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Too sick to use ticket bought with frequent flier miles? Your options

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Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Cathleen McCarthy
Cathleen McCarthy is a journalist whose articles on travel, commerce and consumer topics have appeared in dozens of publications. She writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Cashing In,
I had planned a flight on American Airlines to London to see my sister -- who moved there a few years ago -- and I used frequent flier miles to get the ticket. Problem is that I've had some health issues lately, and I'm a little concerned that I may not be able to go. Here's my question: If I have to cancel, will I be able to get my miles back? -- Hannah

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Hannah,
You're much better off in this situation than you would have been if you'd purchased your ticket with cash. In that case, American Airlines would have charged a change fee ranging from $200 to $275 (depending on the fare) to reschedule. If you bought a nonrefundable ticket and had to cancel altogether, you'd be out the price of the flight. You used to be able to get a refund if you canceled for medical reasons, providing you could produce a doctor's note, but the airline has since dispensed with its medical waiver program.

Paying for it with a credit card might have brought some extra protection via trip cancellation insurance. However, not all cards offer that service, and programs can vary widely.

Luckily for you, your flight was purchased with award miles, which not only saves cash upfront, it buys flexibility. You have two options if you have to cancel your flight. Either one beats losing the award miles it takes to book an international flight.

Since you used miles to book your flight, the most you'll be out is the reinstatement fee American Airlines charges to return those miles to your account. If you have to cancel your travel plans altogether -- and it sounds like you might -- you can get your miles back into your rewards account for a $150 fee.

You have a second option to consider: putting your flight on hold for awhile and giving yourself a chance to get better. It doesn't cost anything to do that. Just call and request a rain check. American will put an award flight on hold for a year from the date the ticket was originally purchased. As long as you follow the same route -- say, Chicago to Newark to London Gatwick -- the airline will keep an open reservation on the books that you can reschedule within 12 months.

Who knows? You may be feeling chipper again come spring and ready to stroll the streets of London with your sister. If you decide you can't make it, you have a year to pay the reinstatement fee and get your miles back.

That's a good option if you and your sister are both flexible about travel dates and times -- and assuming you can land the same deal. If the fare goes up, the available award seating will probably go down, driving up the number of miles required to book it. So there is a chance that you'll have to make up the difference either in miles or cash. If the right deal doesn't come along, you can always opt to pay the fee and get your miles back, but a visit to London seems worth buying yourself a little time.

I hope you can make the trip, but either way, you won't be out more than $150 and you won't lose any of your miles. That's good news.

See related: Credit card perks you didn't know you had, Cashing in miles? Be sure it's worth it

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Published: September 17, 2011


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