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It’s Time for Your Annual Frequent Flyer Checkup: The Extra Mile

Use these tips to maximize your miles before year's end—and to plan for next year.

Six weeks, that’s all the time you have left to do your annual frequent flyer checkup. Will you pass? This is your friendly reminder to take stock of where you stand with your preferred airline and hotel partners. Otherwise, when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, you may find yourself with fewer elite status benefits in the new year.

Why should you care?

Many airlines and hotel companies base their status rewards on the calendar year, which means your travel patterns for 2015 can affect the benefits and treatment you receive in 2016. What makes this year a bit different is that Delta and United, two of the largest domestic carriers, altered their reward programs to grant status by keeping track of not only how much you travel but also how much you spend. If you haven’t been paying attention, this could mean a rude awakening come January.

Take a look at your airline mileage accounts to see if you need more miles to reach elite status. Perhaps you need to spend more on an affiliated airline credit card to meet the elite status requirements. If you do need to fly more or spend more, you have six weeks to make that happen.

Maybe take a "mileage run" (a geeky term for flights that savvy travelers book for the sole reason of meeting an airline program's mileage requirements). Or take a staycation at a nearby hotel if you’re getting close to achieving hotel elite status. A couple hundred bucks could pay off in the long run if it means more upgrades or airline and hotel lounge access for a year.

Don’t let those hard-earned points or benefits expire

Another important reminder: Check the status of loyalty program accounts that may have been inactive. While not all travel providers put expiration dates on their miles or points, many do, and often the threshold is 18 months. So make it an annual ritual to review your accounts and ensure there has been some type of activity—accrue more miles or points in the program, or redeem miles or points for travel, magazine subscriptions, or merchandise. What you need is some sort of movement in your account to prove to the airline that you’re still interested.

OK, let’s say you don’t care about gaining elite status next year or growing your points balance now. There still may be some swanky extras that you were awarded that will expire at the end of the year. Credit card companies sometimes dole out lounge passes; airlines give drink and upgrade vouchers to frequent travelers. Rifle through your desk drawers and make use of the benefits you worked hard for. Or trade them with like-minded travelers. Regulations prohibit selling these items, but online forums and points websites often encourage trading them so they don't go to waste.

Did everyone get what they deserved?

As part of your year-end checkup, do a quick review to make sure that the miles and points that you accrued over the course of the year were actually credited to your account. You would be surprised how often partner airlines and hotel companies do not talk to each other, leaving countless miles and points on the table. Making sure that mileage and points are properly credited is key—always save your boarding passes and receipts. 

It’s not just about you, either. Think about the friendly faces that have helped you in your travels. Surely, someone at your local airport has gone above and beyond the call of duty on your behalf. Perhaps a lounge or gate agent bent the rules a bit for you. Remember them—and thank them—at year’s ends. Many travel companies give members "job well done" certificates that you can, in turn, give to employees who have made your travel experience better. These typically have expiration dates, so don't let them go to waste—the employees can redeem them for rewards or prizes. 

Two thumbs up

We’re all busy, especially during the holidays, but it never hurts to take a recess to reassess where we stand in the world of travel rewards. While you’re at it, plot your strategy for the coming year so that you can maximize your miles and points. Take a look at what your potential travel patterns might be and decide which airline or hotel offering best fits what is important to you. Are you after first class upgrades? Or is racking up the most miles important to you? Each airline has tweaked its program just enough that selecting one over another could make a big difference to you. 

The mileage doctor will give you two thumbs up if you close out the year without any forgotten benefits and you achieve your elite status goals. The prognosis is good—if you are a careful practitioner of miles-and-points collecting.

Ramsey Qubein wings his way to every corner of the globe covering the hotel, cruise, and airline industry, scooping up points and miles along the way. He has visited 164 countries and flies nearly 350,000 miles per year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at DailyTravelTips or on his website RamseyQ.com.