Are You Losing Frequent Flier Awards without Knowing?

I spent 3 weeks in a Starwood property in Nashville a few years ago.  It was a long but fun consulting engagement of life in a hotel.  I was very careful to make sure I was collecting the Starwood preferred points and tracking them with a number that I wasn’t going to let go of… I was imagining free week on an Caribbean island.  A couple weeks ago I was booking a hotel room in Puerto Rico and looking to use points.  Little did I know that when I was ready to use them… from over 120,000 points to 5000… GONE! What happened?!!

Baby Monkey in Bali
Baby Monkey in Bali


(Pictured: Monkey in Bali – photo by Joel Oleson rights reserved)

Sure enough many programs have expiration dates on frequent flier programs for flights and hotel guest point programs.  In the case of Starwood’s preferred program the points expire after 1 year.  Doesn’t matter how many times you stay in their rooms… What does this say?  Use your points as you get them.  It also says… KEEP TRACK!

Wake up call… Your Airline miles may be expiring!  Have you booked your travel?  Do you ever misplace your free companion ticket or voucher… all of those are bound to expire many last only a year or 18 months and some need the paper it was printed on… if you can believe it.

With United and American both, your points will carry over as long as you continue to fly at least once before they expire.  On United you may get an expiration notice with a cost you can pay push off expiration for another year.

Delta and Alaska don’t expire… That definitely solicits loyalty for me.  I love the rollover miles toward awards on Delta as well.  If they could only get me upgraded on international flights.

I have been looking at my Alaska miles.  I was wondering if I could get to Alaska for a domestic set of points where it would be a lot more elsewhere.  Sure enough for 15,000 miles I can go not only to Anchorage (a $900 round trip flight, but all the way to Nome or Borrow a $1400 ticket!  Note it does take me planning the dates, but for miles I’m finding that program is very attractive despite the fact I’ll have to fly out.

So how do you track your miles?

I go pro with I have a single web page and I’ve got the iPhone app where I have my numbers with me at all times.  I also get the expiration details for the various programs.  Unfortunately some of the older hotel programs get out of sync and I assume I’m good.  That’s not always the case.  I should have had nearly a week on Starwood, but instead I had 50% of one night.  They let me pay half miles half on my hard.  I decided to use it anyway.  Why not?

So I guess the moral of the story is track it, make sure you aren’t just collecting points so you can see how high they go… I’m guilty of this.  I was trying to see if I could get up to a million miles across the programs.  Now that I’m looking at expiration dates and a less travel on airlines outside of my hub city, I’m finding round robin of airlines just to keep my miles active is a waste.  Much better to use my miles on expiring programs and then start using loyalty on airlines that serve me best and will pay on multiple levels of service.

Good luck… Hope that reminder helps… I may put together a chart at some point if I don’t find one out there.

Look for messages like this… (Note this list may be out of date… check with your airline program)

American AAdvantage

AAdvantage miles will expire if there is no qualifying activity in your account at least once every 18 months. Qualifying activity is defined as any AAdvantage mileage accrual or AAdvantage award redemption.

Continental OnePass

Miles currently have no expiration date; however, Continental Airlines reserves the right to impose expiration limits or terminate the OnePass program, plus terminating your ability to claim rewards. If you do not have activity in your OnePass account for a period of 18 months, Continental Airlines may close your account.

Delta SkyMiles

Currently, miles will not expire.

(Joel: But when does the program expire due to inactivity?)

United Mileage Plus

Any member who fails at any time to engage in account activity for a period of eighteen (18) consecutive months is subject to termination of his or her membership and forfeiture of all accrued mileage as of the last day of the 18th month. Activity includes (without limitation) flying on United or earning or redeeming miles with a Mileage Plus partner (as defined in Rule 12), redeeming miles for award travel, buying miles or transferring miles. In cases where mileage is for any reason removed from an account, as for the redemption of awards, and later returned, the return of the mileage to the account shall not count as account activity.

US Airways Dividend Miles

Active membership status is based on having earned or redeemed miles within a consecutive 18 month period. With our new Mileage Reactivation Policy, Dividend Miles members have an opportunity to reinstate their Dividend Miles accounts to active status for an additional 18 months for a $50 processing fee and reactivation fee of $.01 per mile. If members do not extend with this reactivation option, the Dividend Miles account will be closed and all miles forfeited.

Collect Miles – Travel the World Free!

Beach Airplane

One thing is sure. If you travel, you must quickly figure out where to acquire miles and have a strategy.

My strategy is I want to be upgraded, I want to be in the lounge, and I want entertainment and extra room.  Boarding early is fine, but the ability to take whatever problem I have into the lounge to get it resolved in a short line vs. the line at the gate is a HUGE difference.  The ability to call a priority phone line on any airline that gives you respect and often gives you the benefit of the doubt really makes a big difference.  In my travels it is very frequent that status has made the difference in our ability to have flexibility.

It took me 2 years to realize I was acquiring miles on 5 or 6 airlines where I could have reduced them to a max of 3 airlines one in each category.  Ideally you should pick one as your main program, but cost and location play into this game.  The programs and treatment are NOT created equally.

The first thing to understand is that 60% of world’s airlines revolve around 3 Major Alliances, and really in the U.S. and Europe I’d suggest it’s much higher than that.

Star Alliance


Adria Airways, Aegean Airlines, Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana Airlines, Austrian Airlines, Blue1, Brussels Airlines, Croatia Airlines, EgyptAir, Ethiopian Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, SAS, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Swiss International Air Lines, TAM Airlines, TAP Portugal, Thai Airways International, Turkish Airlines, United Airlines (merged with Continental), US Airways

Coming Soon: 2012: Avianca, TACA, Copa Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines 2013: EVA Airways

One World


American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Iberia, Finnair, LanChile, Japan Airlines, Royal Jordanian, Dragonair, LAN, including a variety of subsidiaries.  Malev and Mexicana are members, but stopped operations.

Coming soon: 2012: Malaysia Airlines soon: Kingfisher Airlines



Aeroflot, Aeroméxico, Air Europa, Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Czech Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Kenya Airways, KLM, Korean Air, TAROM, Vietnam Airlines

Coming soon:  2012: Aerolineas Argentinas, Middle East Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Xiamen Airlines 2013: Garuda Indonesia,

My experience and preferences:

United – While United economy can easily be put down, and be seen as average or less, their mileage program is tops in the U.S.  After a friend of mine was sharing his experience as 1K, I put empahsis on making it my preferred program.  It was consistent upgrades and choices in United plus seating.  I got upgraded both ways to Cancun and Hawaii and was able to get a family member upgraded in both of those cases.  I had no problems getting into the very common United lounges all over the world.  Word of Caution: Miles can expire after 18 months of inactivity. 25,000 miles earns you Premier status with two bags free and unlimited domestic upgrades, but If you fly over a million miles with United or its partners (flying like George Clooney in “Up in the Air”), you’ll get lifetime elite status and other exclusive rewards.  Get into the 1K program and I truly believe you’re in the best program in the U.S. and the vouchers and handling you’ll get will really make you feel like a king.  Internationally Singapore Airlines, Turkish Airlines, New Zealand Air are Tops, the Turkish Lounge in Istanbul and Luftansa lounge in Frankfurt are both the best in the world.  You don’t always have to pick United planes, as an example, Air Canada has much better entertainment.  As well, a long haul international flight to Europe or Asia or Australia you are often better served on the International airlines I’d pick a Singapore Air any day over a United plane.  It always serves you to do your research.

Delta – Great domestic program, very frequent upgrades, the trick has been to check in early… as soon as that 24 hour reminder comes.  While I got into international lounges just fine, I never got any international upgrades.  The rollover miles has helped as well.  Basically if you get lots of miles past the top program they would roll over into the next year.  One thing that slowed that down was the Platinum and Diamond programs.  While Delta and Air France are aligned I’ve definitely seen mistakes between the two companies including on a recent trip.  I spoke to Delta where I have status to change my flight and while they said they made the change, Air France couldn’t see the change.  These mistakes cost me $500 and nearly a missed flight.  Delta miles don’t expire!  I carry the Delta American Express card which gets me extra miles when I use it to book Delta flights including a big discount as well as miles when I use it on the plane.  It can also get you an extra bag and/or an annual domestic companion ticket.  Rack up some miles… 25,000 miles can get you a round trip coach ticket in the continental US, Alaska, and Canada.

American – The least developed of the alliances is the OneWorld. American’s program hasn’t been that great.  It’s been a domestic catch all for me.  While I was at one company it was their preferred airline, so it was tough to avoid.  To reach the lowest Gold status tier, you’ll only need 25,000 miles, this is the only program where your miles earned from any source can get you elite status.  So that’s nice and flexible as the alternative mileage program. With all the European travel, and various flights on British that may have provided more benefits.  Flying first class round trip with my wife to Peru and visiting the wonder of Machu Picchu definitely means all this hard work pays off.  You’ll find both Hotels and Rental car companies are the other places in your travel where they specifically have alliances with specific airlines.  Parking is another place you might just find that gets you miles.

What about outside the Alliances?

Should we avoid those ones?  The three alliances combined fly 60.8% of all passengers, and it’s a great way to combine miles to have pre selected an airline in each of the three alliances.  There are exceptions.  I love Jet Blue, I love Virgin.  You can collect Delta miles on Virgin Australia.  Don’t pass up an amazing deal or an incredible ride.  Virgin American has some great prices and the coach class feels like business in most domestic airlines… remember why you are collecting.  For comfort, for upgrades, for future free flights.  That long haul to Australia and New Zealand, you should definitely make sure you’re actually collecting miles.  A friend once mentioned he was on Air New Zealand and they said at the fare he was at he could not collect partner (United) miles.  That’s a lot of miles to just go to waste.  I’ve gotten frequent flier numbers on the spot, just to make sure those miles don’t go to waste.  There are ways to transfer miles, even if you don’t, you’ll get that disclipine down of never letting those miles go to waste.  True story.  I had a fourth airline I was collecting miles on.  Alaska Airlines.  My parking would only support giving me Alaska miles, so I kept collecting them, but the airline itself at the time would take my Delta card.  Years later I now have enough miles I can fly 2 people round trip to Nome, Alaksa on miles and $80.  The Alaska program, while not directly aligned is a great program if you love alaska.  They have incredible redemption value.  For 25,000 miles you can go from nearly any Alaska hub to anywhere they fly for 25,000 miles. There may be a few exceptions.

What should I do with my miles:  At any point you can upgrade a leg.  I rarely if ever do this.  Personally I pull them out when I have to pay out of pocket for a rediculous fare.  I’ve seen domestic flights for way more than they should be.  Take this Nome Alaska flight.  It’s nearly $1000 USD and I can get it for 25,000 miles.  You won’t find that very much, but I had a $600 west coast flight I needed to get on a particular plane so I could get home on time or lose a day of work.  Using miles I didn’t have to pay.  Hopefully you can get vouchers for those comfort flights.  It may also be that you simply want to get from point A to point B.  Ask them how much, and then say… how many miles.  I’d give 10,000 miles for $500 USD.  I’m sure you could come up with your formula.

A Star award from North America to Africa in first class, for instance, will run 180,000 miles. A flight within in Europe will run 30,000 miles in economy, you’ll see it for 20,000 or 25,000 domestic US and more to Hawaii and Alaska.

How about waiting for the “Round-the-world tickets” award (a bargain at 180,000 miles in economy).

Where can I go? Look at the Star Alliance Airpass for going to many countries with 1 ticket. It’s fun to explore the regional options as well.

Tip: You can use or TripIt Pro on your phone to track your various mileage programs including expiration dates.  It also keeps your numbers handy, but don’t forget your card.

Travel Tip: Carry your frequent flier card.   You might even attach it to your carry on luggage.  Some frequent flier programs will send you multiple cards making this easier.  You can keep them in your carry on or purse, so you don’t have to actually carry it in your wallet.  Status does carry you internationally and give you great priveledges, but it’s at the 2nd tier.  That lowest tier is often overlooked.  Don’t forget to carry your card.  It really will keep you out of lounges if you don’t have proof.  The number alone often won’t do it!  As well, just because it isn’t the same company on your card doesn’t mean it won’t make a difference.  Your United miles status will get you into the Turkish lounge on a Turkish Ticket.A wider range of airport lounges shared with alliance members.  Bring your traveling companion… you may be able to bring them with you as well.  Your Amex or Interval Gold Travel card may get you in even if you don’t have status.  I’ve unloaded the point cards in my wallet more than a couple of times, and found something they liked.

Some other great resources: