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How to Donate Your Airline Miles to Charity

Jan. 14, 2014
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If you’re like many Americans, you have a credit card that can earn you points toward future flights and hotel stays, and no way to use those points. According to ABC News, a quarter of those sitting on miles let them expire. Perhaps you’re competing with other frequent fliers over popular vacation times, or perhaps you’re simply too busy to get out of town. Either way, rather than letting your unused miles pile up (or expire), or you could donate them to a good cause.

How to donate your airline miles

Luckily, it’s often easier to donate your miles than it is to redeem them. Every airline has their own system, but typically, you just login to your frequent flier account and find the page that allows you to redeem miles. There, you should see an option to redeem as a donation, a list of charities and a way to specify the number of miles you want to donate. Most charities require a minimum of 1,000. If you like, you can often split your donation between charities. And some airlines have a dedicated page for donating miles, so you might search the site if you’re not finding what you need.

What Kinds of Charities Can I Support? 

Many charities can use airline miles to carry out their missions. If you’re sitting on miles you can’t use, you could help:

  • The Make-A-Wish Foundation. Frequent fliers with Delta, United and US Airways can contribute to points to help sick children and their families take special trips together. You may also donate points through JetBlue, though they’ll be converted into dollars first.
  • Hero Miles. Hero Miles allows ill and injured servicemen and women to travel for medical treatment, or to receive visits from their families while undergoing treatment. The organization is partnered with AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, United and US Airways.
  • The American Red Cross. The Red Cross’ miles donation program enables relief workers to reach disaster areas internationally. Delta, United and US Airways all permit their frequent fliers to donate.

There are many other organizations accepting airline miles. Your airline’s site should specify a list of partnered charities. And if you can’t choose, some airlines also allow donations to a pool, which is then distributed between charities.

How else can miles help?

Some cards also allow you to donate your points for other purposes:

  • Nights in a hotel.  Recipients of Hero Miles, or other charities like it, need a place to stay as well as a way to get there. Hotels for Heroes collects points toward free nights at affiliated hotels – like Marriott, Wyndham and Best Western – for servicemen and women and their families.
  • Cash. Those with HHonors points through the Hilton Group can redeem them for cash donations to a number of partnered charities. 10,000 points equals a $25 donation to organizations like the American Cancer Society, Habitat for Humanity and the Special Olympics. 

That said, 10,000 points for a $25 is a pretty terrible redemption rate (just 0.25 cents per point). You’re better off redeeming your points for a hotel stay and donating the amount you save to your charity of choice.

One more caveat

Donation is a great way to put miles to use, but it’s not the best way to get the biggest reward for your donation. Because you don’t technically own the miles you’re donating, you can’t write them off on your taxes, the way you could a check to a charity. You can only write off donated miles if you actually paid for them. That said, if your miles are about to expire, anyway, it’s much better to give them to a good cause.

Plane image courtesy of Ack Ook