Don’t worry, there’s no bad news coming in this post. Rather, a presentation at the recent Chicago Seminars made me realize that if something ever happened to me, my family likely wouldn’t have any idea where to start in terms of salvaging the garden of miles & points that I’ve spent years tending. I decided that I needed to put together a simple guide of first steps for my wife / family in case the worst ever happened so that they wouldn’t need to spend countless hours trying to figure this stuff out – or worse yet, let the pile I’ve points I’ve grown for my family’s future travels go to waste. Is that a little morbid? I prefer to think of it as being organized. Hopefully my family won’t need the information in this post for many many many years to come, but I realized that those of us with healthy miles and points balances should make sure that there is a road map to get value out of “the assets that aren’t” (that is to mean that they are kind-of-sort-of “assets” that are worth a lot but yet at the same time totally fictional currencies that by and large are owned by the programs rather than by the member). I’m sure that some readers will have even better ideas or how to simplify or what to include. Please share those ideas in the comments below for the benefit of others looking to create a roadmap for their loved ones.
The impetus for this post
Tiffany Funk of One Mile at a Time (with the assistance of long-time Chicago Seminars attendee and familiar face Dennis) led a short presentation on estate planning for your points and miles during the recent Chicago Seminars. Tiffany is an absolute wealth of knowledge in this game and my favorite miles & points personality who doesn’t work at Frequent Miler, so I was looking forward to whatever she’d be talking about at the Seminars. But at an event consisting of 15-minute presentations, I didn’t expect a topic that would give me such food for thought.
But as Tiffany and Dennis talked about sorting out the details after the passing of a loved one, it certainly did make me realize that I hadn’t done enough to make things easy for my family in the event that they had to figure out my miles and points without me. During their presentation, this excellent One Mile at a Time post about the topic was referenced. I had previously missed that post but now have it bookmarked for future reference.
For the rest of this post, I’ll lay out the basic situation in my household and the steps for my family to follow in the worst case scenario so that these miles and points live on.
Player 2 has the basics down
In my household, “Player 2” (my wife) has the basics of the game down. She can probably tell you which issuer has Membership Rewards points and which has Ultimate Rewards and she knows which credit card to use at the grocery store. I think. She participates in manufactured spending and always asks which points we’ve used for a redemption, though I’m not sure she’s always retained that knowledge. That’s not for an inability to do so but more because of a lack of interest in memorizing what she knows that I already know (which goes both ways: my wife studied biomedical sciences, so I don’t even try to wrap my mind around medical terminology as it is not my area of interest and I know that she can always explain what I need to know when I need to know it).
All that is to say that she certainly knows enough not to redeem all of our miles for magazines or Olive Garden gift cards (not because she doesn’t like magazines or Olive Garden, but rather because she knows there are more valuable uses). But does she know that it’s the American Airlines miles than can be redeemed for Qatar Qsuites and that she can combine all of the Ultimate Rewards from our household accounts onto one card (but can’t do the same with Amex and wouldn’t want to do that with Citi or else face expiration)? Probably not, hence the need for a road map with some steps to keep in mind.
Step 1: Take it slow
First thing’s first: there’s no hurry. Don’t run before you walk and don’t take any step without knowing what comes next.
Years ago, when I was a young driver, I hit a deer with my car and I called my insurance company. I asked whether I needed to call the police to get a report. The insurance representative told me that in this type of situation the police are “kind of like the Swiss in World War II; they’re probably not going to hurt you, but they probably aren’t going to help you, either” — in other words, there was no benefit in proactively reporting the situation and it would likely only complicate things if it had any influence at all.
The same kind of holds true here. Contacting the various loyalty programs and banks to proactively let them know I’ve passed on is unlikely to make anything any easier in the near-term — and there is no going back and saying, “nevermind that death notice”. For instance, upon notice of an account holder’s death, it is certainly possible that the bank/program could immediately lock out online access so that it is no longer possible to log in (and indeed during the presentation one such example of a total bank lockout was given). Being unable to log in and see balances would certainly create a headache in terms of figuring out next steps, so don’t be in a hurry to send out notice before you’ve had a chance to check the lay of the land, record balances, etc.
Keep in mind also that in many cases, points/miles can be redeemed for others. I’ve often booked tickets for friends and family members from my airline miles accounts and in many cases my family could surely continue to do so after I’m gone. Is it against program terms to use the miles or points of the deceased? I guess there’s probably a clause like that in there somewhere. But I imagine the worst that will happen is that the program finds out that I’m gone and they lock down the account and forfeit all the miles — and if they take that stance, it likely means that they would have taken that stance if they had been notified them from the start (so you’re no worse off). Might as well try to make use of the miles first.
Finally, you want to go slow so you don’t do something that you can’t easily un-do/fix. A quick example that comes to mind is ThankYou points: if my wife were to transfer my ThankYou points to her ThankYou account, the points would be set to expire within 60 days, whereas if they stay in my ThankYou account, they can live on as long as the account is open (to be clear, I’m not sure how long it would be feasible to keep ThankYou points alive anyway, so transferring might be the best bet – I’m just providing it as an example that boxes you in on a timeline to use them or lose them).
Step 2: Hold the phone!
One tip that came out of Tiffany and Dennis’s presentation last weekend that wouldn’t have been at the top of my mind was do not cancel my phone line. While canceling the phone wouldn’t have been the first thing I’d have done after a loved one passes, I may not have immediately realized why this is important: 2-factor authentication and changing passwords.
So much of 2-factor authentication these days (whether for banking apps, loyalty programs, or other uses) relies on a text message. Turning that phone line off will immediately create a problem logging in to some sites and/or authenticating a login on a new device.
If my physical phone is available, hold tight to that as well. That’s because my email addresses are all automatically logged in on my phone email client. Email is another option sometimes used for 2-factor authentication and it is almost always necessary when you need to reset a password. The phone gives easy access there.
My phone also provides easy access to a lot of points-and-miles stuff. First of all, most of the hotel apps are automatically logged in, so it is easy to see points balances and even book awards without needing to log in. I also have the Award Wallet app on my phone.
Award Wallet is a tool for tracking points and miles balances that I absolutely loved when I first used it years ago, but I have to admit that I had allowed it to fall out of date — many of my passwords were not kept up over time and when I pulled up the app in preparation for this post, I realized that there are programs I haven’t added to it in which I have or have had significant balances. I’ve since gone through and updated and added programs.
On the one hand, I’m not a big fan of centralizing access to my loyalty accounts for security reasons. On the other hand, the sheer number of accounts that my wife and I have (around 90 loyalty accounts at last glance – and that’s only counting hotel/airline/car rental programs), there just isn’t another manageable way to handle this. Furthermore, Award Wallet gives easy access to auto-login to most of my loyalty accounts with the click of a button within the app. That level of convenience is huge.
As I wrote this post, I realized one more thing that I should have done a long time ago: load the Award Wallet app on my wife’s phone. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to do this, but that would ultimately make it easier for her if my phone were not available.
Password manager: Old fashioned style
I know that many readers use a password manager like Last Pass. We’ve opted for a more old-fashioned system for most of our financial accounts: a notebook with hand-written information. Sure, it’s low-tech, but it is at least less likely to be hacked.
The good news is that my wife has easy access to all of the bank login information. This will help her know what money is where and also which associated points are there as well in terms of bank programs.
Step 3: Combining points
A key point that Tiffany made in her presentation was this: remember that your points don’t belong to you. In most cases, they belong to the program, which can confiscate, invalidate, or otherwise destroy their value. While points and miles clearly have value, they do not pass on like an asset in most cases. However, as noted above, many traditional loyalty program currencies can easily be used to book for others.
For example, most airline programs allow you to easily book flights for anyone. It should be easy to continue to book airline award tickets in a business-as-usual kind of way (for anything redeemed online, anyway).
Hotel programs can be trickier. Some programs (IHG and I believe Radisson for example) have fields where you can edit the traveler name and easily book for anyone. Other programs, like Hyatt, provide a mechanism to book for others over the phone. However, some programs have no clear rules here. Credit card free night certificates could be a pain to use for someone else. The classic way to handle this is to add a “second guest” to the room (the person who will really check in without the primary guest). I’ve booked rooms for family members this way many times, but you never now when a property may demand that the person whose name is on the reservation show up.
A solution to the dilemma here would be combining points. Some programs (bank, airline, and/or hotel) make that easy. Others don’t. Here is a quick summary of each:
Chase Ultimate Rewards
Things are very easy with Chase. Points can be combined with a household member or business partner. I have explained in the past and include in our Chase Ultimate Rewards guide that I have things set up in a loop in our household (i.e. P2 Card A -> P1 Card B -> P1 Card C -> P1 Card D -> P2 Card E, where the final step is our Sapphire Reserve card (which provides the highest value for points). This way each card is connected to the next in the loop and the points will eventually get to where they need to be.
Amex Membership Rewards
Amex does not make it simple like Chase. Points can not be combined. However, they can be transferred to the loyalty account of someone who has been an authorized user for at least 90 days, so it is easy to transfer points to a spouse’s airline or hotel account even though the Membership Rewards points themselves can’t be combined.
Citi ThankYou Points
Citi allows you to transfer points to any other member, but once transferred, points expire in 60 days (in other words, you need to use those points, whether to book travel through Citi or to transfer to partners, within 60 days). You therefore wouldn’t want to move ThankYou points until you are ready to use them.
Hyatt World of Hyatt points
Hyatt provides a simple mechanism for sharing points. Googling “Hyatt point transfer form” gives you a link to the form that needs to be submitted. This would make it easy to move my Hyatt points to my wife’s account. The one potential trouble here would be that the form needs to be signed, though my wife probably has my signature down (or downloaded) by now.
Hilton Honors points
Hilton is super easy: we already have a points pool where we can share points with each other. It would be as simple as logging in to Hilton and finding the section on points pooling to move any points from my account to my wife’s account.
Radisson Rewards points
Radisson is also super easy for combining points. If you have elite status (which comes with the credit card and I have that card), you can easily transfer points to any member. This does require a phone call, so it might be easier to just book awards from my account – but if for some reason my wife needed to move the points it could be done. Travel with Grant has written about this before and I have done it. It’s easy.
Marriott Bonvoy points
Mariott will allow members to transfer up to 100K points per year and it is free as long as one of the members in the transfer has elite status. My wife and I have moved points between our accounts several times before, but this might be complicated by the fact that I think we both needed to be on the phone call. She may need to find a stand-in for me, but she could move my points this way if need be.
IHG Rewards Club points
To my knowledge, IHG only allows the transfer of points from one account to another for a fee. As is the case with any program I know of which charges such a fee, . it isn’t worth paying — not just because the points can easily be used out of the IHG app on my phone but also because you can buy the points for the price they charge you to transfer them.
Most airlines do not allow for the free transfer or pooling of miles between accounts (and specifically, none of the airlines with which we have mileage balances). When it comes to airline accounts, It is probably easiest to just log in and make award bookings as necessary — though as Tiffany notes in that One Mile at a Time post, programs are known to make exceptions sometimes. I’d reference the chart there and try to find a way to verify that the information is up-to-date before notifying any programs of a need to move the miles.
There is obviously a lot more to estate planning than what I’ve included in this post — my purpose here was merely to put together the key stepping stones necessary for handling my miles and points should my family ever need to do so without my help. Surely there will be many more important things to consider first, but it is hard to ignore the value many of us have locked up in imaginary currencies. I’d hate to see that locked up forever — so hopefully this provides some helpful first steps in unlocking the ability for my points and miles to live on.