if they failed to at least issue an e-mail alert when a member's miles were within a month of expiring.

And so they do. Of the 14 North American airlines that responded to my request to describe their expiration alert procedures, all but one — Southwest — reported that they routinely advise members of upcoming expiration dates, typically by e-mail 90 days in advance.

It's not enough for the airlines to do their part, however; members of their programs must do theirs as well.

Where mileage longevity is concerned, that means two things: keeping a valid e-mail address in their account profiles; and taking the time to read program-related e-mail notices.

Pay to Play

Your miles expired? In a number of programs, they can be resuscitated. For a price, naturally.

As with the expiry rules, the reactivation fees are all over the board.

United charges 1.25 cents per reactivated mile, plus a $25 processing fee. That's $337.50 for 25,000 miles — enough for a round-trip domestic coach ticket. Since that's about what the average paid domestic ticket costs, it's hard to financially justify paying that much for an award ticket hobbled with capacity controls. And it's an emotional stretch as well, since the fees are in addition to whatever costs were incurred to earn the miles in the first place.

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