Time to use 'em or lose 'em Frequent-flier points could quietly expire at end of year

December 25, 1997|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

In the rush of the holiday season, airline passengers could see their valuable frequent-flier points vanish at midnight Wednesday if they're not careful.

More than 50 billion miles are likely to expire unnoticed on Dec. 31 simply because fliers forget to cash in accumulated points, according to Randy Petersen, publisher of Inside Flyer, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based magazine.

"I get a lot of e-mail where people say, 'I was busy. I forgot. Is there anything I can do?' " Petersen said. "I can't emphasize enough that people need to pay attention now."

Airline travelers should check all their certificates and mileage statements -- as well as free hotel stays and airline upgrades -- to make sure that they will be good in 1998. Mileage points expire at various times during the year, typically three years from the time they're issued. Passengers must trade them for certificates which can be used for free travel within a year.

But several airlines -- including British Airways, American, America West, Northwest and United -- have mileage programs that must be converted to certificates by Dec. 31. In addition, points accumulated through AT&T True Rewards program must be redeemed by then.

"This is the first year we have mileage expiring," said John Lampl, a spokesman for British Airways, which established its frequent-flier program in 1992, with a five-year expiration date on mileage points. "We've been notifying members in their monthly mailings, trying to get the word out."

But that didn't help some travelers last summer when they missed the deadline to convert points earned on US Airways to British Airways certificates, and vice versa.

While British Airways and US Airways were partners, passengers traveling on either airline were awarded frequent-flier points that could be used interchangeably. But in March, the two carriers officially dissolved their partnership, ending the point swap. Passengers had until last June to request certificates on either airline. Those now must be used for travel by March 31.

"A lot of people got shut out when they forgot to redeem the miles [in June]," Petersen said. While US Airways passengers no longer earn interchangeable points, those traveling on British Airways' new partner, American Airlines, can use the points interchangeably.

Introduced by American Airlines in 1981, frequent-flier programs were designed to create passenger loyalty by giving repeat customers free trips or upgrades to first class. In recent years, airlines have stepped up their frequent-flier promotions, offering more ways to accumulate points -- and increasingly creative ways to use them.

In addition, corporate tie-ins have provided fliers many more ways to earn points: by using an affinity credit card, placing a long-distance call, renting a car or staying at a hotel.

Typically, people who forget to cash in their points by the deadline fall into two categories: those blessed with so many miles that it doesn't make much difference or those with so few that they don't know how to use them. A free domestic trip usually requires 25,000 points.

But Petersen cautions that passengers may be able to combine expiring points with newer mileage to earn a certificate or free ticket. In addition, some airlines permit travelers to trade 10,000 points for a free hotel stay or rental car while others will allow passengers to "buy down" the price of an airline ticket by using fewer points than are required for a free domestic ticket.

Mileage points also make a great gift, Petersen said. They can be passed to a friend or donated to charities, established by the airlines. American Airlines, for instance, accepts donations for flights for terminally ill children who want to take a special trip to someplace like Disney World.

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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