Don't let your frequent-flyer miles depart without you

Consumer Reports News: May 16, 2013 09:23 AM

After you've racked up all those frequent-flyer miles, the last thing you want to do is lose them. But that's what will happen with most frequent-flyer plans when you don't use the miles within 12 to 36 months. One miles-saving option is to get a cobranded airline credit card with American Express, MasterCard, or Visa. With summer-travel season approaching, it's certainly worth considering.

For instance, whereas American Airlines frequent-flyer miles expire after 18 months, with the Citibank Platinum AAdvantage Visa card, every purchase you make resets the clock on your miles to 18 months. With the United MileagePlus Explorer Visa card, your United Airlines frequent-flyer miles will never expire while you're a card member, even if you don't make any purchases. (Delta is the one major airline whose frequent-flyer miles never expire.)

Keep in mind that travel cards carry an annual fee, though that charge is sometimes waived the first year. What's more, the up-front bonus miles you receive for signing up (as high as 50,000) and the purchases you make within the first few months will add to your pile of frequent-flyer miles. And the perks typically offered, such as free checked baggage for you and family members, could more than offset an annual fee.

Find the best picks in travel credit cards, and check our Ratings of airlines.

Don't want to be tethered to a specific airline? Consider the American Express Premier Rewards Gold, Capital One Venture Rewards Visa, and Chase Sapphire Preferred cards. The frequent-flyer miles on those cards never expire, and you can use them to buy tickets on nearly any airline. Some of the rewards programs linked to those cards, including American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards, also let you transfer miles you've earned to the frequent-flyer programs of individual airlines. Moving just a single mile can help you keep all of your miles in those airline programs active.

If you want to avoid an annual fee or don't want another credit card, check out the online store associated with your frequent-flyer program. These sites typically feature dozens of partner retailers, and buying something with miles might reset the frequent-flyer clock. Another option is the dining program that American Airlines and Southwest Airlines offer: You register any credit card, and whenever you go to a partner restaurant, bar, or club, you earn miles for every dollar spent.

Chris Fichera

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