Editorial Policy

How to keep your miles alive without buying stuff you don’t need

Kristin McGrath

November 22, 2013

I got an email from Southwest Airlines warning me that my miles would be expiring in January. Rapid Rewards points expire after two years. Because I now live in American Airlines territory, it’s been a while since I’ve earned points.

I’ve already let my points with AirTran and Frontier expire this year because I had so few points with them that keeping them alive wasn’t worth the hassle. Yet Southwest is different. Although I recently cashed in most of my points, my remaining balance puts me more than half way to a free one-way ticket. I don’t fly Southwest that often, but I’ve decided I’d like to keep those points around. If I happen to make a couple trips with them in the next couple years, I’d like to get a free ticket out of the deal.

The easiest way to keep rewards points active is to earn more points. The problem is, I don’t have a credit card with Southwest. If my Aadvantage miles with American were in danger of expiring, I could re-up my entire balance by buying groceries with my Aadvantage card. I can’t do that with Southwest.

Southwest’s email had a variety of suggestions for keeping my miles valid without a credit card, but most required buying stuff via its rewards portal — mostly stuff I don’t need or want.

My first plan of action was to buy something small, like a song on iTunes. This is the go-to advice for keeping points active among rewards bloggers, and I was happy to see that I could earn points via the Apple Store through Southwest’s shopping portal. But then I read the fine print:

“… not eligible on Apple iTunes purchases through the Apple Store.”

Never mind.

I then considered buying a gift card on the rewards portal and then using it for something I needed. Yet the selection on Southwest’s shopping portal was pretty limited. Although there were gift cards for many stores I’d love to shop in, none of those stores offered anything I was planning to buy. Nor did they match the interests of anyone on my holiday gift list.  So I decided that getting a gift card would just become an excuse to stray from my budget.

There is one thing I buy every week, though, that will also keep my points alive: A meal out. My boyfriend and I dine out once a week as a special treat and as motivation to cook most meals at home.

Southwest, like many other airlines, offers a dining program: You register a card (it can be any debit or credit card in your wallet) with the airline. If you eat at one of the airline’s partner restaurants and pay with that card, you earn points.

I’d never considered joining an airline’s dining program before (I hate keeping track of rewards). But in this case, signing up provides a convenient solution for my expiring-points problem. I scrolled through the list of Southwest’s dining partners and found a place where I just so happen to have an unused gift card for. I’ll pay for part of the meal with the gift card, pay for the rest on the card I just registered, earn a few Rapid Rewards points and relax for another two years, knowing my points are safe and sound.

Oh, and because I registered my rewards card for the dining program, I’ll earn 1 Aadvantage mile per dollar spent. I also registered the card with American’s dining program. Although I don’t plan to seek out restaurants in its network, a few extra miles here and there couldn’t hurt.

Although keeping miles active is relatively easy, point expiration is frustrating. You earned those points by doing time in the air. And, unlike food, it’s not as if they’ll spoil if you let them sit around too long. Forcing you to keep points active is just the airlines’ way of getting you to spend more money (either with them or with their partners) — so don’t spend more than you have to. These tips from travel experts will help:

BoardingArea has a list of 36 odd and random ways to keep your points active, from getting an insurance quote to taking surveys.

The Points Guy recommends linking every piece of plastic in your wallet to the dining programs of every airline you fly. Once you’ve got it all set up, it’s an effortless way to earn points — and keep yours active.

If you do let your miles expire, you can buy them back. MileValue explains how.

WorldWanderlusting has the expiration polices for all major U.S. Airlines, so you won’t be surprised.

The Well Traveled Mile suggests donating miles to charity or transferring points from other programs into your mileage account to prolong the life of miles that are gathering dust.