Should you buy back expired miles?

Whether you earned them with a credit card sign-up bonus or over years of flying, you were saving those miles for … something … someday. But when the time finally comes, they’re not there. airline miles expired

In general, hotel and airline loyalty programs require “activity” in your loyalty account (earning or using miles) at least once every 12 to 36 months, depending on the program. So, if your account has been dormant, the miles you left sitting there may have expired.

While some airlines (and nearly all hotel chains) won’t let you revive expired rewards, a handful of carriers (including American, United and Alaska) give you the option to buy them back:

  • Alaska lets you reinstate miles for a flat $75 fee.
  • American Airlines has three buy-back tiers ($200 for 1 to 50k expired miles; $400 for 50k to 75k expired miles; $600 for more than 75k expired miles).
  • United has more than 20 buy-back tiers, ranging from $50 for 1 to 5k expired miles and $2,500 for more than 500k expired miles.

Given the option, should you pay to reinstate your miles? The answer depends on a variety of factors.

Why rewards programs expire your hard-earned rewards

You earned those miles fair and square, and it’s not costing the program anything to keep them active – so why do programs charge you to reinstate expired miles?

“It’s unfortunate, and it’s hard for a consumer to wrap their head around,” says Ari Charlestein, president of reward-booking site Award Magic. “But think of it from a business perspective. It costs them nothing to do, but they make money doing it.”

Another business advantage: Keeping miles active involves engaging in the program, whether you’re redeeming miles, earning points with a co-branded credit card or taking a flight.

“The metric they use to entice the consumer to keep their miles active is to give them more business,” Charlestein says.

Should you buy your miles back?

Ideally, you shouldn’t even be asking this question. There are lots of simple ways to keep your miles active (including some that don’t even involve flying, such as buying music downloads via the program’s portal or using the program’s affiliated credit card). Plus, those with significant mileage balances are probably frequent fliers, who are constantly re-upping all their miles every time they fly.

“It’s highly unlikely that anyone who’s put significant money into a loyalty program would completely forget about it for 18 to 24 months and simply let them expire,” says Mike Choi, co-founder of rewards-booking service “There might be a few outliers out there with folks who may have switched from flying and spending from United to AA and forgot about their account. I really don’t see that happening.”

Still, “it does happen to the best of us,” Charlestein says.

For example, maybe you earned a bunch of miles with the airline’s credit card, closed the card to avoid the annual fee and were remiss in the care and feeding of your loyalty account.

Before paying to bring your miles back, consider these things:

  • The buy-back cost: “Paying to re-instate miles depends on your particular situation, but in most cases it’s generally not worth it,” Choi says. “You’re essentially buying miles for cash, which tends to be expensive. Additionally, you’re speculating that you’ll use those miles for a future trip.”

    Alaska’s flat fee might be a relatively good deal, all things considered. With American and United, however, you could find yourself paying up to 1 cent per mile, depending on where you fall in your airline’s buy-back brackets. While this is generally less expensive than buying new miles from the airline, when you consider the overall cost, starting from scratch may be a better option.

  • How you plan to use the miles: “For me, hands down, if you don’t have a specific flight in mind you’re bringing these miles back for, don’t bring them back,” Charlestein says.

    Having a specific flight in mind helps you calculate whether the cost of reinstating your miles is worth it.

    For example, say you signed up for a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which lets you transfer points into frequent flier programs, and have racked up 80,000 rewards points. You need 120,000 for a premium-cabin international flight you’re planning to take – and you just had 40,000 United miles expire (which will cost $275 to reinstate, according to United’s buy-back chart). Those 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points plus those expired miles could get you a very expensive ticket.

    “In that case, you’re getting a few-thousand-dollar ticket for a few hundred dollars,” Charlestein says. “All of a sudden it’s not such a bad deal.”

    On the other hand, say you’re thinking of bringing back 25,000 miles (which would cost $175 with United) to get a flight from Chicago to New York. That’s a much worse proposition, Charlestein says, because you may be able to find a flight for roughly the same cost.

    “And now you’re also not going to earn miles on that flight because you paid with miles,” Charlestein says.

  • How many miles expired, and how much money is in your bank account: If you had several hundred-thousand miles expire (which could be enough for a couple international premium-cabin flights) and enough money to bring them back, it might be worth doing so, even if you don’t have a specific trip planned.

    “For a millionaire, paying for a few hundred thousand expired miles could be worth it, “Charlestein says. “As for me, I wouldn’t just go and spend a couple grand on restoring miles. But I do a lot to prevent them from ever expiring anyway.”

Don’t let your miles expire in the first place

“Lots of people have the misconception that, in order to keep your miles from expiring, you have to fly,” Charlestein says.

In reality, re-upping all your miles can be far easier. Most frequent flier programs (there are some exceptions) will restart the clock on all your miles every time there’s activity on the loyalty account – even if it’s earning or redeeming 1 single mile.

“Usually any kind of activity, whether it’s a redemption or accrual to the account will generate activity and reset the expiration counter,” Choi says.

That could include redeeming miles for a magazine subscription, using a credit card tied to the program for a single purchase or buying a music download via the program’s online rewards mall.

If you don’t interact frequently with your program, consider using a loyalty program tracker (both Choi and Charlestein recommend AwardWallet) that sends you alerts well before your miles expire.

“Signing up for one of these aggregators is a great way to track your programs, and I would advise anyone with multiple loyalty accounts to sign up,” Choi says.

Can you beg for your miles back?

You can try. Some have had success, especially with programs that don’t have an “official” miles-reinstatement policy. For example, Jared Blank of Online Travel Review described how he got British Airways to revive 105,000 Avios.

However, if an airline can make money resuscitating your miles, your chances are slim, especially after they’ve already expired.

“The big phrase in the points and miles world is ‘YMMV – your mileage may vary,'” Charlestein says. “And that would be underlined, italicized and bolded in this case.”

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