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Cheap and Easy Saves for At-Risk Miles

After years of languishing in obscurity, the issue of mileage expiration is back in the news. In late January, United, the world’s second largest airline, announced that beginning on December 31, 2007, miles in Mileage Plus accounts with no activity for 18 consecutive months would be [% 2301447 | | wiped out %]. The new policy will apply retroactively, so at the end of this year, Mileage Plus members with no account activity since July 1, 2006, will lose their miles.

The move follows similar changes by [%1613885 | | Delta and US Airways %], and likely presages policy changes by many of the remaining full-service carriers. In short, the industry standard three-year expiration schedule is in the process of being replaced by a harsher policy in which miles disappear after two years or less.

What remains the same is the mechanism for extending the life of miles. The general rule is as follows: Any transaction that changes the member’s account balance—either by earning new miles or by redeeming existing miles—will extend the life of all miles in the account for another 18, 24, or 36 months, depending on the carrier’s policy.

With the shorter life expectancy of miles, loyalty program members must be extra-vigilant to avoid finding their account balances suddenly reduced to zero. The extra attention isn’t an issue for travelers’ primary programs, which by definition are accessed frequently, but rather is required with programs that get less than full attention. The good news is that never before have mileage collectors had as many options for earning and redeeming miles, and in the process renewing their banked miles. Even better news is that many of these options won’t take up too much of travelers’ time and money.

Some cheap and easy options

Among the easiest ways to add miles to an account is to make a purchase at an online retailer participating in the airline’s [% 1304427 | | mileage mall %]. All major airline programs have launched such mileage malls, allowing their program members to earn miles when shopping at extensive networks of Internet merchants. The largest malls feature more than 200 retailers, covering every imaginable type of product.

Since many consumers would be shopping at Target.com, Gap.com, BestBuy.com, and the like anyway, earning account-extending miles for their purchases is a no-brainer. There’s no extra charge to earn the miles. The only extra step in the process is a quick stop on the mileage mall’s homepage to register the member’s frequent flyer number, so the shopping miles can be tracked and posted.

How much would you have to spend? Since the earning rates are based on miles awarded per dollar spent, there’s a minimum purchase of a dollar. So buying as few as two music downloads from iTunes for 99 cents each would be enough to earn the one or more miles needed to trigger account extension. You can’t get much cheaper than that.

The [% 308169 | | dining-for-miles %] feature of most programs represents another opportunity to earn miles for an everyday activity. Program members first register a credit card and then earn up to 10 miles per dollar spent for charging meals at more than 10,000 participating restaurants. Enrollment is free, and a quick burger can protect a loyalty program account balance for the next year or so.

Yet another low-impact mileage-earning opportunity is using a [% 332160 | | credit card %] linked to the program. For those with miles in multiple rewards schemes, multi-program cards such as the American Express Preferred Rewards or Starwood Preferred Guest cards allow points to be exchanged for miles in various participating airline programs, a handy way to selectively extend the life of miles as deadlines approach.

Whereas earning opportunities abound, there are few available mileage-extension options on the redemption side short of cashing in enough miles for an upgrade or free trip. But one, offered by most larger programs, is both an easy way to keep miles active and a good return on investment.

That’s the miles-for-magazines award offered by many of the larger programs. For as few as 400 miles, program members can obtain subscriptions to a wide range of magazines, from Cigar Aficionado to Golf Digest, Inc., and Wine Spectator. Not a magazine fan? Giving a subscription to a friend will make the recipient happy and extend the life of the giver’s miles.

Lastly, it’s worth asking if a few thousand miles socked away in a never-used program are worth maintaining at all. If they aren’t likely ever to add up to a meaningful award, why not allow them to slip away without drama? While there’s something in the human psyche that finds forfeiting miles intolerable, consumers might be better off concentrating their energy on active accounts and letting their “orphan miles” expire.

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