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Am I Going to Lose My Miles?

A reader who apparently doesn’t fly very frequently recently asked about assuring that her miles won’t expire before she can use them:

“I am holding onto a bit more than 50,000 miles [and] hoping to fly to England this summer. Can you tell me if and when United is going to decrease or eliminate accumulated miles?”

The short answer is, “United could cancel all your miles if your last use of United miles was more than 18 months ago, but it wouldn’t cancel just some of them.”

Three Basic Rules

Three basic rules govern the frequent flyer programs of all the large and mid-size legacy airlines: Alaska, American, Continental, Delta, Hawaiian, Northwest, United, and US Airways:

1. As long as your account remains active, miles never expire, no matter how long ago you earned them, but…

2. If your account remains inactive—no additions or withdrawals—for a specified period of time, the airline “reserves the right” to cancel your entire account. Apparently, for most travelers, airlines exercise that right routinely, but…

3. At any time before your miles expire, you can “reset the meter” to start the expiration count back to zero on all the miles in your account by earning or using credit at very low cost.

Southwest, as usual, marches to its own drumbeat, as do the several recent startup lines.

Time Limits

Time limits for account validity on the legacy lines range from 18 months to three years, with 18 months apparently being the standard.

Resetting the Meter

Some legacy lines renew your account and keep it active—resetting the inactivity clock to the full limit—whenever you add miles to your account:

  • Fly on the sponsoring line or a partner line (if you make sure to specify that the flight be credited to your account with the sponsoring line.)
  • Accrue miles through a credit card affiliated with the airline’s program or transfer miles from your AmEx or Diners Club account into the airline’s account. However, you cannot transfer “miles” you earn on a bank-sponsored reward program that way.
  • Earn miles through purchases from a partner hotel, rental car company, merchant, or other service provider that participates in the sponsoring line’s program.
  • Buy miles to add to your account or transfer miles from someone else’s account—although the fees for purchasing or transferring miles are generally exceed the value of those miles.

All legacy lines also reset the meter when you use (or “redeem”) miles:

  • Use miles for a trip or an upgrade
  • Purchase something through partner suppliers
  • Use miles to buy a magazine subscription or donate miles to a charity

Individual Airline Rules

The following information is based on each line’s official program rules, as posted on their websites. In some cases, posted rules may not be fully describe current practice; check with your airline(s) for additional details. In the event that you don’t earn miles any other way, I show each line’s least expensive way to keep your account active.

  • Alaska: Time limit: 2 years; reset the meter: account “activity”; least expensive reset: donate miles to a charity
  • American: Time limit: 18 months; reset the meter: “earning or redeeming”; least expensive reset: subscribe to a magazine (400 miles and up)
  • Continental: Time limit: 18 months; reset the meter: “earn mileage” (Continental has no buy miles offer); cheapest reset: transfer from AmEx or Diners Club, or purchase from a partner
  • Delta: Time limit: 2 years; reset the meter: “earn,” “buy,” or “redeem with partner”; cheapest reset: transfer miles from AmEx or Diners Club, buy something from partner
  • Hawaiian: Time limit: 18 months; reset: “earn”; cheapest reset: buy from HawiianMiles Mall or buy 500 miles for $13
  • Northwest (Within the next year, Delta will fully fold Northwest’s program into its own SkyMiles program, and Delta rules will likely prevail): Time limit: 3 years; reset: “earning or redemption”; cheapest reset: donate miles to charity
  • United: Time limit: 18 months; reset: “account activity”; cheapest reset: donate miles, buy $25 dining certificate for 1,000 miles
  • US Airways: Time limit: 18 months; reset: “earn or redeem”; cheapest reset: subscribe to a magazine, donate miles

Other Airlines

On Southwest, you earn one credit for each one-way flight. As soon as you accumulate 16 credits within a 24-month period, Southwest deposits a round-trip “standard” award into your account, and that award expires if not used within the following 24 months, with no extensions.

If you’re involved in a smaller-line or foreign-line program, check that program’s rules for specifics on expiration and resetting. In general, most foreign lines are less generous than the big U.S. lines.

Protecting Your Account

Clearly, if you have and use an airline’s co-branded credit card, you reset your account at each credit card billing cycle when the miles you earned on card purchases get deposited in your account.

If you don’t have any automatic or regular earning options, you should keep track of your account. Unless you have a trivial amount of miles to protect, make sure you do something to reset the meter on your expiration date. Most lines let you buy miles, and some allow you to “reinstate” lost miles for a fee, but those options are pretty expensive, and you can usually find a much cheaper way to keep your account going.

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