What to do when you have miles stranded in frequent flyer programs
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I can’t be the only one frustrated with how many miles I have stranded in less-than-ideal programs right now.
For years, I’ve been careful not to collect stranded miles, you know, those small point balances spread across programs you don’t really use that will never accumulate to anything of worth. This year, despite my best intentions, I found myself with a fair amount of miles spread around random programs anyway.
My story is nothing new: One trip after another was canceled over the past year and a half for circumstances outside my control.
After moving miles from my credit card programs to specific airlines, I booked award tickets only to have them canceled because flights weren’t operating, borders were closed to nonessential travel or I deemed the experience would be so heavily modified that I didn’t want to go anymore.
Despite doing everything the “right” way, I now have miles where I don’t want them. I can’t use points for cash back and I can’t move miles to a different airline that has award space to where I actually want to go, given new constraints. And I can’t consolidate all those points for some mega-luxury blowout (but wouldn’t that be fun?).
Since I know I’m not the only one working through this very first-world problem, let’s take a look at a few options for what to do with your stranded miles.
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Check expiration policies
Before you start to stress over your stranded miles and points, confirm when they’re set to expire. This obviously won’t use up any of your mileage balances, but it’ll help you prioritize which ones to focus on first and determine where you still have more of a runway.
Remember, some frequent flyer programs have even announced extensions compared to their normal policies, so you may have more breathing room than you thought. In most cases, these extensions are automatic but others require a few hoops. ANA, for example, requires you to register for an extension to keep miles alive until March 31, 2022.
For the most part, you can manually extend expiration dates if you need to buy more time.
Most programs push expiration back another 12-24 months with any form of account activity, such as traveling with the program, making a redemption of any size, transferring in bank points, buying something through their shopping portal or using their cobranded credit card. Learn more about keeping your points and miles from expiring.
Sadly, a handful of programs have customer-unfriendly policies.
For example, Wyndham Rewards expire four years after accrual, regardless of whether or not you’ve had any account activity. In cases like that, you’ll have to find creative workarounds to reset the clock unless you can redeem your rewards before expiration.
Top off your accounts
If the only thing stopping you from redeeming your stranded miles is a balance that’s too small for your preferred award, topping off your account is the obvious solution.
Since most of my stranded miles ended up that way from converting transferable points to begin with, it’s as simple as initiating another transfer to top off my frequent flyer miles. Remember that some airlines partner with several types of transferable points, so even if you transferred Citi ThankYou points the first time, you might be able to tap into Amex Membership Rewards this time. That flexibility is key if your bank balance is still drooping from the initial transfer.
Who knows, you may get lucky — there may be a transfer bonus running that makes the account top-off more lucrative.
Other options are transferring in hotel points — Marriott has relatively reasonable transfer ratios — though those conversions often take a week or more. Buying miles is another option, though prices can be high. We don’t recommend that avenue unless you have an immediate, specific use for those miles or points, but it’s an option.
In a perfect world, you’d be able to use your stranded miles toward the dream trip you’re planning, even if it’s not the way you originally intended.
Maybe you wanted to book a United flight for your next trip, but your stranded British Airways Avios can get you there with American Airlines. In that case, an easy pivot could use up those unallocated miles. However, it’s not always that simple, in which case it might be time to think of a second trip (I know, it’s a tough life, right?).
As much as I wanted to fly premium economy with Virgin Atlantic miles for a long weekend in London, it no longer feels worth the hassle at the moment. Those Flying Club miles can be alternately used for a flight on Delta or another partner that heads to a destination with fewer pandemic headaches and hassles.
The trade might feel disappointing now, but it won’t as soon as I’ve arrived in Mexico.
If you have enough miles on hand for a redemption but the other costs of travel have you worried, think outside the box. Airfare covered with miles can be paired with hotel points to keep costs down, but you’re not doomed if you only have points to cover one of the two. Pair a road trip with free hotel nights or take a flight to visit a friend who’s willing to host you. There’s always a way to make it work.
Treat your family and friends
If time’s not on your side, you don’t necessarily have to be the traveler even if you’re paying with your miles.
My most recent award redemption wasn’t glamorous at all: I used 10,000 American AAdvantage miles to cover my sister’s flight to come to visit me. She’s thrilled to save $225 on cash airfare and I’m thrilled to have quality time with her while she’s in town.
Of course, you can book travel on behalf of another person even if they’re not flying to see you. Treat your partner to a weekend away without the kids. Fund your parents’ 50th-anniversary trip. Cover your friend’s airfare in hopes they’ll pick up your bar tab back home someday. If you have the miles, spread some sunshine around!
Depending on the program, using points and miles to book awards for other people may have restrictions so check up on rules ahead of time, just in case.
Decide if ‘good enough’ is good enough
I try really hard to get strong value with every redemption. After all, I put a lot of effort into earning miles so I certainly don’t want to waste them. However, in the past few months, I’ve cut myself more slack.
When an opportunity came up to use up my remaining Singapore miles for 1.5 cents each, I took it. Yes, I could sit around and wait for a better redemption in the future since Singapore extended their expiration by about six months, but I wasn’t sure I’d need another flight in the future. I had an immediate need, a surplus of miles and a reasonable way to save some cash. “Good enough” would have to do.
Only you know your personal situation, including how many miles you have available to burn and what shape your bank account is in. I don’t have enough miles to mindlessly throw them away but I’m comfortable enough to accept anything with a fair valuation. I might be pickier in the future but for now, I have no regrets.
Donate to a good cause
There are tons of ways to use your miles for good, including donating your miles to nonprofit programs like Miles4Migrants, which helps fund airfare for refugees and other asylum-seekers who can’t afford the cost of travel. Making a donation through this program is essentially using your miles to book award travel for other people, with the major difference being you haven’t actually met the passenger.
That’s far from the only donation option, though. Major U.S. airline and hotel programs partner with select charities to convert your miles into much-needed cash. Donations often start at just 1,000 miles, which is a good way to make the most of those last few miles that would otherwise disappear.
Donating your miles may not have the same excitement factor as booking an adventure, but it’s a great way to give back and make a difference in someone else’s life.
How to avoid stranded miles
The best-case scenario is never to end up with stranded miles in the first place, but this year I think we’ve all had our plans turned upside down in one way or another. I never intended to have miles sitting around without an expected use but life happens and this isn’t the end of the world.
Still, in the future, there are a few ways to avoid most situations where stranded miles might come up:
- Don’t transfer miles from credit cards to airline or hotel accounts until you’re ready to use them. Award space (and prices) fluctuate and can leave you out of luck.
- Don’t buy miles unless you have a specific use for them — and ideally one you can book immediately so you won’t end up accidentally spending money for something you can’t use.
- When possible, take advantage of alliances and other partnerships to consolidate your earnings into a single account instead of collecting them in small amounts that aren’t redeemable toward anything.
No one wants to end up with stranded miles. After you’ve worked so hard to build up your balances, it’s understandable that you’d want to redeem miles for your dream trip without wasting any along the way.
But when life doesn’t go your way, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. There will always be another way to use those miles, and who knows? It might end up being the unexpected trip of a lifetime after all.
Featured photo by Allen.G/Shutterstock.com.
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