I have a tendency to let airline miles go to waste. Maybe it’s forgetting to sign up for a loyalty program and not accruing them in the first place. Other times, it’s letting miles earned on airlines I rarely fly expire. The other day, I got an email from British Airways saying that my Avios (their term for frequent-flier miles) were going to expire in 12 months because of inactivity. My initial thought? Oh, well. What’s the worth of 3,401 points on an airline I never go with, anyway? Or those 457 BIG Points I lost from Air Asia?
Apparently, I’m not the only one letting valuable loyalty points linger until they vanish. According to a report by Bankrate.com, almost half of American adults who participate in airline and hotel rewards programs have let points or miles expire. We’re underestimating the value of that loss, too.
“We wanted to do this [study] to show people that you’re probably sitting on some value that you might not even know about,” says Bankrate.com credit card analyst Ted Rossman. “A lot of people do let [airline miles] expire, and a lot of people don’t know how much they’re worth.”
Although everyone’s guilty of letting miles go, millennials are doing so at a higher rate, even though they’re the demographic more likely to sign up for airline loyalty programs in the first place.
“People in that age group might not be realizing how valuable they could be,” Rossman says. “They think, ‘Oh, it’s only 10,000 miles, or something, how much could that be worth?’ What people don’t realize is that there can be a compounding effect — that you save these up and don’t let them expire, and then it does turn into a real trip.”
While you want to hold onto your miles and make sure you don’t let them expire, you also don’t want to hoard them forever. They’re more valuable being used than saved.
“You don’t really want to be a points millionaire,” Rossman says. “I know it kind of sounds fun, but really, the purpose of these is to use them, and they generally will not get more valuable over time.”
Rossman’s advice is to save your airline miles until you reach a certain goal, then spend them. It’s dangerously easy to let them expire, but there are more strategies out there to keep them active than people realize.
One strategy to top up their expiration clock is to shop for things you would have normally needed to buy.
“If you don’t have a trip coming up, you can still keep these points and miles active by making a purchase through an airline’s shopping portal,” Rossman says. “American Airlines is a good example. You can click through their shopping portal and go to retailers that you would have made a purchase from anyway.”
Airlines may be associated with major retailers like Macy’s or Best Buy; buying a TV or a tank top will buy you time on your airline miles. Just log into the airline’s shopping site with your frequent-flier number and look for everyday items. Some airlines also offer the option to buy magazine subscriptions.
If your airline of choice allows it, you can go even cheaper by using iTunes.
“You could make a 99-cent purchase through iTunes, bank that mile to your American Airlines account or any other program that offers this, and that’ll reset the clock,” Rossman says.
Another closely related mile-extending trick is using a dining rewards programs.
“Most airlines and a bunch of hotels have these dining rewards programs that you could participate in,” he says. “As long as you enroll and you go to a participating restaurant — this could be a neighborhood place you were planning to go anyway — and bank those points or miles there, that’s going to be qualifying activity that’s going to reset your expiration clock.”
For those feeling generous, you can also gift miles to friends, family or donate them to charity. For example, Etihad Airways partners with Doctors Without Borders as an option for frequent fliers who would like to donate miles. You can give away even a fraction of your miles to a person and organization to add more time to the rest of the miles you’re saving.
Better yet, skip the hassle of worrying about your expiring miles by becoming loyal to an airline that doesn’t let your miles expire in the first place, like Delta and JetBlue. The good news is that it may even become a trend in the industry: Just this August, United Airlines announced that its miles would no longer expire, as well.