Ellen Roseman: Air Miles-Use them or lose them!

This new policy was announced on Dec. 28 of last year and went into effect on Dec. 31. How's that for advance notice?

I'm talking about Canada's biggest loyalty program, which claims to be on the customer's side. But with the policy of date stamping Air Miles, the company shows its loyalty to investors and corporate partners.

Investors in publicly-traded companies don't like to see unused points piling up for years without being cashed in for merchandise or travel. It's a liability that can't be quantified in financial reports.

That's why Aeroplan, the loyalty program spun off by Air Canada, adopted a seven-year time limit for its reward points in 2007. WestJet's points expire in five years.  Now Air Miles points do too.

Loyalty plans also have rules to ensure you stay active. Air Miles requires at least one transaction every two years. Aeroplan requires one transaction every year. Otherwise, your points will be zapped.

Frequent activity makes their corporate partners happy. Companies want to see people shopping and redeeming regularly, not hoarding their rewards points.

So, if you're waiting for the ideal time to take a round-the-world trip, prepare to take it sooner rather than later. Your rewards points may not last until your retirement.

Here's some advice if you belong to any loyalty plans, including those run by department stores, oil companies and credit cards.

First, read the rules. Do your reward points expire? Is there an activity requirement? If you don't understand how the plan works, call and ask questions.

Second, get into the habit of checking your account status. Have all your eligible purchases resulted in points? If not, track them down and get them credited. 

Third, get online access to your account. Don't depend on statements to come in the mail. If you're inactive or you move, you won't get mail. Your points could disappear without notification.

Fourth, check the website to find any news or rule updates that may affect you. Loyalty plans make frequent changes, so stay informed.

I've heard too many horror stories about people losing points they collected for years. Don't join that unfortunate group. Pay attention to your account. Inattention can lead to loss.

I'm Ellen Roseman.