MONEY

“United Wiped out 83,000 of My Miles!”

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.

MONEY

When Valuables Break during Shipping

Dear Money Helps: A year ago I flew to Florida to bury my mother and handle her estate. I went to a Staples store to ship 10 boxes of antiques and sentimental items to my home via UPS. I insured each box for $500. Four arrived damaged, and priceless heirlooms were broken. I filed claims for $400 with UPS but I’ve never been paid. No luck with Staples either. Can you help? – Nancy Mathias, Richardson, Texas

Answer: This was a sad errand for you and a sorry case of miscommunication by the vendors. The last thing you needed was to get a damage-claims runaround. What happened? Basically you got caught between two companies: UPS, which transported your goods, and Staples, which packed them and served as an outlet for UPS services. Since Staples sent the boxes, UPS considers it the customer, not you. (I know, the logic is kooky.) So when you complained, UPS sent your paperwork to Staples for further investigation.

But Staples returned a claim for only one of the four boxes, and UPS denied that one because the packing was improper. (UPS requires that a box must have two inches of packing material around the contents; apparently yours didn’t.) UPS hot-potatoed the claim – and the blame – back to the office-supply retailer, which had packed the box.

I asked Staples spokeswoman Amy Shanler to find out why the company hadn’t processed payment – or the other three claims. Seems the store neglected to collect all the information needed, and your paperwork collected dust on someone’s desk. Abashed, she expedited your $400 reimbursement.

Shipping companies don’t make it easy to collect insurance claims; once they have your money they aren’t eager to part with it. But you have a better shot at getting money back by eliminating the middleman. Next time you send something fragile or irreplaceable, pack the box yourself – call ahead to find out the requirements – and go directly to the shipper. Jim Hood of ConsumerAffairs.com advises air shipping over ground, because your package will be handled less. The cost will be higher, but your memories are worth it.

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