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How to donate unused rewards miles, points

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Are your miles about to expire? Don't rush out and spend them on something you don't need just to get rid of them. Donate them to charity instead.

"These miles are making a difference," says Tish Stropes, who manages Hero Miles. Run by the Maryland-based Fisher House Foundation, Hero Miles uses donated miles to fly family members to visit wounded members of the military. 

Most major airlines and several hotel chains have charity programs that benefit from miles donations. All of these programs partner with a long list of organizations benefiting everything from cancer research to cultural pursuits. The average donation is 25,000 miles -- half the amount a charity typically needs to purchase a round-trip domestic fare. However, for most airlines, you can do some good by donating as little as 1,000 miles.

How to donate unused rewards miles, points

How it works
Even though you can't claim a tax deduction for donating rewards, it's a nice option when you find yourself with less discretionary income and, if you travel a lot for business, a pile of unused and about-to-expire miles.

Most major airlines offer a few ways for members of their frequent flier programs to donate miles. The best place to start is the airline's website where phone and mail options are listed, or you can donate online after checking out the airline's charities. Many times donating is as simple as plugging in your membership number and choosing how many miles you want to donate. You usually have to donate at least a minimum amount, and that number can vary widely -- from 1,000 points or fewer, up to 10,000 points and beyond -- depending on the charity.

You can also donate over the phone by calling the airline's customer service number and requesting its frequent flier program. Delta also offers an email option, a mailing address and fax number for miles donations. Some large charities, such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants the wishes of seriously ill children, will also take miles donations directly.

Helping children, soldiers
There are a plethora of options available, depending on the airline with which you have miles. (See our chart of airline and hotel rewards donation options.) However, there are a few causes that seemingly all airlines have gotten behind.

All major U.S.-based airlines support Make-A-Wish, underscoring the popularity of programs that help children in need. Kids' fantasies have become more ambitious since the first wish was granted in 1980 to a child who wanted to become a policeman. Now, a typical wish costs between $7,500 and $8,000, and some require far more.

More than 70 percent of all wishes have a travel component. Granting every wish that comes over the transom would require 2.5 billion miles, or 50,000 round-trip tickets, each year. In 2011, the foundation raised 121 million miles. "So we're just barely inching up that iceberg," says Melisa Pratt, who manages miles donations for Make-A-Wish.

American Airlines AAdvantage members donated more than 80 million miles last year to the airline's Miles For Kids In Need program, providing transportation to more than 300 children (and their families) in need of medical, educational and social services attention. 

Hero Miles is another option you're likely to find on your airline's list of charities, even though it's only been around since 2008. Eight airlines now offer Hero Miles and it's growing rapidly, with 25,000 tickets booked so far. "By adding a family's love to the healing process, these service members are able to heal faster and get out of the hospital," Stropes says.

Airlines work cooperatively with Hero Miles, waiving booking fees and rescheduling emergency flights as needed, without charging extra. "The airlines have been terrific, but if it wasn't for the American people donating their miles, this would not be possible," Stropes says.

Plenty of other options available
If you'd prefer to support other causes, you have plenty of opportunities to do that as well.

For example, Alaska Airlines offers the chance to donate to green charities, such as The Nature Conservancy and the National Forest Foundation. This goes along with the company brand, according to spokesman Mark Bocchi, who describes Alaska Airlines as one of the greenest airlines in the country, with onboard recycling and a young, fuel-efficient fleet.

Members of United Airlines Mileage Plus program can donate to Guide Dogs of America, a program dedicated to providing guide dogs free of charge to the visually impaired, or the Orbis Foundation, which is devoted to blindness prevention and treatment in developing countries. In all, Mileage Plus members have donated more than 1 billion miles to these and other organizations since the airline's charity miles program launched in 1996.

After major catastrophes, airlines often invite customers to donate miles to organizations providing relief efforts. Since the earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan last year, several major airlines have a page devoted to helping with the recovery.

If you have something specific in mind, such as a community organization or even an individual in dire need, airlines will sometimes work with you. For example, Montreal-based Aeroplan, a coalition loyalty program, allows customers to set up community pools where other members can donate miles to a specific charity.

The airlines have been terrific, but if it wasn't for the American people donating their miles, this would not be possible.

-- Tish Stropes 
Hero Miles 

Several hotel loyalty programs also offer options for donating rewards. Most list only two or three charities. Hilton HHonors has 28 to choose from. Each hotel has a different approach to donated rewards. Some turn your points into cash donations, and these vary dramatically. For each 2,000-point donation, for example, Starwood Hotels sends a check to American Red Cross or UNICEF for $25, but you have to give 10,000 points to Hilton to get $25 donated.

Tips and traps to watch out for
Unfortunately, there are also scammers out there, looking to profit from a donor's good intentions. Be wary of third-party sites claiming they will donate miles for you. Airlines demand control of miles transfers, so it's likely best to use their sites to do your donations. Charities too small to partner with airlines can request miles donations through sites such as MileDonor.com, but donors have to grant enough miles to cover a ticket and then book the flight in the user's name.

Also, remember that if you want a tax deduction on charitable contributions, you won't get one by donating miles. Miles donations are not refundable and will register as anonymous to the charities. If you prefer to be personally involved, look into donating miles directly to the charities or via donation requests at MileDonor.com.

All charitable organizations require travel and many absolutely depend on it. So if you want to help a good cause and you're sitting on a pile of unused miles or travel rewards, keep your eyes open, show your big heart and donate them.

See related: Airline and hotel rewards donation chart

Published: February 21, 2012


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