If you collected Air Miles before 2012, the clock is ticking. On Jan.1, 2017, any unused miles collected before 2012 will expire. 

Miles earned from 2012 onward will also start expiring on a quarterly basis once they hit the five-year mark.

Personal finance writer and Air Miles collector Robb Engen says he understands why the loyalty program imposed an expiry date. "That's a liability on their books," he says about the mounds of unused miles.

But Engen, who lives in Lethbridge, Alta., believes Air Miles could do a better job of informing people about the looming deadline.

Air Miles announced the five-year expiry rule in late 2011, giving customers plenty of time to prepare, the loyalty program told CBC News.

But it appears to have made no public announcements since 2011. Nor has it sent warning letters to customers.

The program — run by Toronto-based LoyaltyOne — points out there's information online. "We have made expiry information very easy to find on our website," said spokeswoman Natasha Lasiuk in an email.

Collectors must navigate the website's FAQ section to learn details. And, if they haven't visited the Air Miles site in years, they might find themselves confused about how to redeem their points.

That's because how the rewards are offered has changed. "I think that's what's going to shock a lot of people," says Engen, on top of the shock of learning that their points are soon expiring.

To help eliminate any surprises, CBC News talked to the experts for advice on how to cash in before your miles disappear.

Tip No. 1: Tally up your points

Can't remember when you started collecting? It's time to log in to the Air Miles site and get the details.

You can search through the FAQ section for the link or just click here to request a statement of your miles that will expire in the next 12 months.

Air Miles promises a reply by email within 12 to 24 hours. If you don't see a response within that timeframe, check your junk mail. 

Once you get your tally, naturally you'll want to start shopping. But first you need to determine what type of points you possess.

No. 2: Understand what you can't get

Air Miles offers a bevy of cash rewards that may appeal to collectors looking to quickly redeem a small number of miles or who have no current travel plans.

For every 95 miles you redeem, you can get a $10 e-voucher or on-site redemption from places like the Gap, select grocery stores, Cineplex movie theatres, and Starbucks.

However, don't go plotting a shopping spree at the Gap just yet. Engen points out that miles collected before 2012 can't be used for cash rewards.

That's because Air Miles created a separate cash rewards category in March 2012. Members could only start collecting those cash miles starting on that date and only if they changed their preference on the website.

air miles

If you're trying to redeem Air Miles earned before 2012, you can't opt for cash rewards. (airmiles.ca)

That means any points expiring in January can only be redeemed for offerings in the Dream Rewards catalogue. It features more expensive options covering travel, merchandise and leisure activities, which often require thousands of miles.

Engen believes the limited choices will "probably frustrate a lot of people." He has 400 Dream miles he needs to use up by the end of the year and so far hasn't found a way to redeem them.

"I'm having a hard time," he admits. "I might be stuck with them."

But Air Miles says that over the past year, it has introduced new Dream rewards for collectors that require fewer miles.

The program points to contests people can enter for as low as 50 miles to win things like a meet-and-greet with celebrity chef Michael Smith or rockstar Steven Tyler.

No. 3: Get shopping

Once you understand you're relegated to Dream Rewards for now, it's time to get shopping.

If you have enough miles, rewards expert Patrick Sojka says travel rewards for things like flights, hotels and car rentals often offer the best value.

The miles required for flights work out to a value of about 11 to 15 cents per mile and hotels: around 14 cents a mile, says the founder of the resource site, Rewards Canada

Collectors can sometimes find the biggest rewards with car rentals adds Sojka, who is based in Calgary. "I've seen returns of up to 30 cents a mile."

The Dream category also offers merchandise from household goods to electronics. Sojka says the products often offer less value than the travel deals and are not a good option if you end up "wasting your miles on some sort of merchandise that you may not need."

CBC News did find one cash offering in the Dream section: a $100 gift card, which can be used at select grocery stores. But it requires 50 miles plus a cash payment of $95.

"This is crazy," says Engen who believes this is one deal to avoid. He says once you factor in the value of the miles, the customer ends up paying more than the card is worth.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said that Air Miles did not respond to the reporter within 24 hours, as promised, with a statement of when her miles would expire. In fact, Air Miles did respond in time but the statement went to the reporter's junk mail folder and it was not seen until after the deadline.
    Jul 08, 2016 10:56 AM ET