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United Wiped Out a Lifetime of Miles, What Can I Do?

Welcome to the Today in Travel Question of the Week. As always, you can submit a query below or via email.

Dear Carl,

I have not flown much lately (post 9/11). I am now nearing my retirement “frequent flyer” years. I went to check my frequent flyer miles with United and found that they have been zeroed out. They are still listed as “lifetime” miles but they will not allow me to redeem them. Apparently they changed their policy back in 2007 but did not notify me of the change. Is there any way I can get these miles reinstated? It took a lifetime to accumulate them.

-Post 9/11 Flyer

Dear Post 9/11 Flyer,

United did indeed change its mileage expiration policy back in 2007—January 19 of that year, to be exact, though the rule didn’t take effect immediately. Previously, the airline expired miles after three years of inactivity, but changed the restriction to 18 months, which is now more or less in line with the industry standard. At some point you passed this threshold, so United nixed your miles.

And, unfortunately, this leaves you in a very uncomfortable position, as expired miles are both difficult and expensive to reinstate. I put your question before our resident frequent-flyer expert, Tim Winship, who said:
“You have two options: 1) throw yourself on United’s mercy and request that they restore your miles as a gesture of goodwill; or 2) pay $0.0125 per mile, plus a $25 processing fee, to have the miles reinstated. Obviously, you should try the first approach before even considering the second.”

While no one would be quick to label any airline as compassionate, your lifelong loyalty to (and business with) United may be enough to coax some generosity from a customer service rep or manager. If you call the carrier and politely explain your situation, there’s a chance, albeit slim, that United will help you out.

Realistically, it looks like you’ll have to fork over a sizable chunk of change to get those miles back. I can’t imagine how many miles a lifelong frequent flyer accumulates, but clearly you have a difficult choice to make regarding how much these miles are worth to you.

And while I’m sure you’re feeling a lot of frustration right now, understand that United’s program—and your predicament— is hardly unique. US Airways also has an 18-month rule, while Delta SkyMiles and Southwest Rapid Rewards credits expire after two years of inactivity. JetBlue TrueBlue points expire after a year.

The problem, you see, isn’t with individual carriers as much as with the frequent-flyer business overall. The last few years have seen tightening restrictions amid increased fees and decreased award availability, all of which combines to both devalue members’ miles and the programs themselves. Sure, the industry as a whole is comprised of carriers that make their own decisions, but few have stood against the general swell of customer-unfriendly business decisions. (As a rare example, Continental OnePass miles do not expire.) United’s expiration policy, and your predicament, is as much an indictment of the entire frequent-flyer industry as of United itself.

Have a similar experience you want to share, or tips that might be useful? Leave a comment below, and as always, submit any questions of your own for future entries. Thanks!

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