Frequent flyer miles could be your ticket to paradise—but only if you know the secrets of how to get to the destination you want and make sure you aren’t grounded by having your miles expire.
Travel expert Tim Winship, co-author of Mileage Pro - The Insider's Guide to Frequent Flyer Programs, who has worked in the industry for more than 20 yearsshared some tricks of the trade with me on how to keep your miles active and how to navigate airlines to actually find a frequent flyer seat!
Mary: Is there a typical airline industry standard for when frequent flyer miles expire?
Tim Winship: Most major airlines expire frequent flyer program members' miles if there is no account activity in 18 or 24 months.
Mary: How can you monitor and make sure the odometer on your mileage account isn’t about to get set back to zero?
Tim Winship: All frequent flyer programs allow members to access their accounts online, so they can check their balances, and any imminent expiration dates, at any time.
Active members receive regular email communications from the programs, which typically include the date on which miles expire. So keep your account updated with a current email address, and take the time to review program-related announcements.
Mary: How can you keep the miles “alive” and active without flying?
Tim Winship: Any activity that changes the bottom-line account balance resets the clock on all miles in the account. Using the program-affiliated credit card is an especially easy way to keep miles alive. Depending on the program, other options include signing up for Netflix, shopping at any of hundreds of online retailers participating in an airline's mileage mall, applying for a mortgage, staying in a hotel, renting a car, and so on.
Since redeeming miles also counts as account activity, you could redeem as few as 400 miles for a magazine subscription.
And you could also buy 1,000 miles (the typical minimum purchase) for around 3 cents apiece.
Mary: Is there any way to get miles reinstated if they’ve expired?
Tim Winship: Some airlines allow program members to have their expired miles reinstated for a fee, typically 1 cent or more per mile. That's a bitter pill for consumers to swallow, since they're effectively paying for the miles a second time. Better to keep them from expiring in the first place.
Mary: One of the reasons I have so many unused miles is because when I’ve tried to book a frequent flyer flight it seems like the dates to the destinations I want are always unavailable. Are there any secrets to
cashing in and getting where you want to go?
Tim Winship: If there were an easy answer to this question, frequent flyer programs wouldn't have the image problem that so negatively affects them. A few strategies and tactics:
Seats become available for booking 330 days before the flight date. If you know your travel dates, it's always a good idea to start the booking process as early as possible. Keep checking back with the airline, as availability can change at any time.
If seats remain unsold, the airlines often release more seats for award travel within two weeks of the departure date. If you can book last minute, it might pay to wait.
Be flexible. For leisure travel to Europe, demand tends to spike on Friday and Saturday, and again on Saturday and Sunday for return trips. Departing mid-week will increase the odds of finding available award seats.
Be a contrarian. If flights to London and Rome are booked solid, perhaps there are seats available on flights to Manchester or Amsterdam.
If all else fails, call and speak to a reservations agent. Sometimes they have access to seats that aren't shown on the airlines' online booking apps. Other times they can create an itinerary that bypasses availability bottlenecks. Or they may be able to authorize booking a seat that was being blocked for future sale. And if they're unsuccessful, you won't be charged a booking fee, so there's little risk.