You don’t have to use your mileage program for flights to preserve your miles. (Photo: Thinkstock)
By George Hobica
A couple of years ago I got a nasty surprise: my hard-earned JetBlue miles had “expired” because of “inactivity” in my account. JetBlue miles no longer expire, but this happens to thousands of people every year, usually with no warning.
Keeping track of airlines’ policies concerning the expiration of frequent flier miles is a full-time job. And while Delta Air Lines and JetBlue miles don’t expire, at least for now (that is, unless the member expires first (some airlines make it hard or impossible for heirs to inherit miles), most airlines will wipe out your account if it’s inactive for 12 to 24 months. (True, some airlines let you re-activate expired miles, but it will cost you.)
There’s absolutely no excuse to let your miles expire, even if you don’t fly or don’t have an airline-branded credit card or plan to fly soon (the most common ways to extend miles) or don’t want to get another card. You probably already do things that you could be earning miles for, as well as protecting the miles you have, but you’re not aware of the possibilities. Do you make charitable donations? You could get bonus miles and extend your current miles for doing so. Planning on signing up for Netflix? Don’t do it without going through your airline’s website. Even a 99-cent iTunes purchase will extend your points for another 12-24 months.
Here are the top ways of adding activity to your account without flying and without using an airline credit card:
1. Dining for miles
When paying your restaurant bill, make sure you’re earning miles. (Photo: Thinkstock)
This is one of the easiest ways. Although the restaurants participating in the airlines’ dining for miles programs may not be Michelin 3-star establishments, there’s probably at least one spot near you that you’d be happy eating at. In addition to generous miles-per-dollar awards, there are sign-up bonuses. American and US Airways, for example, offer 1,000 miles after your first meal. Recently, American had a bonus offer of 10,000 miles after just 10 “dines” of $40 or more, and restaurant gift certificate purchases qualified as well.
Tip: If a young child in your household has miles expiring but doesn’t qualify for a credit card, you can extend her miles by assigning her account number to a dining program but registering your credit card. You’ll pay the bill, but she’ll get the mileage extension.
2. Shopping for bonus miles and points
Many people think they’re getting maximum miles by shopping with a credit card, but this is different. If you’re not getting bonus miles (in addition to credit card miles) for shopping online, you’re throwing miles away and missing out on a great way to extend miles. Over 400 online merchants—Walmart, Drugstore.com, PETCO, JC Penney, Ann Taylor, Nike, and on and on—participate in the airlines’ shopping mall programs. Even if you don’t use an airline credit card, you’ll get anywhere from 1 to 12 extra miles for each dollar spent (sometimes more) in addition to whatever miles or points your credit card earns. And while it used to be that you had to shop online to get the miles, increasingly merchants such as Sunglass Hut are offering miles even for shopping in store or by phone.
3. Renting a car
Never rent a car without giving the rental agency your frequent flier number. You needn’t fly in order to get the miles. Just be aware that you might pay a small fee for collecting them.
4. Staying in a hotel
Airline programs work at hotels, too. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Most hotel chains participate. Stay in a hotel, give your frequent flier number when you make the reservation or check in and protect your account. (Some discounted hotel rates don’t qualify for miles, so check before you book.)
5. Sending flowers
Mom gets flowers, you get miles. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Valentine’s Day looming? Mother’s Day? Just because? You’ll get 20 United miles per dollar at FTD Gifts and Flowers. Most other airlines participate.
6. Taking a cruise or vacation
Airlines offer big mileage bonuses on these when you book through their sites.
Transfer $100,000 into a Fidelity investment account and you’ll get 50,000 United, Delta, or American miles; $25,000 earns 15,000 miles. Fewer miles for lesser amounts invested.
8. Taking out a mortgage
Earn up to 1,000 American miles for every $10,000 financed with Wells Fargo.
9. Signing up for Netflix or mobile phone service
You’ll get 1,500 or more miles when you do. Other airlines participate. Planning on extending your mobile phone contract for another two years? Do it through your airline’s website and get bonus miles.
10. Donating to a charity
Give to the USO, Unicef, or cancer research (up to 10 miles per dollar donated) and you’ll get American AAdvantage miles; you might help save lives, plus extend the life of your own miles.
Airline mile expiration policies:
Air Canada: 12 months if no account activity (the previous policy of expiration after seven years, even if there’s activity, was changed in January 2014).
Alaska: 24 months and they “may” close the account after two years of inactivity.
British Airways: 36 months.
Delta: Miles do not expire.
Frontier Airlines: 18 months.
Hawaiian: 18 months.
JetBlue: Miles do not expire.
Southwest: 24 months.
Spirit: 3 months.
United: 18 months.
Virgin America: 18 months.
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WATCH: Airlines Making It Harder To Use Frequent Flier Miles