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Air Miles

Air Miles is a loyalty program, but now is not the best time to describe it that way.

Late in 2011, Air Miles quietly informed members that points older than five years would expire at the end of 2016. A late redemption rush is under way and some people can't get the rewards they want. As demonstrated recently on my Facebook personal finance page, they feel Air Miles sold them out.

Air Miles has earned this anger. As it approached the start date for points expiry, it should have helped guide members to the best possible redemption experience. Instead, people are complaining the program seems to be making merchandise rewards available to some members, but not others. Also, reward flight options are limited and there are reports of long waits to reach Air Miles people by phone.

Related: Rewards programs: Will they go the Air Miles expiry route?

Carrick on money: Will Air Miles step up and do the right thing?

Customer loyalty programs are a business, and that means members sometimes get squeezed to boost revenues and profits. Fight back by understanding how these programs work and altering your redemption habits.

The first thing you need to know is that loyalty programs typically have a life cycle. They start out offering generous rewards to secure your loyalty to the goods and services of member companies, then years down the line they rein things in a bit. As large volumes of unused points build up, they will be tempted to introduce an expiry date. Unused points can be a liability on a loyalty program's books, so there's definitely pressure to deal with hoarders who never make a redemption.

The best way to insulate yourself against rule changes that prejudice your ability to get the rewards you want is to redeem points frequently and not accumulate them over the long term.

Increasingly, reward programs are luring clients into doing just this. American Express recently introduced a service called Use Points for Purchase that allows holders of several of its cards to redeem points for purchases of goods or travel using their smartphone, tablet or computer.

Amex requires you to redeem at least 1,000 points at a time, which are worth $10 when applied against spending on travel and $7 on other purchases. Log into your account through a mobile app on the Amex website, pick an eligible transaction and then click where it says "use points for purchase." A credit is then applied to your card balance within 48 hours.

There's something very satisfying about collecting reward points until you have enough for a big trip or purchase. But you should do this only if you have a reasonable chance of reaching a critical mass of points within three to five years.

I've been collecting Air Miles for 25 years or so and have roughly 4,000 points, which can't get me anywhere I want to go through reward flights without unappealing stopovers or connections. I would have been better off redeeming points as I went along and, in fact, that's what I'm starting to do immediately by switching from dream rewards (travel, merchandise mainly) to cash rewards that can be redeemed in stores while making a purchase.

I kind of let my Air Miles slide. Don't make that mistake. Review the number of points you have in your loyalty programs and then pick a realistic reward target. If a your goal of flying to New Zealand on points will take another 12 years at your current rate of earning points, maybe you should fly to Vancouver or New York instead.

Air Miles and Aeroplan built huge franchises on travel rewards, which tend to give the best value per point earned by members. But a versatile cash-back credit card can be more practical for the casual points collector. With some cards, you can redeem points against spending on routine purchases as well as travel.

Amex's Use Points for Purchase service highlights how some cards now let you micromanage your rewards by applying points against specific purchases. Instead of waiting until you have enough to pay the full cost of a flight or a new pair of headphones, you can redeem points to partly cover the purchase.

Savvy loyalty program members expect negative changes at some point and manage their points accordingly. They redeem frequently or save up points for no more than a few years. When a reward program gets less generous or decides that old points should expire, these savvy collectors can say they were ready for it.


Air Miles timeline

Here's how events have unfolded as Air Miles prepares to implement its plan to have points older than five years start expiring at the end of 2016:

The big news: Air Miles announces late in 2011 points older than five years will start to expire at the end of 2016.

The big sleep: Everyone quickly forgets about the deadline.

The big wakeup: The Air Miles points expiry policy starts getting renewed attention in the media in the early months of 2016.

The big comedown: Frustration builds in summer 2016 as Air Miles members try to redeem points older than five years before they expire.

The big ask: A petition asking Air Miles to help people preserve their points is created in September 2016:

The big pushback: An Alberta man tries to launch a class action lawsuit against Air Miles parent LoyaltyOne Co. that claims the points expiry is an "unfair, unilateral change."