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Three tips to keep your miles from expiring

The combination of a slow economy, SARS, and the war in Iraq has kept many people from traveling this year, and your own lack of flight activity could mean that your miles are in danger of expiring. Whether you?ve kept your feet firmly planted on U.S. soil or focused your travel on one airline while letting miles languish in other frequent flyer programs, you don?t need to worry that your miles will disappear. Just follow these simple tips and you?ll guarantee that your miles will be around until you can trade them in for a free ticket.

Know your airline?s rules

First, you must ascertain whether your miles are set to expire or not. Most airlines clearly state in their frequent flyer program details when and why miles will expire, and what you need to do to extend their lives.

If you have miles with American, Northwest, United, or US Airways, your miles will not expire as long as there is some sort of account activity every 36 months. Your Delta SkyMiles account will expire quicker, within 12 months, if you post no mileage during your first year of membership; after that first mileage activity, you have 36 months before your miles will expire. For Continental, your miles will expire after 18 months with no activity.

US Airways members should also be aware of a new policy in which miles that were supposed to expire on January 1, 2004, will be granted a year extension. You may have thought your miles were gone, but you really have until December 31, 2004, to earn miles and extend the life of your account.

With many of the low-cost carriers, such as Southwest, AirTran, and JetBlue, miles expire after a year, regardless of account activity. Check with your favorite smaller carrier to determine the expiration rules for its frequent flyer program.

You don?t need to fly to save your miles

Many travelers think that they need to fly once every three years to prevent their miles from expiring. But read the fine print and you?ll realize that all mileage account activity works equally well. Some airlines make this point more clearly than others; here are relevant excerpts from the airline?s websites.

  • American: “Qualifying activity is defined as redeeming any AAdvantage award or accruing mileage credit on any eligible American, American Eagle, AmericanConnection® or AAdvantage airline participant as well as accruing mileage credit with participating hotels, car rental companies, credit cards, telecommunication providers and other service providers offering AAdvantage mileage credit.”
  • Delta: “Miles will not expire as long as you participate in one of the following activities every three years:
    • “Travel on a qualifying Delta, Delta Connection, or Delta Shuttle® flight.
    • “Earn miles in the SkyMiles program with one of the SkyMiles program partners, including airline partners, hotels, car rentals, Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express, credit card partner or any other program partner such as, restaurants, mortgage lenders, real estate and telecommunications.
    • “Redeem your miles for a Delta SkyTeam Award or other airline partner award.”
  • United: “‘Account activity,’ for purposes of these Rules, shall be deemed to occur when a member accrues mileage in his or her account in any manner set forth in these Rules, or as otherwise approved by United, or when the member redeems any Mileage Plus or partner award by the use of mileage in the member’s account.”

What these rules tell us is that even if you don?t plan on flying anytime soon, you can take advantage of airline partners and earn miles through hotel stays, car rentals, and credit card purchases, to name a few. Your miles will live on, ready for the time when you fly again and need an award seat.

Quick and/or cheap ways to earn miles with partners

Clearly, you can fly on a partner airline or stay in a partner hotel, earn miles on your preferred airlines, and keep your frequent flyer account open. But what if you don?t have the time or money to earn your miles through other forms of travel activity? Never fear; there are many low-cost or no-cost ways to earn miles, often without venturing far from your home, or even your computer.

Here are our top low-cost, low-commitment ways to earn miles:

  • Free miles: Yup, you heard correctly. You can often earn free miles for signing up to receive promotional e-mails, referring a friend to a credit card or loyalty program, or having a free, face-to-face financial consultation. With no money and up to an hour of your time, you can prolong the life of your miles.
  • Mileage mall purchases: America West, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways all have online malls, where you can earn miles while you shop. You?ll get up to 10 miles per dollar when you make purchases at retailers such as Barnes and Noble, Office Max, Nordstrom, FTD, and The Sharper Image. You can combine two tasks into one when you buy a birthday present and save your miles at the same time.
  • Miles for dining: You can also earn miles with eight airlines when you eat out, through iDine?s miles for dining program. The service is free, and all you need to do is register your credit card on your airline?s iDine site, pay with that credit card at a participating restaurant, and voila—miles in your account.
  • Purchase miles: If you don?t want to do any of the above activities, you can always purchase miles to add into your account. All the major airlines offer purchasing options, with 1,000 miles starting at $25, but be sure to check with your preferred carrier that a purchase will extend the life of all your miles.
  • Airline-affiliated credit cards: If you?re willing to spend a little more money, you can sign up for an airline-affiliated credit card. These cards usually have significant signup bonuses, plus if you continue to use the card, you normally receive one mile per dollar spent. Annual fees range from $45 to $90.

Remember that partner credits often take between four and 10 weeks to post to your account. However, if your activity occurs before your miles are due to expire but the miles post after that date, most airlines will honor those miles and not terminate your account. But to be on the safe side, be sure to do your mileage-earning activity well before your mileage expiration date.

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