How Much Should I Pay to Reinstate Expired Airline Miles?

Nov 6, 2016

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TPG reader Jill emailed me to ask about reclaiming expired miles:

“My daughter’s frequent flyer account went unused for a bit and over 48,000 miles expired. United will let us buy them back for $300, which is a lot less than it would cost to buy miles outright. Is that a good deal?”

Letting points and miles expire is one of the cardinal sins of award travel, and it breaks my heart to get questions like this. There are plenty of ways to keep your rewards active, and simply tending to your loyalty accounts from time to time will help you avoid a lapse due to inactivity. That being said, we all make mistakes, and it’s important to know how to handle them.

Some airline and hotel programs are more forgiving than others. I answered a similar question last year from a reader deciding whether to reinstate Hawaiian Airlines miles. In that case, the price was much too high, and my advice was to let the miles go. Fortunately for Jill, her offer from United is much more reasonable.

I think it’s helpful to view this as an opportunity to buy miles inexpensively. United normally sells MileagePlus miles for almost 4 cents apiece, which is a terrible price. Even if you buy during a bonus promotion (where the rate can dip to less than 2 cents per mile), you’ll pay less to reinstate United miles than to buy them otherwise. The fact that those miles were already yours is irrelevant; once they’ve expired, the question boils down to whether you should buy them at the going rate. In this case, the answer is yes.

Despite some recent negative changes to United’s award-booking policies, I value MileagePlus miles at 1.5 cents apiece, so I expect you can get $720 of value out of 48,000 miles. Of course, the redemption value could be higher or lower, but that’s a fair estimate. Paying $300 to get $720 worth of miles is a good move, but that’s only true if you’ll actually use them. There’s no point in paying to reactivate your miles if you plan to redeem for low-value awards or (even worse) let them expire again.

You
Ideally miles wouldn’t expire at all, but United at least lets you reinstate them for a fairly reasonable price.

It’s worth getting familiar with the expiration policies of your favorite loyalty programs. Some miles expire after only a few months, while others never expire. Knowing what to expect can help you avoid losing the miles you’ve earned, and may also help you decide which programs to use in the first place.

If you have any other questions, please tweet me @thepointsguy, message me on Facebook or send me an email at info@thepointsguy.com.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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