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Many credit card issuers, most major airlines and most hotel loyalty programs have programs allowing customers to donate unused points and miles to support a wide variety of environmental causes, healthcare needs and military support. But depending on the issuer or travel provider, the options can be limited. And civil justice organizations that support the needs of minorities are often not on the list. But hopefully, this is changing.
In an email to our sister site, The Points Guy, Chris Singley, managing director of community relations and employee engagement at American Airlines wrote, “Certainly we can all do better, and we are exploring new possible partnership opportunities with those who are committed to achieving equity in the African American community in meaningful and measurable ways.”
See related: How to sell, swap or donate unwanted gift cards
Donating credit card rewards
If you have a cash back card, donating your rewards is fairly straightforward. Once you cash out your rewards, you’re free to donate that money wherever you want. You can also go this route with any travel card that gives you the option to cash out your points, though this will generally come with a lower redemption rate.
See related: How to redeem cash back
Some card issuers also offer charitable donations as a redemption option. Some give you the option to donate your rewards to a limited number of organizations, while a few partner with third-party platforms (which drastically increases your donation options).
If you have an American Express card with Membership Rewards, you can donate to any charity supported by JustGiving. This allows you to “donate to more than 1.5 million registered U.S. charities,” according to Amex.
Wells Fargo also allows you to purchase a gift card to CharityChoice. From there, you can donate that gift card to over 1,000 different charities.
If you aren’t impressed with your issuer’s partners, you can expand your charitable giving options by researching the donation opportunities offered by your card’s transfer partners.
For example, Rainbow Railroad uses donated air miles to help LGBT people across the world escape state-sponsored violence. Though you can donate to this organization directly, you can also donate air miles from Canadian airline Aeroplan. If you have Amex Membership Rewards, you can transfer points to Aeroplan and from there donate the miles to help purchase a flight for someone.
Donating airline miles
Several organizations have a similar donation model to Rainbow Railroad, but the process to donate miles will vary. If you can’t donate miles directly via a partnership with your loyalty program, select organizations offer workarounds to make sure your miles can still do some good.
Miles4Migrants uses donated frequent flyer miles, credit card points and vouchers to provide flights for refugees, asylees and asylum seekers who have been approved to relocate to a new country but might not have the funds to get there. As of June 2020, the organization had facilitated flights for over 2,600 passengers, using 44 million miles.
Miles4Migrants can use donated flight vouchers from Alaska Airlines, JetBlue and United. It also accepts miles from an extensive list of airlines. But it does not regularly partner with airlines, so the process to donate miles is a little more involved.
You can start by pledging a certain amount of miles. After it has identified a flight, someone from the organization will contact you with the flight information, which you’ll book through your airline. If you’re not comfortably booking the flight yourself, Miles4Migrants can book it for you, but you will have to provide your frequent flyer information.
“Our team’s expertise really lies in booking flights efficiently,” says a spokesperson for Miles4Migrants. “All of our booking team [uses points and miles to book travel] as a personal hobby, so we’re really looking to maximize the value that we get out of miles.”
Hero Miles, managed by the Fisher House Foundation, also follows a similar business model. The organization uses donated miles to fly family members to visit wounded members of the military. But by partnering with some major U.S. airlines, it is able to handle the travel arrangements for you directly with the airline.
“The airlines have been terrific, but if it wasn’t for the American people donating their miles, this would not be possible,” says Tish Stropes, vice president of the Fisher House Foundation. “By adding a family’s love to the healing process, these servicemembers are able to heal faster and get out of the hospital.”
If you have leftover air miles, this is a great way to support families in a real and tangible way without having to spend any money.
“These miles are making a difference,” says Stropes.
Airline donation programs
Each airline’s donation program takes a slightly different approach to mile donations. Under some frequent flyer programs, you can donate miles to purchase flights, like with Hero Miles. In other instances, the miles will be cashed out, and the donation will be given to charities. Depending on the airline, you can do some good by donating as few as 500 miles.
See related: Unused points and miles: You have options
The Alaskan Airlines LIFT Miles program allows you to donate to one of 12 organizations. Donations will go to a charity’s “business travel, accommodation of special organization requests and achievement of the organization’s mission.”
American Airlines currently offers three different cause-based categories you can donate to: global humanitarian efforts, healthcare expenses for patients in need and support for servicemembers and their families. The airline does not disclose every organization it supports, and you do not get to pick the specific organization you wish to support.
American Airlines’ business travel loyalty program Business Extra has a similar program. Members can donate points to nonprofit organizations, and through July 31, 2020, to “fellow Business Extra members who have requested support.” Businesses that are Business Extra members can apply for this assistance online.
The airline will match the first 500,000 Business Extra points donated, and it is also donating an additional 500,000 points to help small businesses and nonprofits reduce travel expenses, with half of this contribution set aside for minority-owned businesses.
Delta Airlines allows frequent flyers to pick up to five different organizations from its list of 15 to support with each donation. Proceeds go to the organizations’ travel expenses.
United Airlines offers a more extensive list of organizations than other large airlines, with 20 different organizations to choose from. The airline also periodically launches campaigns to raise air miles for specific causes.
For instance, it launched a new campaign on June 24, 2020, to encourage frequent flyers to donate miles to different civil justice-oriented organizations, several supporting the LGBTQ community. United will match all donations raised up to 500,000 miles.
Some organizations participating in the current United Airlines campaign
- Born This Way Foundation – An organization supporting LGBTQ youth by “expanding access to mental health resources and promoting kindness.”
- Transgender Law Center – A trans-led organization focused on changing “laws, policies and attitudes, so that all people can live safely, authentically and free from discrimination.”
- The Trevor Project – “The leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention” to young LGBTQ people.
- Miles4Migrants – An organization that provides refugees, asylees and asylum seekers with flights to travel to their new location and be reunited with family.
- Equality Illinois – An organization committed to “advancing equal treatment and full acceptance of the LGBTQ community.”
- Project Angel Heart – An organization that delivers meals to people with life-threatening illnesses. Each meal is tailored to meet the dietary needs of the recipient.
- Brave Space Alliance – A Black-led, Trans-led organization in dedicated to “providing affirming, culturally competent, for-us by-us resources … for LGBTQ individuals” in Chicago.
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards members can donate miles to one of nine organizations. Southwest does not specify what expenses these donations cover for each organization.
Donating hotel points
Most hotel loyalty programs give members the option to donate to partner charities, though the options are usually limited. One notable exception is the Hilton Honors program. It offers 30 different charities you can donate to directly from your account. It also has a partnership with PointWorthy, drastically expanding customers’ potential donation options.
If you’re thinking about donating your points and miles, there are some caveats to consider first. Unlike monetary donations to qualifying non-profits, donated points and miles are not typically tax deductible. And depending on the card issuer or airline, donated points and miles could have a lower cash value than other redemption options. You also probably won’t have as much control over where you can donate and how your donation is being used.
Because of these constraints, it might make more sense to donate to your organization of choice outright, if you have the money to comfortably do so. But if you don’t – or if you’re sitting on rewards you otherwise won’t use – this is a convenient way to support causes you care about.