What to do with Unused Airline Miles or Unused Airline Points
Today we’re going to take a look at what to do with with those pesky unused airline miles sitting in your account when you don’t have enough saved up to book a free flight. This is a problem that every traveler faces and it can happen for a number of reasons. Maybe you just booked an award flight and you have a small number of miles left over. Maybe you took a flight on an airline you don’t typically fly so you only have one flight’s worth of reward miles. Regardless of how you got here, those miles have value, and if you can’t use them, that value is lost.
Let’s take a look at four strategies for dealing with leftover airline miles:
- Earning the right points and miles for you
- Saving your points or miles for later
- Topping off your points and miles accounts
- Transferring your points or miles to a different program
Earning the Right Airline Points and Miles for You
This first step to dealing with this problem is preventing it from happening in the first place. This means ensuring you are earning the right miles for you whenever you travel. This isn’t always possible, especially if you travel infrequently, but there are a few strategies you can use.
First, choose one or two airlines and try to focus your travel on them. Often times people will focus on finding the cheapest fair and spread their business across many airlines. This results in multiple accounts with only a handful of miles. Choosing a first choice and second choice airline will allow you to focus your travel and extract some value out of your loyalty.
Consider selecting a major airline and a discount airline that both service your home airport. This will give you the best chance of finding the lowest fair on one of your preferred airlines.
Another scenario that is very common is flying on an international airline for a big vacation or business trip that you are unlikely to fly ever again. In this case, take a look at who the airline partners with. Almost every major international airline partners with domestic airlines and will allow you to earn miles for your flight on a different carrier.
Are you flying KLMs non-stop from San Francisco to Amsterdam? You can earn Delta miles on that flight.
Are you flying JALs non-stop from New York to Tokyo? You can earn United miles on that flight!
A little bit of research can help you squeeze some extra value out of those long flights.
Saving your Points and Miles for Later
If you can’t find the right redemption for your miles right now, another option will be to simply hang onto them for later. They key here is understanding if your miles could expire, and if they can, what to do to keep them in your possession.
The chart below shows the expiration policy as of July 2019 for most major US carriers. Note that activity means earning or using at least 1 mile on your account. Take a quick look to see if the airline you have miles with will let those miles expire. If they do, then read on…
|Airline||Airline Mileage Expiration Policy|
|Alaska Airlines||Activity within the last 24 months|
|American Airlines||Activity within the last 18 months|
|Delta Airlines||Do not expire!|
|Frontier Airlines||Earned miles within last 6 months|
|Hawaiian Airlines||Activity within the last 18 months|
|JetBlue Airways||Do not expire!|
|Southwest Airlines||Earned miles within last 24 months|
|Spirit Airlines||Earned miles within last 3 months|
|Sun Country Airlines||36 months after date earned (regardless of activity)|
|United Airlines||Activity within the last 18 months|
To keep an account active most airlines will simply require activity on your account. The good news is that there are many ways to log a qualifying activity that doesn’t even involve sitting on a plane. A great place to quickly log an activity is by shopping through the airlines partners. Take a look at the “earning miles” page for your airline to see what options are available. Here’s where to look for the major US airlines:
- American Airline Miles – Look for the AAdvantage eShopping Mall
- Delta Miles – Look for SkyMiles Shopping
- United Miles – Look for MileagePlus Shopping
Topping off your Airline Miles Account
If you’re close to that next award flight but just need a few more miles, then topping off your account is the way to go. Most airlines will give you an option to buy points, but that is rarely a good deal. Often the cost to do so will be more than the flight you’re trying to book–ugh.
Instead, think of other programs where you might be able to transfer points in. Be cautious about the value you are receiving when you do this. If you have to transfer 10,000 points to get 1,000 miles, you’re probably getting a raw deal.
Start by assessing the value of each point in each program. There are many ways to do this with varying complexity. The Points Guy maintains a monthly valuation of points that is a good starting place, but not perfect. The true value is determined by what the points are worth to you.
For example, you have 5,000 points in a certain hotel program that you are unlikely to use. In fact, you had such a bad experience last time you stayed at that hotel that you’ll never stay at the chain again. It was so bad that you used your dirty t-shirt as a pillow case (yup, we’ve all been to that hotel…). To you, those points are worthless. Turn them into anything else!
What are your Frequent Flyer Miles Worth?
Finding your personal value of the points can be as simple as doing a little math. Go to the airline or hotel’s website, search for a destination you may visit and log the number of points your desired option requires and the cost if you booked it outright. Divide the cost by the points and that is your value!
Now that you have an idea how much your points are worth to you, here are a few common options for topping off your accounts:
Transfer Credit Card Points into Airline Miles
Have a travel rewards credit card? Many of them will allow you to transfer your credit card points into airline miles. This is generally not a good value for your credit card points, but it is a great way to add a few extra points or miles to your account to get that next award. Check with your specific card to see the programs they partner with. Here are a few of the popular transfer partners by card issuer (Last Updated July 2019):
|Credit Card Provider||Airline (Transfer Ratio)|
|JP Morgan Chase|
You’ll notice that American Airways is notably missing from this list, while United Airlines and Delta Airlines (the other two major US carriers) are included. If you’re trying to add a few miles to your American Airways account, the best bet is to look towards transferring from hotel loyalty programs.
Transfer Hotel Reward Points into Airline Miles
If you don’t have a pile of credit card points laying around, then the next place to look is hotel rewards programs you may have points with. Major hotel chains often have many airline partners (including American Airlines) that they are able to transfer among.
Start by going to your preferred airline’s site and find the section of their rewards program that covers acquiring more miles. This is where you’ll find a section on who they partner with. Here are the respective pages for the major US carriers:
Ask Friends to Transfer you a few Miles
We all have that one friend that travels more than we think is humanly possible–or at least thats how their instagram makes it appear. There is a good chance they are suffering from the same almost-enough-miles-to-fly problem that you are. Consider asking them if they’d be willing to top-off your account.
Believe it or not, they’ll probably be thrilled you asked and eager to help. To make things fair, consider offering to pay for the miles. Now that you know how to value each mile you should be able to come up with a resonable rate.
Nearly every frequent flyer program gives people the option to transfer or gift miles. Sometimes there is a fee associated with the transfer, and sometimes they allow free transfers among family and friends. Check your target program details before asking for help and disclose potential fees to your buddy up front.
And don’t forget those hotel points! Often those transfer more freely.
Transferring your Unused Airline Miles or Unused Airline Points to a Different Program
Ok, so maybe you don’t have points to transfer into your account, another option is to transfer yours out! While airlines will rarely let you transfer among them–even if they are in the same alliance–hotel chains are happy to take them.
This process is fairly straightforward if you know what you have and what you need. It becomes a bit more complicated when your balances are still low across accounts. This is when it becomes useful to target hotel chains that allow for fractional point redemptions.
Below are some of the common hotel chains that allow for this. Transfer your small point balance over to them and you can use it as a credit towards your stay.
|Hotel Chain||Redemption Notes|
|IHG||IHG allows for points + cash at fixed amounts. Check your specific redemption ahead of time to make sure it will work for you|
|Hilton||Hilton allows for points + cash starting at 5,000 points. They will allow you to redeem points in 1,000 point increments.|
|Hyatt||Hyatt provides a points + cash option at 50% of what the room’s full point redemption rate is. This is often a good use of points.|
|Marriott||Marriott will offer you a points + cash option that often results in a devaluation of their points. A room may be 24,000 points, $150 cash, or 12,000 points + $100 cash. That math doesn’t usually work for me.|
The partial point or mile redemption is a great way to use miles that would otherwise go untouched. Just keep in mind that they are often slightly less valuable when you use this process.
Always Travel with a Plan
Hopefully some of these approaches sparked a few ideas for what you might do with your unused airline miles. Better yet, hopefully it has highlighted a few areas where you can be strategic about your travel choices to have more flexibility with those hard earned frequent flyer miles.
Have a scenario that wasn’t covered in this post? Post it to the comments and we’ll come up with a plan together.