Why bother to keep your miles from expiring

Photo courtesy of Aaron Wyles

 

Let’s say you have 3,000 miles with Delta, 5,735 miles with US Airways, and 1,326 miles with Virgin America. Redemptions of frequent flyer miles usually start at the 25,000 mark. At this rate, you’ll have enough for an award ticket by the year 20-never. Why in the world should you even bother trying to keep your miles from expiring?

To me, this is a bit like saying, “I have $30 in my Europe fund, $57 in my Hawaii fund, and $13 in my San Francisco fund. Why shouldn’t I throw that money out?” Sounds about the same. (With the small caveat being that you can’t combine mileage accounts like you can travel funds.)

Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike

In 2001, I was at the stage of life that involved traveling by bus. The free companion deals that Greyhound offered at the time enabled me to do crazy things like go from New York to San Francisco and back for $100. (This type of journey still keeps me from complaining too loudly about airline coach class.)

In short, I wasn’t flying anywhere.

Nevertheless, my friends and I hatched this crazy plan to go to Burning Man that year, and I didn’t have the time for a 60 hour bus trip (which is about how long a coast-to-coast trip takes on the bus). So flying it was.

Flying out of Philadelphia, it made sense to fly US Airways. While buying the ticket, I saw that they had a frequent flyer program. What the heck, I thought, and signed up.

For years, I barely was able to keep that account from expiring. But I managed to accrue small amounts of miles here and there, and eventually I finally earned enough for an award trip in about 2009. Eight years after I started collecting miles.

But who cares, I now had enough for an award ticket! A free flight! And the only work I needed to do was make sure that I had some activity on the account once every year-and-a-half. That’s not a lot of work for a pretty nice return.

So what if it takes years?

So aside from thinking of miles like money (because they kind of area), here’s why you should keep your miles from expiring: because you will eventually have enough to redeem them. Just keep it up.

Now, you may want to ensure that you minimize how many different airlines you fly on. You don’t want to spread your mileage balances too thin. But this can be easier then you think. Many people don’t realize that if you fly on United, you can book your miles to US Airways, and vice versa. There are a lot of other airline partners like that too, so look around.

Now, mileage junkies would say that the best awards are the one big tickets ones, like international flights, or first class. And technically that’s true on a per-dollar basis. But I think the best award is the award you take. I personally don’t need to fly first class or even internationally (though both are great). Having enough miles for a domestic award, a free award, across the country, is still pretty awesome.

(Pro tip: If you only have enough miles for a domestic award, save it for when you need to fly during the holidays. Tickets will be super expensive, but the award will still cost the same amount of miles.)

So even though your mileage accounts are small, give them time, and they will eventually become mighty.

And today, due to me getting better and more diligent at the mileage game, plus some fortunate work experiences, I now have enough miles to go anywhere in the world. Or actually everywhere. Take that, Greyhound.

But enough about me. Are you new to the mileage game? Do you have small amounts of miles and not sure what to do with them? Got a travel dream? You can ask me questions by commenting on this post, or by tweeting me at @exvelleitier. Free travel hacking advice with no conflicting financial interests? Now that’s hard to find.

Mike Pumphrey

Mike Pumphrey

I'm the founder and author of Unlikely Radical, a site to help people succeed with money, achieve their goals, and live intentionally.

I offer a free phone consultation to anyone who is interested in changing their financial narrative. Are you ready? Click here for details.
Mike Pumphrey
Posted on September 26, 2013