5 simple ways to keep frequent flier miles from expiring

Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question Dear Cashing In,
How do you keep reward miles from expiring when you no longer have a credit card to create a transaction? -- Ron

Answer Dear Ron,
It's smart to pay attention to the expiration dates on your frequent flier accounts. With most airlines, your miles will expire and disappear if you have no activity in your frequent flier account for an established period of time, typically 18 to 36 months.

That's not a problem if you fly regularly or have a credit card tied to a frequent flier program. But if you have canceled the airline credit card and don't fly very often on the airline, you could easily hit the expiration date. A year-and-a-half can come and go pretty quickly. This is particularly true if you have frequent flier miles across several different airlines. You might receive an alert from the airline that your miles are on the verge of expiring, but you might not.

There are a number of ways you can keep your account active. They might take a bit of time to investigate, and maybe a bit of money. But investing some effort to preserve a cache of valuable frequent flier miles can make sense.

Remember, all you need to keep the account active is some kind of activity: an addition of miles or a reduction of miles. Because of the airlines' many promotional tie-ins and business partners, there are a lot of opportunities to do this besides flying and using a credit card.

1. Shop at the airline's online mall. Most have dozens if not hundreds of merchants, and all you need to do is register your frequent flier number and credit card. It does not have to be an airline card. When you complete a purchase, you earn miles, typically between one and five miles per $1 you spend. It might make sense to buy a gift or something you need for yourself this way. Or you could find something cheap, such as a $1 credit on iTunes.

2. Donate miles to charity. For instance, Delta's website lists 17 charities that will gladly accept your frequent flier miles, including the American Cancer Society, the Nature Conservancy and the Salvation Army. Each has a minimum donation of 1,000 miles.

3. Transfer miles to a friend or family member, though that's a little costly. United, for instance, charges $15 per 1,000 miles, plus a $20 "processing fee."

4. Join a dining program. Most airlines have programs where you register a credit card and your frequent flier number, and when you eat out at a certain restaurant, you earn miles. In some cases, you can earn miles just by signing up

If you read the fine print on all of these offers, you'll see that in just about all of them, the miles can take up to eight weeks to post. That means you shouldn't wait until the last minute to post activity to your account.

5. Use other partner services. There are plenty of other ways to rack up miles, too -- rental cars, hotels, newspapers, joining a gym, refinancing a house, taking online surveys. If you spend a few minutes looking around the airline's website, you'll probably find some opportunity to keep your account active.

If all else fails and your miles expire, many airlines will now graciously allow you to reactive them ... for a fee, of course. For instance, American Airlines charges $200 (plus tax) to reactivate up to 50,000 miles. For $600 you can reactivate more than 75,000 expired miles.

Good job paying attention to your account, Ron, so you won't have to fork over money to the airline to hang onto the miles you've earned.

See related: Best way to track all those reward points?, Using points when holiday award seats are full

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Updated: 03-19-2019