How to donate unused rewards miles, points
By Cathleen McCarthy and Sienna Kossman
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, vice president of the Maryland-based Fisher House Foundation, which manages Hero Miles, among other charitable organizations. 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. For some airlines, you can do some good by donating as few as 500 miles.
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.
The airlines have been terrific, but if it wasn't for the American people donating their miles, this would not be possible.
|-- Tish Stropes
Several major U.S.-based airlines support Make-A-Wish, such as Delta, United, American Airlines, Southwest and JetBlue, 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. In 2016, a typical wish costs about $10,000.
More than 77 percent of all wishes have a travel component. Granting every wish that comes over the transom would require 50,000 round-trip tickets each year. “More than 168 million airline miles were donated to Make-A-Wish,” according to Josh deBerge, director of communications for Make-A-Wish America. “To put this into context, Make-A-Wish would need more than 2.8 billion airline miles to cover all air-related costs for wish kids and their families.”
According to American Airlines, 60,390 AAdvantage members donated more 144,759,621 miles in 2016 to the airline's 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. Five airlines offer Hero Miles donation options and it's grown rapidly, with 63,000 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 said.
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.
United Airlines’ MileagePlus members can donate miles to approximately 50 different nonprofit organizations through the company’s Charity Miles program. Some of organizations include the American Red Cross and Fisher House Foundation. Overall, MileagePlus members have donated over 2.8 billion miles since the program began in 1996.
After major catastrophes, airlines often invite customers to donate miles to organizations providing relief efforts. For example, when an earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan in 2010, several major airlines created 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.
Several hotel loyalty programs also offer options for donating rewards. Most list only two or three charities, while some are connected to many, many more. For example, in 2015, Hilton HHonors partnered with Pointworthy to allow members to use their points to donate to PointWorthy’s network of more than 800,00 nonprofit organizations.
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
Updated: March 29, 2017
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