Points and miles stranded in frequent flyer programs: What to do

Sometimes an award redemption doesn’t work out, and you must cancel and redeposit the points or miles back into your account. Or you may have earned some rewards through crediting flights to a specific airline loyalty program, but now your reward balance seems too small to be useful.

Even if you do your best to avoid stranded points and miles, you may still have rewards scattered across various airline loyalty programs. Here are a few ways you can deal with stranded points and miles.

Check expiration policies


Before worrying too much about your stranded rewards, take a moment to check their expiration dates. Rewards in some programs, including HawaiianMiles, Southwest Rapid Rewards and United MileagePlus, won’t expire.

And there are sometimes ways to extend the expiration date of your rewards. You can keep your points and miles from expiring in many programs by earning or redeeming rewards. So, taking a flight, booking an award, making a purchase after clicking through an online shopping portal or using a cobranded airline credit card to make a purchase may extend the validity of your rewards.

Unfortunately, a few programs have less customer-friendly policies. For example, regardless of account activity, Malaysia Airlines Enrich points expire at the end of the month, three years after you earned them. In such cases, you may need to redeem your rewards before they expire.

It’s important to familiarize yourself with the specific rules of each program to prevent your rewards from expiring. And as always, we recommend redeeming your points and miles sooner rather than later, as frequent devaluations mean your rewards may become less valuable the longer you hold them.

Related: How to get your points and miles back after they expire

Top off your accounts

American Airlines miles generally expire after 24 months without activity. KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

If you have stranded points or miles and are just shy of the required balance for your desired award, it can make sense to top off your account so you have enough rewards to book an award flight.

Keep in mind that some airlines have partnerships with multiple transferable currencies. For example, you can transfer American Express Membership Rewards points, Chase Ultimate Rewards points and Citi ThankYou Rewards points to JetBlue TrueBlue. It’s also worth checking whether current transfer bonuses can make the top-off even more valuable.

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Buying points or miles is also an option if you need to top off your account to book an award. However, compare the purchase rate to our points and miles valuations to determine whether doing so will provide good value.

Related: When does it make sense to buy points and miles?

Book flights for yourself

United Polaris business class. KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

In an ideal scenario, you can use your stranded rewards on a trip you’re already planning to take. For example, you might have your eye on a United Airlines-operated flight for an upcoming trip. But, if you have stranded British Airways Avios, you might decide to fly with a Oneworld airline like American Airlines that you can book with your Avios.

However, it’s not always that straightforward. In such cases, you might need to plan a different trip or change your plans to redeem your stranded rewards. Especially if the points or miles expire soon, it may be worth redeeming them at a suboptimal redemption rate to utilize them.

Related: How this couple used credit card bonuses to book a $15,000 honeymoon trip to Japan

Book award flights for others

You could book a family trip to use your stranded rewards. SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

If your points or miles are expiring soon and you don’t want to book a trip for yourself, it could be the perfect time to book an award flight for someone else using your rewards. For example, you could treat your partner to a weekend getaway without the kids, arrange a special trip for your parents’ 50th anniversary or fly a friend out to visit.

Some loyalty programs require extra paperwork to book an award flight for someone else, though. And some loyalty programs only allow you to book award flights for particular family members. So, check the rules of your specific loyalty program before deciding to redeem your stranded rewards for someone else’s travel.

Related: Using points and miles to book airline tickets and hotels for others

Consider a lower-value redemption

The Holiday Inn Johannesburg Airport in South Africa. KATIE GENTER/THE POINTS GUY

We all want to get the maximum value from our points and miles. But when an opportunity arises to use your stranded rewards, it might be worth taking — even if it’s for a lower-value redemption.

For example, we typically don’t recommend redeeming airline rewards for hotel stays or magazines since these redemptions usually provide a lower redemption rate than if you redeemed for flights. But, if your points or miles are expiring soon, the lower-value redemption may be the best way to use your stranded rewards.

Related: How to decide whether to use cash or miles for airline tickets

donate points and miles to charity. Donations often start at just 1,000 points or miles, making it a great way to use stranded rewards that would otherwise go unused.

One option to consider if you want to donate your points and miles is Miles4Migrants, which helps provide airfare for refugees and asylum-seekers who cannot afford the cost of travel. While donating your points or miles may not give you the same excitement as booking a personal adventure, it is a wonderful way to give back and positively affect someone else’s life.

Related: The 6 best credit cards to maximize your charitable donation

Tips to avoid stranded rewards


Ideally, you won’t need to deal with many stranded rewards. Here are a few ways to reduce your chances of ending up with stranded rewards:

Following these guidelines can minimize the chances of ending up with stranded rewards in the future.

Related: I had miles stuck with Singapore Airlines — here’s how I finally used them

Bottom line

If you have rewards stranded in one or more airline loyalty programs, start planning how to use these points or miles. If the rewards don’t expire — or don’t expire soon — you can take your time deciding how to best redeem them. But especially if the expiration date is approaching, you may need to top off your account to redeem or opt for a less-than-ideal redemption.

Additional reporting by Becky Pokora.

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