August 29, 2007

Dear Money Helps: Having traveled a lot for work, I’d accumulated 83,000 United Airlines miles by the time I retired in ’96. Recently I tried to use them but was told they had expired! United said they’d announced a few years back that old miles would be phased out if not used in three years, but I never got the word. Is there anything you can do to help me get my miles back? – Larry Pace, Caswell Beach, N.C.

Answer: Used to be you could hold on to unused miles for years without penalty. Not anymore. Over the past few years airlines have quietly been putting expiration dates on them. The first big change came in 1999 when a number of major airlines, United included, said you had to show account activity – either redeeming miles or accumulating more – every three years to keep miles in play. Earlier this year American (AMR), United (UAUA) and US Airways (LCC) shortened that window to 18 months; Delta (DAL) to 24 months.

Unfortunately, airlines can make changes to their programs whenever they want, says Tim Winship of FrequentFlier.com – and they don’t have to tell you. “If you haven’t had activity in more than six months, you probably won’t hear directly about upcoming changes,” he says.

United spokesman Jeffrey Kovick didn’t outright deny this, saying instead that the company issued a press release and printed the policy change on its website. “We make a considerable effort to notify members,” he says.

With its new policy firmly in place, United wouldn’t reinstate your miles – even with my asking on your behalf. However, the airline did offer you a $300 voucher (equivalent to about 25,000 miles) as a goodwill gesture. Like it or not, use ’em or lose ’em is the miles policy at most airlines these days, and carriers are only getting more restrictive, says Winship.

So if you have enough for a flight, don’t wait to redeem. Building toward an award? Accumulate miles with an airline partner. Or keep your
account active by using a handful of miles to buy, say, a magazine subscription. United’s Mileage Plus, for example, lets you earn points shopping online with retailers like Target or Gap.

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