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Giving the gift of flight with airline gift cards

Terms and conditions vary, so do your homework first

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Giving the gift of flight with airline gift cards
Giving the gift of flight with airline gift cards

Airline gift cards are an easy way to give the gift of travel in a neat little package. Anyone considering giving one of these cards, though, should check the terms and conditions ahead of time, choose the airline carefully and make sure the recipient will use it.

"You have to make sure the card you get is convenient for the recipient," says travel expert Marybeth Bond, who offers travel tips on her GutsyTraveler website. "But the nice thing is that a gift card offers flexibility -- you can use it to buy a ticket to anywhere."

Though retail gift cards have been around for well over a decade, airline gift cards took a bit longer to catch on. Most domestic airlines have done away with gift certificates and offer only plastic or virtual gift cards. CreditCards.com research found five major U.S. airlines that sell travel gift cards or gift certificates. United Airlines only lets consumers gift miles through their MileagePlus account. (See 2016 Airline gift card comparison chart for more information).

In most cases, buyers of airline gift cards don't have to worry about a major snag associated with some retail gift cards: expiration. Most airline cards do not expire or diminish in value if the card goes unused, even for years. However, there are catches and restrictions to watch out for, especially regarding a gift card's value if an airline goes bankrupt or merges with another. So, here are some helpful tips when purchasing airline gift cards.

The best way to buy
Walk into a major discount store, grocery store or warehouse club, and you might see airline gift cards hanging near the checkout. However, the best place to buy airline gift cards is online, says Shelley Hunter, a gift card expert, aka “Gift Card Girlfriend” at GiftCards.com.

CARDS OR CERTIFICATES?

Before airline gift cards became available, gift certificates provided a way to buy air travel for someone else. Some airlines don't offer gift cards, but do offer paper or electronic gift certificates. Here are some things to consider when deciding between a gift card and a gift certificate:

1. As with gift cards, the maximum dollar amount of a gift certificate varies from airline to airline.

2. Most gift certificates, like most cards, are transferable to another person. However, if there's any chance the recipient might not use the certificate, it's a good idea to double check before purchasing.

3. As with gift cards, places where gift certificates can be redeemed vary. Gift cards typically cannot be redeemed through a travel agent, but some gift certificates can.

4. It’s becoming more common for airlines to not offer a paper gift certificate option and instead send the certificate by email, so there's no physical gift for the recipient to open.

Retail outlets typically sell airline gift cards in smaller denominations of $50 or $100. Purchasing multiple cards would be an option -- though maybe an awkward one, since the recipient would have to keep track of all that plastic -- but most airlines put restrictions on the number of cards that can be used for the purchase of a single ticket.

However, stores sometimes sell airline gift cards at less than face value as part of a promotion, says Gary Leff, a frequent travel expert at View from the Wing. “Buying them at less than retail can lead to some savings,” he says.

Savings aside, buying the card on an airline's website is probably the best option because doing so ensures you’re making a valid purchase. Websites that specialize in selling gift cards hawk airline gift cards at a discount -- so do individuals on Craigslist and eBay -- but just about all airlines' terms and conditions warn that cards purchased anywhere but through the airline or an authorized retailer might not be valid.

After purchasing a gift card on an airline's website, the buyer typically has several shipping options for the card, typically standard, two-day or overnight shipping for a $3 to $15 fee. Some airlines also offer the free option of giving a "virtual card," an email sent to the recipient with a card number and PIN number.

Email gift card delivery is quick and convenient, and the email can be printed out or saved for later use, according to Hunter.

Watch out for pitfalls
Travel experts say the biggest mistake the giver of an airline gift card can make is choosing the wrong airline. To avoid that, pick an airline the recipient flies frequently or one that has a nearby hub or offers a large number of flights in and out of the major airport closest to the recipient's home, Bond recommends. "If you have a specific trip in mind, check the routes ahead of time," she says.

Being locked into one airline still isn’t ideal, Leff says. For one, the cardholder might find a cheaper or more convenient flight on another airline. The airline may also charge extra fees the gift card recipient will have to pay out of pocket, so checking the airline's baggage and other fees before making your gift card purchase is a good idea. If fee-free airline options are slim, consider giving a general-purpose gift card, such as a Visa or MasterCard gift card, instead of an airline-specific card. “That way, they can use it to buy a flight, pay fees or spend on their trip,” Leff says.

Another risk of airline gift cards is that some airlines state in their terms and conditions that they will not freeze funds and replace a lost or stolen card, says Jack Gillis, director of public affairs with the Consumer Federation of America. "Beware. If your card is lost or stolen, you could either be in for a big hassle -- or out of luck," he says.

If you're giving an airline gift card -- especially to someone who might not use it right away -- a possible future airline bankruptcy also could be an issue. "If an airline goes bankrupt, it's hard to predict whether it will be easy for you to get your money," Gillis says. "So, before you buy, think about, 'How solvent is that airline?'"

“Although it’s always important to be mindful in your gift card giving, it’s especially important to think through buying travel gift cards,” Hunter adds.

CreditCards.com 2016 Holiday Shopping Guide

Go to "2016 holiday shopping guide"

Giving the gift
An airline gift card can provide the luxury of travel for someone who might not otherwise be able to afford it. But an airline gift card isn't for everyone. For example, it might not be right to give to someone who can’t afford a hotel or restaurant meals, Hunter says.

Experts recommend giving an airline gift card to someone who is travel-savvy or who is planning a specific trip but hasn't yet purchased tickets. It can also work for a friend or relative who has always wanted to go to a particular place, but needs a nudge to actually take the big step and plan something. "It wouldn't be as good a gift for people who don't have the habit of traveling," Bond says.

Giving an airline gift card worked well for writer and designer Tamela Terry, who chipped in with her sister on a $200 American Airlines card for their mother's birthday. Terry's mother used the gift to fly from Texas to Maryland for a family party. "It was easy peasy, completely painless," Terry says. There was a downside, though. Terry and her sister chose to have the card number and PIN sent via email to avoid a shipping fee, so the presentation was not impressive. "It was pretty underwhelming," she said.

Even opening a plastic gift card can seem impersonal, but experts say you can get around that with creative presentation. For example, you can wrap the card in a free, printable airline gift card holder and stick it in a quart-size Ziploc bag along with a few travel-size plastic toiletry bottles filled with ribbons or confetti. The recipient can later use that plastic bag to pack their shampoo and soap for the trip, Hunter says.

Or, gift expert Leah Ingram, suggests perusing online auction sites for an unusual flight-related item, such as a vintage airline bag, and adding little extras that could come in handy on a trip -- chewing gum, hand sanitizer, a map, travel-sized toiletries -- along with the gift card.

"Get anything you can think of that screams airport or airplane and put it in a kitschy bag or even buy a cute new carry-on bag," says Ingram, author of "Gifts Anytime: How to Find the Perfect Present for Any Occasion." "You can really make it fun."

See related: 2016 Airline gift card comparison chart, Video: No more naked gift cards

Updated: November 1, 2016


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Updated: 12-08-2016


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