In move to please customers, United Airlines announces its air miles will no longer expire

That leaves American Airlines and Southwest as the largest U.S. carriers with miles that expire if travellers don't fly or keep their accounts active

A United Airlines Boeing 737 lands at San Francisco International Airport on April 24, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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United Airlines handed travellers an unexpected bonus Wednesday, announcing that reward miles will no longer expire.

Under the airline’s MileagePlus program, miles had previously expired after 18 months with no activity. As of Wednesday, the carrier joins Delta and JetBlue, which also offer miles with no expiration date.

“We want to demonstrate to our members that we are committing to them for the long haul, and giving customers a lifetime to use miles is an exceptionally meaningful benefit,” Luc Bondar, United’s vice president of loyalty and president of MileagePlus, said in a statement.

While United’s announcement said the new policy was meant to give members “a lifetime to use miles,” spokeswoman Maddie King said those miles could even outlive some people, since there are no hard rules dictating what happens to miles after someone dies. “We work with family members who have lost loved ones to figure out the best way to assist them with MileagePlus accounts and miles,” she said in an email.

The change leaves American Airlines and Southwest as the largest U.S. carriers with miles or points that expire if travellers don’t fly or take other action that would keep their accounts active. Miles on American expire after 18 months of inactivity; at Southwest, points expire in 24 months. Alaska Airlines, a smaller carrier, also warns that inactive accounts expire after two years and miles are deleted.

Industry watchers said they expect to see other airlines follow United’s new move.

“With Delta and now United offering no expiration date for all customers, I would expect American to follow,” says Zach Honig, editor at large of the travel website The Points Guy, which tracks expiration policies at airlines around the world. “Their program is just not as competitive now.”

James Larounis, a travel industry analyst who writes about points and miles for UpgradedPoints.com, said he expects American to make a move quickly, with Southwest following eventually.

We constantly evaluate our AAdvantage program, which is designed to provide value to members every step of the way

“Southwest already has very liberal ticketing policies — no cancellation penalties, no mileage reinstatement fees, etc., so for Southwest, they already have a huge fan base, and one that’s very happy with their program, and the ability to use those miles on a much more regular basis, since the fees are almost nonexistent,” he said in an email. “I think Southwest will eventually move to a no-expiration policy, but I certainly expect American to be the more ‘urgent’ of the remaining carriers.”

Southwest did not immediately respond to questions about its program, called Rapid Rewards. Leslie Scott, a spokeswoman for American, said Wednesday that the airline had no news to share about its program.
“We constantly evaluate our AAdvantage program, which is designed to provide value to members every step of the way,” she said in an email.

Larounis cautioned that although many customers hold onto their miles to save for a big trip, that’s not always the best strategy, whether points expire or not.

“The average traveler hoards those miles to save for a big vacation or aspirational goal, but the airlines are constantly revising their strategy to prevent consumers from getting outsized value,” he said. “It’s never a good idea to continue to save miles for a goal months or years down the road, as at any point in between, the airline could devalue that currency. By extending the life of these miles, it’s a huge marketing ploy.”

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