How to keep your miles from expiring without spending extra money

 

Far too many sites about travel hacking seem to talk endlessly about how to get zillions of frequent flyer miles by signing up for credit card bonuses (that require spending thousands of dollars in a certain period of time). That’s fine, I guess. But these discussions seems to leave out the more common traveler, one who doesn’t have (or aspire to have) hundreds of thousands of miles in their accounts, who instead has maybe a few thousand, here and there.

I tend to be the go-to person for advice on frequent flyer miles among my friends and family. And the most common question I hear is:

“So I just got this email saying that my miles are going to expire. What do I do?”

or, even worse, this lament:

“My miles expired last month because I hadn’t flown with [some airline] in a really long time.”

This last one makes me sad, mainly because miles, while not incredibly valuable, are still worth something. I don’t generally like to throw things of value away, and think that if you’re being diligent about these things, you shouldn’t either.

But most people don’t know that you never have to let your miles expire, and it doesn’t cost a lot or any money to do so. And, best of all, you don’t have to fly on that airline.

Most mileage accounts will only expire if you have no activity on your account for a certain period of time (usually 12-18 months). So the goal here is to have some kind of activity. Any activity. Here are three ways to keep your balance active.

1. Browser toolbars (or, someone should tell the airlines what decade it is)

Most airlines used to offer “shopping toolbars.” These silly things are browser toolbars that included a search box. You make searches through the toolbar, and every few searches or so earns you a mile.

This one is simple: download and install the toolbar, make enough searches to generate a single mile, and then uninstall the toolbar. Done.

I was about to say that you should use this trick before the airlines realize that no one uses browser toolbars anymore, but it looks like that has pretty much already happened. The online toolbar I could find that was still offering miles is Hawaiian Airlines. So if you have a few miles in that account, get this now, as it’ll surely be going away soon.

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2. Shopping portals (or, gotta spend money to make miles)

Most airlines also have a shopping portal, where you click through their site to some online retailer, and then you earn 1 mile per dollar or something minimal. So the trick here is to buy something you were already planning on buying and then do so through the shopping portal. (Buying something just to earn miles is a waste of money. Be honest with yourself.)

Here are a few links to shopping portals, but it’s easy to find them for your particular airline.

3. Use points.com (or, there’s one mile for you nineteen miles for me)

This is my favorite trick. Points.com is a free online miles marketplace that allows you to buy and sell miles with other members. It also lets you exchange miles and points between different programs of your own. The exchange rate is usually horrible, but that isn’t important here; we just want one mile. So exchange enough miles from one program to generate a single mile.

I did this recently. I flew Virgin America once, and have 1,500 miles gathering dust. But I dig their mood lighting, and might end up flying them again, so I went to points.com and transferred 6 US Airways miles to 1 single Virgin America mile (note: a tax of 83%). Boom, account kept alive for 18 more months.

(There are some restrictions on transfers, mainly the requirement in some cases that you need to have a certain number of miles in your account before you can do a transfer. It’s worth investigating though, because it’s free and almost instantaneous.)

Save those pennies

There are many other methods, but these are the ones I like the most. Because even if you value miles at $0.01 each (a conservative value) that’s still money. And we don’t throw money away. There are too many fun things to do with it.

But enough about me. Have you ever allowed your miles expire? Or how did you keep them active when not flying?

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