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How I Lost 168,000 Miles (and How I Plan to Get Them Back)

Dec. 13, 2017
7 min read
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A core part of my role at TPG is to curate our series of Reader Mistake Stories. We get dozens of submissions each week describing all manner of award travel misfortune, and reading through them reminds me that even when we plan well and act carefully, we're all susceptible to slip-ups. That proved painfully true for me this year, since despite being a points and miles expert, I committed one of the cardinal sins of award travel.

In September I logged in to my United MileagePlus account to find my balance of 168,119 miles had been wiped to zero. Horrified, I began investigating and discovered that a MileagePlus Shopping purchase from earlier in the summer had apparently not been recorded. Without that transaction on the books, my miles expired in August when my account reached 18 consecutive months of inactivity.

Fortunately, all is not lost, as United provides several methods for reinstating expired miles. Here are the four options I was presented with to get my miles back, along with my reasons for choosing or rejecting each one.

1. Show Proof of Qualifying Activity

The first option is to show that your miles never should have expired in the first place. If you can demonstrate qualifying activity wasn't properly credited to your account within 12 months of when your miles expire, then they'll be reinstated promptly and at no cost. That shouldn't be difficult if you were supposed to earn miles through flying, but it may prove tricky for other transactions, especially those that involve MileagePlus partners.

I made a small Groupon purchase through the MileagePlus Shopping portal in July. The transaction would have only earned me a few dozen miles, but any amount would have been enough to keep my account active so long as it went through properly. While I specifically made the purchase for that reason, there's no record it was made through the portal, as the only evidence I have is my receipt from Groupon. That's not enough to make my case, so I won't be able to receive credit retroactively.

So what happened? It's possible that the AdBlock extension on my browser prevented the portal from tracking the purchase correctly, or I may have had Groupon open in another tab. Whatever the cause, I should have checked that the miles went through before the expiration date. Had I recognized the problem in time, I could have transferred Ultimate Rewards points to United and avoided this situation entirely.

Overhead view architect working at computer
My purchase through the MileagePlus Shopping portal didn't track correctly. Photo by Hero Images via Getty.

2. Get a Co-Branded Credit Card

The next option falls under what United calls the MileagePlus Reinstatement Challenge, and is likely to be attractive to many award travelers. After paying a non-refundable $100 processing fee, you can reinstate between 20,000 and 750,000 miles when you apply (and get approved) for a co-branded United card, and then use the card to make a purchase. You must register for the challenge within 18 months of when your miles expire, and you have 90 days to meet the other requirements after paying the processing fee.

I like this strategy because it lets me turn my mistake into an opportunity, at least in theory. The United MileagePlus Explorer Card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 40,000 miles after spending $2,000 in the first three months, and the $95 annual fee is waived for the first year. If I were to get this card and meet the spending requirements, I'd recoup the cost of the reinstatement challenge and then some. United routinely offers larger sign-up bonuses for this and other cards, so given the 18-month timeline, I could afford to hold out for more.

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While I think this is a great option, unfortunately it won't work for me. Recent card applications have put me over the limit of Chase's 5/24 rule, and my chances of getting approved for a new account are slim at the moment. I could let a few of those applications age beyond 24 months until I'm back under the limit, but I'd have to impose a moratorium on new personal accounts. That's too costly of a sacrifice given some of the great offers we've seen recently, so it's on to the next option for me!

3. Complete a Round-Trip Flight

If you can't (or don't want to) get a MileagePlus credit card, you can also complete the Reinstatement Challenge by taking a qualifying round-trip flight on United or United Express. The same $100 processing fee applies, and all flights must be completed within 90 days of when you pay it, but you still have 18 months from the expiration date to register. That leaves plenty of room to fit a United flight into your travel plans.

I don't fly United often, since I prefer alternatives to most of the airline's nonstop routes out of Seattle. Still I'm confident I'll be able to make this option work. If nothing else, it gives me a good excuse to book a weekend trip to San Francisco or Denver. United also has several cheap fares out of Las Vegas, so I could tack a quick turnaround onto my next poker getaway. Spending $100 on the processing fee plus another $100 or so on my ticket isn't ideal, but it's worthwhile to reclaim my miles.

You can also complete the reinstatement challenge by taking a round-trip flight.

4. Pay the Reactivation Fee

If all else fails, you can simply buy your miles back. The cost is tiered depending on how many miles you want to reinstate: you'll pay $50 (plus applicable taxes) for 5,000 miles or fewer, $100 for balances between 5,001 and 20,000 miles, and so on up to a maximum of $700 for 500,001 to 750,000 miles. Like with the challenges, you can pay to reinstate miles up to 18 months after they expire, so this is an effective last resort after you've explored your other options.

You might struggle to see buying back your own miles as a "good deal" at any price, but I think it's best to evaluate the purchase at face value. You can either pay and have the miles, or not pay and not have them; it doesn't matter that they were in your account previously. From that perspective, I think reinstating any amount around 10,000 miles or more is an easy win. You'll pay 1 cent per mile at most, and in many cases you'll pay less than 0.5 cents per mile, which is well under TPG's latest valuation. I would buy miles at those prices any day.

Reinstating my 168,000 miles would cost me $500. That comes to under 0.3 cents per mile (before taxes), so I'll definitely take United up on this offer if I can't make the round-trip flight work.

Bottom Line

By getting familiar with expiration policies and keeping careful track of your loyalty accounts, you should be able to avoid losing your points and miles. Don't despair if they do expire, however, because you may be able to get them back.

Paying to reinstate miles won't always be a good deal. For example, American Airlines charges $80 to buy back between 5,001 and 10,000 miles, which isn't a good deal toward the bottom end of that range. Research your options and determine whether you can get more value from your miles than you'll give up to reactivate them. If so, don't be stubborn about buying them back. If not, feel free to let them go for good.

Featured image by Getty Images/Blend Images