Transferring airline miles possible, but not easy

By Ian Halstead

Rewards credit cards have made it easier than ever to rack up frequent flyer points that can be used for free flights or other perks. What happens, though, if a person stops flying, perhaps for health reasons, or because they leave a travel-heavy job, or they die without passing the points to a relative?

It makes no difference if you've used an airline credit card or another card to buy the flights -- only the airline can decide if your points can be transferred, and the process is often complex.

The issue is clearly on many minds. A Lufthansa spokesperson said in an e-mailed response to questions that the topic of transferability is in the airline's top 10 most frequently asked questions.transfer-air-miles

It's not easy to get an answer from most airlines, though. Any time you wish to transfer your (or someone else's) airline rewards, you must submit the request in writing.

We surveyed five of Britain's top airlines to find out more about their transfer policies.

The Miles & More loyalty scheme -- which is Europe's largest by number of members -- doesn't allow points to be transferred directly to someone else. But members can use their own points balances to order awards for family, friends or acquaintances.

If you are no longer able or willing to fly and have a large number of points to redeem, a spokesman said you can do so through any of Lufthansa's 300-plus commercial partners, which include hotels, car rental chains, telecommunications companies and publishers.

However, if a frequent flyer dies and leaves behind a large stash of points, redeeming them becomes more intricate. A beneficiary who is a Miles & More member can request the rewards within six months of the announcement of the account holder's death by providing the account details and PIN.

If you are not a programme member and wish to obtain a deceased member's points, you must instruct a notary to act on your behalf, and the notary must submit either a document of inheritance or a formal testament to Luthansa. The airline will then determine if the points can be transferred.

Like Lufthansa, Emirates allows members who wish not to fly anymore to redeem loyalty points for non-flight rewards with any of the other providers in the Skywards frequent flyer programme.

According to an e-mail from an Emirates spokesperson, Skywards miles accumulated before the death or bankruptcy of a member are immediately cancelled.

"However, Emirates Skywards may, at its sole discretion, reinstate (such) miles in favour of the heirs of the deceased member, upon the application of their personal representative, and provided that the account holds a minimum balance of 20,000 miles at the time of death," the spokesperson added.

United Airlines
United's Transfer Miles programme allows members of its MileagePlus scheme to transfer up to 100,000 of their miles to friends and family every year, in increments of 1,000. The recipient must also be registered with MileagePlus.

"MileagePlus miles are not transferable among members, except within the auspices of our Transfer Miles programme, said the airline's UK spokesperson, in an e-mailed response to questions.

 "We have made case-by-case exceptions after the death or divorce of a member, and when we make such exceptions, we charge a $150 mileage transfer fee."

Virgin Atlantic
"A Flying Club account member is allowed to spend their miles on other people," a Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said in an emailed response to questions. "The member is in charge of their account, and they have the freedom to spend their miles on family and friends. There would be no need to sign over a large volume of miles."

If a Flying Club member dies, Virgin Atlantic will transfer the miles to another account, as long as the recipient provides a death certificate and a copy of the deceased's will showing the proposed transferee is the intended beneficiary of the miles and the requested transfer is undisputed.

"We have lots of redemption partners, including other airlines, hotel chains, Virgin Group companies, and many others," the spokesperson said. "There is no restriction to redeeming miles with partners."

British Airways
BA's official position on such issues appears to be on the less flexible side. The airline's formal position is: "Except as otherwise provided by British Airways and communicated to the member, Avios points are not transferable (whether from person to person, account to account, statement to statement, card to card, or otherwise) other than in accordance with the Conditions of Use relating to Transfer Avios and cannot be bequeathed, devised or otherwise transferred by operation of law."

In reality, there may be some room for compromise. A spokesperson said in an e-mailed response to questions that in the event of the death of a family member, BA encourages customers to contact the airline and it would try to help.

See related: 5 tips for using rewards cards wisely, Abundance of Avios not always enough

Published: 30 September 2014