Tim Winship, editor-at-large for SmarterTravel.com and author of Mileage Pro—The Insider’s Guide to Frequent Flyer Programs.
There is no excuse for letting your frequent-flier miles depart without you. Although earned miles typically expire if there is no activity in your account for 18 to 24 months, it is easy to reset the clock without flying anywhere. You can do it by adding or redeeming a single point…using certain credit cards…donating to charity…and other ways that few people know to use. Here are smart ways to keep your miles active when they are approaching their expiration date…
Join an airline dining rewards program—and agree to receive e-mails. Dining for miles is an easy way to earn and extend miles. You can register any credit card for free with your airline’s dining rewards program—not only mileage cards that earn you points for purchases. Either go to the airline’s home page and search for “dining rewards” or search online for the airline name and “dining rewards program.” Once you join, many major airlines, including Delta, United and Southwest, let you earn at least one mile for every $2 you spend at participating restaurants, while American Airlines lets you earn at least one mile for every $1 spent. (If you have a mileage credit card, registering it for a dining program can get you double credit—points for eating at the participating restaurant…and points for charging the meal to your mileage card.) Even a cup of coffee should be enough to extend your miles.
If you participate in more than one frequent-flier program, link a different credit card to each one’s dining rewards program. This approach will let you extend all your miles on different airlines by using different registered credit cards at different times at various participating restaurants.
Even better: If you agree to receive e-mails from your dining program, you typically will earn three miles for every $1 you spend at participating restaurants—well worth a little in-box clutter. You also can receive bonus miles when you join a dining program, although in some cases you may be required to write short reviews of the first several restaurants you visit to qualify for the bonus. And on the biggest major US airlines, if you attain VIP status, which requires at least 12 dining transactions in a calendar year, you get five miles for every $1 spent.
Caution: Check each restaurant’s policy on your airline’s dining rewards site. Many restaurants do not offer rewards on certain days of the week.
Make a purchase through the airline’s shopping portal. Shopping at an online “mileage mall”—a store where you earn points for every dollar you spend purchasing products from hundreds of retailers—extends the expiration date for your existing miles. If you prefer shopping in a brick-and-mortar store, you can extend your miles by buying a gift card in an online mileage mall from, say, Target or Bloomingdale’s or another retailer and using it later. (Note: Most mileage-mall retailers won’t let you buy a gift card and then spend it at the online mall.)
Book your next overnight trip directly with a partner hotel. Most major hotel chains will offer you airline miles for your stay, which extends the expiration date of your existing miles—but only if you book directly with the hotel. If you book through a third party, such as Expedia.com or Travelocity.com, most chains won’t award points. Exception: If you book through RocketMiles.com, which mostly represents independent hotels, you can earn points. In fact, for most small, independent hotels, you need to book through this service to get points for your stay.
Helpful: Although some frequent-flier programs may allow you to convert your existing hotel points to miles—thus extending the expiration date of your entire airline-miles balance—it is rarely a good idea. The points-to-miles exchange rate usually is unattractive, for example, costing you about five hotel points for one mile. Sometimes, however, airlines offer exchange bonuses that can make a conversion a compelling option to extend miles or can push you over the top to a free flight.
Use the best points-earning credit card. If you tend to fly on one airline, get a co-branded credit card that earns points on that airline. Every time you charge something on the card, it extends your miles, and you even might get a bonus when obtaining the card. For instance, if you prefer American Airlines, you can sign up for a Citi AAdvantage card that typically offers a sign-up bonus (recently 60,000 miles) with a qualifying amount of purchases (recently $3,000) within the first three months. And those purchases are doing double-duty by also extending the expiration date of your existing miles.
If you tend to use various airlines, you can sign up for a credit card that lets you earn miles and transfer them to any of a number of participating airline points programs. When you transfer the miles, it extends the expiration date in that program. A good card to consider: Chase Sapphire Preferred. Besides the recent sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles after $4,000 in qualifying purchases in the first three months, there is no annual fee the first year ($95 thereafter), and you can transfer points to about a dozen different airline frequent-flier programs. (For more advice, see “An Insider’s Tricks to Using Frequent-Flier Miles”).
Helpful: Since most children don’t have credit cards, it’s harder to keep their miles active. But once you open a credit card account with Chase, you can add your children (no minimum age) as authorized users for no fee. You will remain the primary cardholder responsible for the bill, but now you can transfer points you earn from purchases with that card to their plans, which extends the expiration date of their existing miles. Unlike transferring miles through your airline program, there’s no fee and you don’t lose points in the exchange.
Donate your miles to a good cause. Earning miles isn’t the only way to keep your miles active. You also can give some to a charitable organization such as the American Cancer Society or the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Most airlines require you to give at least 500 to 1,000 miles at a time, but doing so keeps the rest of your miles alive while supporting good causes. Note: Donated miles are not tax-deductible.
Another charitable option: Some airlines offer limited-time opportunities to extend your mileage expiration dates by making donations of as little as $1 to various charities, typically in response to an e-mail request sent to you or a promotion featured at an airline’s online shopping portal.
When you need household services, check your airline’s list of mileage-plan vendors. Glance through your airline’s list of partners ranging from home-energy companies to florists. You likely will find that any purchase or service you need could net you new miles and extend the ones you already have. As long as the price is reasonable and the service is high-quality, that’s a win-win.