Many airline loyalty programs today have one of two approaches toward keeping miles valid for redemption. Some say that miles have a fixed expiration date, no matter what you do. Others say the miles will remain active indefinitely as long as you have an “active” account.
You don’t necessarily have to travel or even redeem any of your miles. You could take a few measures to keep your miles active without even thinking about it. There are even ways to take emergency action and keep your miles active shortly before they are about to expire.
What is Account Activity?
In general, any type of activity on your account that results in a credit or debit to the balance of your miles will prevent them from expiring. That doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot on a ticket. Using a few hundred miles for non-travel redemption or earning just one mile with a travel credit card will often qualify as “activity.” You should be concerned with finding methods that don’t require a radical change in your behavior or have very low cost.
However, a few programs do operate differently. Flying Blue, the loyalty program for Air France and KLM, specifically requires a qualifying flight to extend your miles’ validity. Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer program and Cathay Pacific Asia Miles allow miles to expire on a rolling basis 36 months after they’re earned rather than all at once — but you can extend them for a fee. Be sure to brush up on the policies of your program before resorting to the methods below.
Use an Airline Credit Card
By far the easiest way to keep miles from expiring is to use an airline credit card. That’s why you’ll often see these cards advertised with the tag line “your miles will never expire.” In fact, they can still expire if the credit card just goes into your sock drawer. The small print usually says that the miles won’t expire as long as you continue to use the card to make purchases.
Such purchases can be as little as a $2 coffee from your local Starbucks. Two miles will post to your airline account after you pay the credit card bill, and the expiration of your miles will be postponed yet again.
Purchase Something Online
Many airlines — including United Airlines, Delta Airlines and American Airlines — have online shopping malls. Start your online shopping journey there and you’ll be redirected to the same merchant website that you would probably use anyway. However, you’ll be eligible to earn miles for the purchase, usually between one and five miles per dollar. Limited time promotions may offer even more.
These miles can take time before they post to your account, so if you’re in a hurry they are not the best approach. However, when used regularly they can delay your miles’ expiration with no extra cost (unlike the annual fees of a credit card). Online prices are typically no higher, and some merchants even allow you to buy online and pick up in-store.
Buy a Magazine or Newspaper Subscription
If an airline doesn’t have an online shopping mall (Alaska Airlines is one example), it might still offer the chance to redeem or earn miles by subscribing to various magazines and newspapers. United Airlines even has its own digital media store.
For anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand miles you can avoid paying cash for your favorite content. And if you can’t find anything to your taste, think about buying a gift subscription for someone else.
Use Your Miles to Book an Award
You wouldn’t have to worry about your miles expiring if you actually used them to book an award. Right?
Of course you probably have a goal in mind, and that goal might require earning more miles than you already have. But if your miles are at risk of expiring then that also suggests you haven’t made much progress lately. Also consider that most loyalty programs go through devaluations every two or three years. Your miles could be lose value if you wait too long.
Redeeming your miles, even just some of them, to book an award will help keep the rest of them active. Take this time to re-evaluate your travel goals. You might already have enough to visit a relative or friend.
Travel with Airline and Hotel Partners
Most people don’t use all of their vacation days. If your miles are expiring, take that as a sign that you need to make more effort to travel. It doesn’t need to be an expensive trip. Book a flight on sale to a nearby city and get away for the weekend.
If you already have upcoming travel planned, take a look to see if that airline partners with the program where your miles are about to expire. You may have the option of applying the miles to the partner airline’s program. Maybe you don’t need or want a few thousand miles with an airline that you rarely fly. Hotel and car rental partners are the same — instead of a few points with that company’s loyalty program you can usually choose to receive airline miles instead. Such credits usually count as qualifying activity to keep the entire balance from expiring.
Research Past Trips
If you have taken any trips in the past 6-12 months and didn’t submit them to a loyalty program, you can usually request retroactive credit. This is similar to the previous point, but avoids the need to make any new purchases.
Be sure to have the confirmation number, date of travel, and flight number available to give to the telephone representative (online forms are also available on most airline websites). Some airlines like to know the exact ticket number, which may be found on a printed boarding pass or the original receipt.
As a last resort, consider purchasing miles from the airline. This is rarely cheap, as most programs require a minimum purchase of 1,000 miles for no less than $20. There may even be processing fees and taxes on top of that. American Airlines is particularly egregious — 1,000 miles will cost over $60 when all is said and done. However, most airlines tend to post miles quickly to your account, which is helpful if you’ve left things until the last minute. You may need a few miles anyway in order to book that award ticket to Hawaii.