In the race to redeem their Air Miles before they expire, many collectors are expressing frustrations about limited rewards options.
"You're pretty much hosed," claims Toronto collector John MacKenzie.
At the close of 2011, Air Miles introduced a five-year expiry date on rewards miles. That means on Jan.1, 2017, any unused miles collected before 2012 will expire and become worthless. The popular rewards program launched in Canada in 1992.
As eager members search for ways to redeem expiring points, many are dismayed to discover that they can't access cash rewards such as gift cards.
"It's completely unfair," charges MacKenzie. He says he's struggling to find a way to collect on his miles.
No cash rewards for you
Air Miles used to offer gift cards for places like grocery stores and movie theatres along with travel rewards in one main category. Then in 2012, the loyalty program announced a "dream" rewards section for things like travel and merchandise and a separate category for cash rewards.
Collectors aware of the change could opt for cash rewards for future miles. Unspecified miles and all ones earned before 2012 automatically defaulted to the dream category.
That means miles expiring by January can't be used for cash rewards like gift cards which are easy to redeem and often require fewer points.
"It's quite the sleight of hand from Air Miles," says collector and financial writer Robb Engen.
"All that valuable stuff that I would redeem for gas and groceries and movies, they've taken all that away while they've left you kind of high and dry in the dream category."
For 95 miles, customers can get a $10 gift card in the cash category. Many offerings in the dream section such as household products, leisure activities and vacation deals require thousands of miles.
The dream section does offer a $100 gift card for select grocers, but it requires 50 miles plus a cash payment of $95 — almost the value of the card.
Engen, who lives in Lethbridge, Alta., has 400 dream miles he must use by January. He says he hasn't found a way to redeem them.
"I'm having a hard time finding something worthwhile."
MacKenzie has 1,400 dream miles and says there's not much he can do with them. Because he can't access cash rewards, he tried to donate his points to charity. But he soon discovered that the option is only available in the cash category.
So MacKenzie has concluded his miles are worthless. "I'm just going to throw the card away. It's pointless."
You can enter a contest
Air Miles said its new cash category, which includes instant redemptions, has proven a "successful initiative."
As for those stuck trying to redeem dream rewards before January, the program noted that over the past year it has added more lower cost offerings to the category.
The additions will "enable collectors to use the miles in their account before they may expire," said spokeswoman Natasha Lasiuk in an email to CBC News.
Air Miles points to sweepstakes people can enter to win a vacation or a meet-and-greet with a celebrity for as little as 50 miles. The program also noted that collectors can get a dining discount book for 500 miles.
Engen and MacKenzie say those options don't interest them. "Absolutely would not consider entering a sweepstakes," says Engen. "Might as well just flush them down the toilet."
Call for a cash transfer
After hearing complaints from other collectors about limited options, Engen posted online an open letter to Air Miles.
He calls on the program to allow collectors to make a one-time transfer of their dream miles to the cash category before the end of the year.
"That would be a show of good faith for the company and their members," says Engen. "Because they're going to lose a lot of [members]."
Calgary collector Suzana Rymak says she's not about to leave Air Miles. "I'm still grateful for the program."
But Rymak agrees that customers struggling to redeem points before they expire should be allowed to access cash rewards.
"It would have been nice to show that this is about customers too and have some sort of transition policy to assist people," she says.
Rymak asked Air Miles on its Facebook site if she could switch her dream miles to cash miles.
"Our system does not have the capability to transfer miles between the accounts," replied the program.
Nix expiry date?
Collector MacKenzie suggests another option would be for Air Miles to cancel its five-year expiry rule.
"Just change the policy like Aeroplan did," he suggests.
Aeroplan introduced a seven-year expiry rule in 2007. But after public outcry, the rewards program axed the plan before miles started to expire in 2014.
CBC News asked the program if it was considering extending the expiry deadline because of the ongoing problems. Air Miles responded that its website was currently up and running and that it had a dedicated team to address technical issues.