Use Your Frequent Flier Account; Inactive Programs Can be Cancelled

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The incentive to redeem frequent flier miles – that free ticket – is not as appealing for travelers as it once was, because of blackout dates, limits on eligible seats, especially for popular destinations, and the lower fares on discount carriers, but not visiting your frequent flier accounts can have a price. Two carriers, Delta and US Airways, recently imposed new rules on inactive accounts. Starting January 31, 2007, US Airways Dividend Miles accounts will be closed and all miles forfeited if there has been no activity in the account for 18 months. Delta Airlines will close their SkyMiles accounts after two years, retroactive from December 31, 2006, the New York Times reports.

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The standard life span for frequent flier miles in inactive accounts before mileage expired had been three years for most of the large domestic carriers. Northwest and Continental say that miles do not expire in their programs, the Time says, but if a Northwest WorldPerks account is inactive for three consecutive years it can be cancelled and all mileage lost. A Continental OnePass account times out at 18 months.

Any account activity keeps the miles alive, including purchases at one of the airlines' retail partners, which award miles with purchases, or at shopping malls on the airlines' web sites. Travelers should go to the airline's web site and click on the partner link, to, or, for example, rather than going directly to the retailer's web site, and make a small purchase using mileage.

Difficult as it may be to purchase a ticket through a rewards program, 15.6 million rewards tickets were issued last year, according to a study by IdeaWorks Co., a Wisconsin consulting firm, but that was only three percent of all tickets sold, the Boston Globe reports. Frequent-flyer credits rose twice as fast as the number of tickets redeemed, in part because certain credit card issuers have partnered with the airlines and are offering mileage points as rewards for using the cards.

The partnerships with credit card issuers have provided cash for the troubled airlines. United Airlines' parent UAL Corp. agreed to allow Chase Bank USA N.A. to purchase miles in advance for $200 million, three months before it emerged from bankruptcy, the Denver Post reports.

But, having recorded the revenue for the ticket through the sale to the credit card company, the airline may be less inclined to make a seat available for frequent flier tickets when it can sell the seat for full price, the Post says.

The growing accumulation of unused miles is a liability for airlines – not so great that it could cause a bankruptcy, the Post says, but enough so that airlines with fewer flights and fewer seats available to be redeemed are looking for new ways for travelers to burn up their miles. In addition to using the online shopping malls and car and hotel booking features on the airline web sites, travelers can also use mileage to make charitable contributions.

United's Airlines' new awards program called “Choices”, for its Mileage Plus Visa cardholders, awards points rather than miles. Travelers can still earn miles by flying, but the points awarded can be used to purchase tickets at a rate based on the normal ticket price or for other travel bookings, the Denver Post says.

Holders of frequent flier accounts should make sure that their postal and email addresses are up-to-date and should read the email messages coming from the airlines, the Times says, because more airlines are expected to make changes to their programs.

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