The rule for airline miles is use 'em or lose 'em. Or is it?
This may not be news for all the frequent-flier fanatics out there — you know who you are — but it turns out there are lots of nifty ways to extend the life of your miles for virtually limitless periods. You just need to do a little homework to learn your options.
"Ninety percent of people in frequent-flier programs are poor managers of their miles," said Randy Peterson, editor of Inside Flyer magazine and an expert on all matters of miles. "The airlines don't do enough to help members manage their accounts."
Beverly Hills resident Barry Rubin can attest to that. He got a letter from Delta Air Lines the other day warning that the tens of thousands of miles he'd banked were about to expire. The letter advised him to either buy a ticket or to use his miles to subscribe to a bunch of magazines.
Rubin, 77, an attorney, wasn't pleased.
"They're telling me I can lose the miles, take a trip or get some magazines that I never wanted," he said.
Rubin said it wasn't until he called the carrier and asked a service rep what his other options may be that he discovered it's relatively easy to preserve endangered miles.
For example, Rubin could transfer a minimum of 1,000 miles to his wife for about $40, or he could purchase a minimum of 2,000 additional miles for about $60. Either transaction would result in an additional two years of life for his mileage account.
"I had no idea," Rubin said. "They never told me."
Well, actually they did. It's in the terms and conditions for the airline's SkyMiles program, along with other options, such as using miles to do business with Delta partners.
United Airlines, American Airlines and Continental Airlines each discloses frequent-flier options online and in contracts mailed to members.
"People in frequent-flier programs need to take some responsibility to manage their accounts," Peterson said. "Could the airlines do more to help? Yes. But members need to do their share."
Rooting around online — it was a bit harder than I'd expected — I found out that United will extend the life of your miles by 18 months if you transfer at least 5,000 miles to another account. This will cost $35 plus 1.5 cents per mile transferred.
American Airlines will extend your miles by 18 months if you buy a minimum 1,000 additional miles for just under $60.
But these are only some of the options available. I related Rubin's situation to Peterson and asked whether there were any other cool tricks he should know about.
Peterson could hardly contain himself as he started running down some of the many alternatives available to frequent fliers aligned with Delta and most other major carriers.
For example, a program called e-Miles. Customers of Delta, Continental, US Airways, AirTran Airways and other airlines can go to http://www.e-miles.com and spend a few minutes watching promotional videos for various marketers.
For doing that and answering some follow-up questions, you'll be awarded additional miles and your mileage account's clock will be reset at the beginning.
"How cool is that?" Peterson asked. "And it won't cost you a thing."
Some other tips:
• Shop online. Nearly every major frequent-flier program has a shopping program that allows you to earn miles at the sites of affiliated retailers — and in so doing score additional longevity for your mileage account.
Delta's program, for example, will allow you to shop at Best Buy, Land's End and hundreds of other online merchants.
"Most people are probably going to buy things online anyway," Peterson said. "If you stop at the airline's website first, you'll be able to show activity on your mileage account and extend its lifespan. Even one mile earned resets the counter."
• Take online surveys. Airlines and their business partners frequently offer miles in return for answers to a few survey questions.
"You can earn 250 miles in just a few minutes," Peterson said. "And, again, you can reset your counter."
• Give miles as a gift. Most frequent-flier programs allow you to give miles to someone else, just like buying a gift card.
"You can make someone happy and add years to your account," Peterson said.
The bottom line is this: Airlines want to see some activity on your frequent-flier account, one way or another, and they make it relatively easy to perform mileage-related transactions.
The problem is that they don't necessarily do a good job of informing people about what options are available. That's not their job, to be sure. As Peterson said, frequent fliers have a responsibility to know the terrain.
But airlines can do more to ensure that people at least have ready access to all the information they need, and in plain English.
Otherwise, as was almost the case with Rubin, frequent fliers could end up with subscriptions to Field & Stream and Popular Mechanics just to keep their miles intact.
And that's probably not the best way to keep customers happy.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.