Charitable Miles

Charitable Miles

As the saying goes, ’tis better to give than receive. Do frequent travelers agree with the sentiment when it comes to their miles and points? The airlines and hotels give travelers miles and points for their loyalty. Do travelers then turn around and give them to charity? “No way,” says FlyerTalk member Iphinome, “I donate U.S. dollars. Miles are actually valuable.”

Not everyone agrees with Iphinome, but many do. (And we admire Iphinome’s sense of humor about our battered little dollar.) According to our admittedly unscientific research, very few members of frequent travel programs donate their miles and points. Just last month, we asked those who visit our Web sites the following question, “How would you use five million miles/points?” A paltry 1.2 percent responded that they would give their miles/points to a charity. The most popular response was “Travel around the world” at nearly 73 percent of those responding. In December 2005 we asked, “Have you ever donated miles or an award to charity?” “No,” was the answer 87.1 percent of the time. Back in November 2002, we received a similar 84.9 percent of “No” responses, and of those who did donate, the largest percentage (43 percent) gave a mere 1,000 to 5,000 miles.

Don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying you’re selfish if you don’t give away your miles; after all, you earn every mile and point. And even though our research shows a small percentage of travelers donate their miles and points, overall the numbers are quite impressive. Since 1996, more than one billion United Mileage Plus miles have been donated. Frontier Airlines members donate between 2.5 and 3 million miles a year through the EarlyReturns program, that’s a lot of miles for a program with just over 1.5 million members. Compare the EarlyReturns membership number with American AAdvantage’s 57 million; who, by the way, gave over 160 million miles in 2006.

And the members of FlyerTalk who we talked to about donating miles when researching for this article were very generous — many giving more than 100,000 miles. One member gave a whopping two million miles in one donation and makes a regular habit of donating 400,000 miles per year. Delta reports that Eric Mower of Syracuse, N.Y. donated more than one million miles to the Fisher House Foundation earlier this year, and Delta matched the donation. As of the writing of this article, Delta SkyMiles members have donated more than 200 million miles in 2007. And the members of airline programs are not the only ones who give — one Hilton HHonors member gave 2,520,000 points to Habitat for Humanity.

If the spirit of the season happens to move you to give, or if your miles are set to expire and you want to donate a few to save the whole, we’ll take you through the ins and outs of giving your miles and points to charity — and if you’d rather give cash and get miles or points, we’ll tell you how you can do that too. So, get those frequent travel program statements at the ready. Let’s give away some miles!

Giving Through Your Frequent Travel Program
Most frequent travel programs offer a way for their members to give miles to select non-profit organizations, most through their Web site and a few by sending in a written request. The granddaddy of all frequent flyer programs, American Airlines, offers several options for members, including donating miles to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Operation Hero Miles and American’s Miles for Kids in Need program. The Kids in Need program was introduced in September 1990. At that time, American matched an additional one-third mile for every mile donated, but the program no longer matches mileage donations.

Although most programs have a donation program, there are some exceptions, such as ATA, which currently does not have a program in place, but is working on introducing one in 2008. Southwest Airlines and JetBlue also do not offer a donation option.

Continental OnePass members can choose to donate to 13 non-profit organizations including March of Dimes, Golfers Against Cancer, Wheels for Humanity and Healing the Children. Currently, the Web site states that the American Red Cross OnePass donation account has reached its capacity — a good indication that OnePass members do indeed donate miles.

Midwest Miles members can donate to over 80 approved charities through the Miracle Miles program and for single donations of 5,000 miles or more, Midwest Airlines will match one mile for every three you donate. For donations of 15,000 miles or more, you have the option to specify the organization you wish to receive your miles (otherwise, your donated miles will go toward the organization with the greatest need).

HawaiianMiles has one of the most unique and generous programs. After signing up for the program, HawaiianMiles will automatically place 10 percent of a member’s earned miles into a HawaiianMiles Charities account where they can then choose the organization they would like to donate to. For example, a member who completes a 2,000-mile flight and earns 2,000 miles in their HawaiianMiles account will also receive 200 miles (10 percent) in their Charities account — the miles in the Charities account does not effect the miles in their personal HawaiianMiles account. They can also choose to donate miles from their personal HawaiianMiles account if they would like. Some of the participating charities include the American Red Cross, Big Brothers Big Sister of Honolulu and Shriners Hospitals for Children Honolulu.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members can choose to donate to six different non-profits, or can choose to donate to a “charity pool” of miles that are distributed at year-end among the six sponsored charities.

Air Canada Aeroplan has an impressive giving program that resulted in 36 million miles being donated by members in 2006 with almost 80 million being donated since a re-launch of the program in May 2006. The Beyond Miles program gives members a choice of seven Canadian non-profit organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, Veterinarians Without Borders and Air Canada’s Kids’ Horizons. Aeroplan’s Charitable Pooling Program offers a rare opportunity for members to pool their miles to go into an Aeroplan account of their favorite local, grassroots non-profit. In 2006, 90 non-profit organizations benefited from this program with approximately nine million Aeroplan Miles being donated. Visit Corporate Sponsorship in the About Us section of aeroplan.com for more information.

Marriott has a unique Rewarding Communities Marriott Cheque program wherein members can choose to redeem points for gift certificates that can be donated to a charity chosen by the member. The checks come in several currencies and can be used by the organization for lodging, food and beverage, fundraisers or to recognize volunteers. For example, a $100 Rewarding Communities Marriott Cheque can be redeemed for 33,000 points. Points can also be donated to the American Red Cross starting at 18,000 points for a $50 donation.

Marriott also offers a more traditional way to donate points where members transfer points directly to the Children’s Miracle Network. There is no minimum amount of points required to donate and companies who set up meetings at Marriott hotels that earn Rewards points which cannot be spent for personal use often use this outlet for those points.

Drury Hotels Gold Key Club, Hilton HHonors and Priority Club Rewards award redemption choices include donations to charity. Gold Key Club members can redeem 15,000 points for a $50 cash donation to the American Red Cross and HHonors members can redeem 10,000 points for a contribution of $25 to the HHonors charity they choose such as Habitat for Humanity and Aids Walk Los Angeles, among others. Members will soon be able to donate to the following organizations: C5 Youth Foundation, The GRAMMY Foundation, Kids Help Phone, Lance Armstrong Foundation, March of Dimes, Room to Read and World Wildlife Fund.

Priority Club Rewards members can redeem 10,000 points that will be converted to a cash donation to your choice of eight organizations including UNICEF, Reading is Fundamental and the latest to benefit from the program, Cure Kids Cancer Coalition.

TripRewards members can redeem 5,500 points (approximate equivalent to a $25 gift card) or 10,500 points (approximately $50) with seven organizations including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Gold Points Plus has recently introduced points donations to two charities, World Childhood Foundation and Carbon Neutral where members can donate a minimum 10,000 points. Carlson Hotels Worldwide will match all points donations to the World Childhood Foundation which was founded in 1999 by Her Majesty Queen Silvia of Sweden to serve the world’s most vulnerable children, particularly children victimized by sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking. Carbon Neutral allows members to donate their points toward community-based carbon reduction projects. This program is the first we’ve seen to offer this point-redemption option.

Orphan Miles for Orphans
In the past, most programs set a minimum mileage/points requirement for charity donations, but in recent years, these minimums have been decreasing or disappearing altogether. The reasoning behind the minimum amount is for the travel programs to cover the expense of processing the mileage redemption. As Andrea Driver, AAdvantage Marketing Communications, points out, it “allows AA to encourage meaningful donations to assist the charities while minimizing the processing costs.” The highest minimum once was 5,000 miles, but all the airline programs we looked into have lowered their minimums. US Airways used to request a minimum 5,000 miles but now, members can redeem as few as 1,000 miles or the “Account Balance” according to the program’s online donation form (the minimum is still 1,000 miles according to the service center, so you must have at least 1,000 miles to donate your entire account balance).

Delta Air Lines recently lowered their minimum from 5,000 to 1,000 miles; United Airlines and Air Canada ask for a minimum 1,000 miles, while American asks for miles to be donated in 250- or 500-mile increments, depending on the charity. Continental, Northwest and Midwest will take donations in any amount.

Most hotel programs have a minimum you must redeem for points to go toward cash donations to their sponsored charities. Hilton HHonors and Priority Club Rewards members need at least 10,000 points to donate to their respective partner charities.

But even if a program has imposed a minimum donation amount, we suggest you speak to your program directly if you have orphan miles you would like to donate. Mark Dority, Program Manager of Frontier Airlines EarlyReturns, says that although the program asks for donations in 1,000-mile increments there is “some leeway, especially for members who have moved to a city that Frontier doesn’t serve.”

Giving Directly To Your Favorite Charity
Your favorite charity might not be aligned with a frequent flyer program but you can still donate your miles or points. Several frequent flyers we spoke to liked the personal connection this type of donation affords. “My husband and I thought it would be very charitable, years ago, when we pledged to give 100,000 miles to Childspring International,” says Jennifer Karl. “Who knew that we would be the ones incredibly blessed by this experience?” Although Jennifer and her daughters missed her husband Chad when he was frequently gone on business trips, “What a different feeling to know that because of those business trips, we were able to help a child fly to America for desperately needed surgery.”

Jennifer says she “couldn’t think of a better thing to do with our miles” and her family was given the opportunity to see first hand how her donation helped a child. “My husband and our two girls were able to meet one of the young girls we sponsored with our mileage at a picnic two years ago. She wrote their names for them in her native language and our children learned on a first-hand basis that we are all the same, no matter how we look, or where we are from.”

Nancy Ike of Atlanta has been a supporter of Childspring International for several years. She helped hand out flyers and worked through schools to get information out about Childspring’s need for mileage donors, among other activities, and her family was happy to give miles. “People feel good about using their miles for such a great program.” Nancy says that there are many people who sit on miles that will go unredeemed and once they hear of this opportunity, they give because they know that their miles will go to a good cause. She points out that the mileage donation will greatly help Childspring financially, especially because the funds available to help the children are so limited.

“We have a few faithful flight donors who know that I only call when we are truly desperate, at the end of a rope, when we ask for help,” says Christina Porter, Program Director of Childspring International. “Our donors are moved, touched and inspired to be able to help a child in medical need. It’s even more rewarding when the donor gets to personally meet the child they helped bring for medical treatment.” She says that the donors truly become part of the healing process for the child. Childspring International provides medical care opportunities for a better life for children around the world. For more information on Childspring, visit childspringintl.org.

If you wish to donate directly to a charity, keep in mind that you are donating an award, not miles or points. All of the frequent travel programs in the U.S. allow members to give awards to anyone they choose, so you can simply pledge the number of miles needed for an award ticket (for example 25,000 miles for an award within the U.S.) and then once the non-profit organization knows the name of the person traveling, you would book the ticket in that person’s name. This requires some work on your part so take this into consideration when deciding how you would like to donate your miles.

Giving Directly to an Individual in Need
We’ve heard from several frequent travelers who choose to donate directly to individuals in need rather than through their frequent flyer program or a non-profit organization’s donation program. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable to donate miles to organizations where I have no idea who will finally profit,” says FlyerTalk member, Rudi. He points out that he has heard of trusted international organizations flying top administrative staff first class and would not want his miles to be put to use in that way. When he has donated miles, he replied to a specific request. Another FlyerTalk member, Punki, also donated one-on-one. “I can remember one instance where a group of FlyerTalkers pitched in miles to fly a young girl and her parents to an east coast clinic for surgery, and then also donated a ticket for a nurse to fly back with the girl, post-surgery.” He concluded, “Donating under these types of circumstances is something I would happily do in the future.”

If you are interested in getting in touch with individuals with specific flight needs, a first stop would be MileDonor.com, one of InsideFlyer’s sister sites; click “to individual need requests” on the home page. MileDonor.com lists requests from individuals or organizations needing flights for vastly different reasons such as a flight for medical attention, adopting a child overseas, auction item for a non-profit fundraiser and flights for volunteers. Keep in mind that MileDonor.com is a conduit for the public to post requests for miles and it is up to the individual donors to research the validity of the requests. MileDonor.com also pulls together much of the information you need to know when investigating donating your miles and points. You can link to the individual airline programs and read of non-profit organizations in need of award tickets and the latest news regarding miles/points donation efforts. The FAQ section will answer many of the questions you might have.

Tax Implications of Giving Miles/Points
The tax implications of frequent travel miles and points have been written about ad nauseam by many publications, including InsideFlyer. The short answer to, “Can I deduct the value of frequent flyer miles I donate to charity?” is “No.” FlyerTalk member, RichardInSF, sums the situation up very well when he says, “… the IRS will not allow a deduction for mileage donations under any circumstances. And we should all be thankful for that, or they would tax incoming mileage as well.”

Childspring International explains the tax implications on their Web site in this way, “Airline miles are a gift from the airlines to you (their client) thus; the miles do not have a cash value and are not tax deductible.” The organization goes on to remind the potential donor the other ways the donation will have value. “Childspring will send a letter thanking you for your support and provide a small summary of the child’s care photos if they are available.”

A gray area presents itself if you purchase the miles directly from a frequent travel program and then donate them to charity. But then, why would you do that?

No Tax Write-off, Then Why Give?
“I have donated miles, but really for the purposes of keeping the rest of the miles in my account from expiring,” says FlyerTalk member, Sechs. “I did get a warm fuzzy out of the process, but my motives were mostly selfish.” FlyerTalk member, Flaflyer, agrees with Sechs, “… you get a warm fuzzy feeling inside as good or better than that warm fuzzy feeling you get inside after two $5 beers in Y.” And, Flaflyer says, “it’s $10 cheaper.” All of the frequent flyer programs with recently shortened mileage expiration policies count donating miles as an “activity” in the account and will therefore extend the validity of your miles.

In the case of Hilton HHonors, donating points won’t save your points that are set to expire with account non-activity, but donating them to charity is a great way of using points that might otherwise just disappear.

Another FlyerTalk member, EWR ATC Hold, takes an interesting stance toward donating miles, “I’ve begun to make it a point to donate miles received as compensation to charity. For example, I received 15,000 miles for a problem with an upgrade on a Continental flight and donated it to one of the Continental charities.” Frequent traveler Mike Cordelli has a similar position, “Virtually all my orphan miles are donated — airline miles I get for grocery shopping that I never plan on using, miles I get because of random hotel stays, etc.”

Of course, not everyone chooses to give. We’ve read posts from a few cynical frequent flyers on FlyerTalk and other sites who see the donation programs of the airlines as just another way to reduce the airlines’ mileage liability and to part members with their hard-earned miles. As one traveler put it, “Why do the airlines (whose job it is to transport people) put the responsibility of transporting people in need on the customers of the airlines? It seems backwards to me.” And another states, “It is a ploy to separate you from your miles. You are donating $0 to charity — you’re just voluntarily erasing your miles from the books.”

Another FlyerTalk member asks, “Do the charities really redeem the miles like ordinary members would, or do the airlines make a charitable contribution from ‘the money’ collected by donated frequent flyer miles?” The simple answer from the airlines is, yes, the non-profits redeem the miles like everyone else — there is no hidden agenda. Some airlines, like Midwest Airlines, do have someone on staff to work with the charities to accommodate all of the requests that come in, and in the timeframe they are requesting. “The charities do in fact use the miles that have been donated. Children and adults use the miles mainly for medically necessary transportation,” says Marie O’Shea of Midwest Airlines. “Since the beginning of the year, Midwest Airlines has helped 197 families.”

Regardless of the motives on the part of the airlines, people in need are helped by these programs. Just ask the Katrina hurricane or tsunami victims and volunteers who were offered free flights or the thousands of families who have had one less thing to worry about when caring for a sick loved one.

The reason people donate miles is often the same reason they donate cash. And if you choose to give cash, you might just get some bonus miles.

Give Cash, Get Miles
Some programs offer their members miles or points when they make cash donations to charities, some during limited-time offers and others as an ongoing program feature. American AAdvantage members can earn miles when making monetary donations to The National Parks Foundation. When you give $100 or more (up to $10,000) to the foundation, you earn 10 bonus miles for every dollar donated. Because you are getting miles for your donation, you cannot deduct the full amount of the donation from your taxes. The AAdvantage Web site states that donations are tax deductible less $.022 per mile earned. AAdvantage members can also earn miles with other non-profits including the USO and UNICEF.

Northwest WorldPerks members who donate $50 or more directly to an AirCares partner (except KidCares and Fisher House Foundation) will receive 500 WorldPerks bonus miles when mentioning the AirCares program and providing your membership number at time of donation; or if you save your receipt, you can send a copy directly via aircares@nwa.com to get your miles.

Keep in mind that donations via a mile- or point-earning credit card will always add to your frequent travel balance when you donate using the card.

American Express Membership Rewards is taking this opportunity a step further through the end of this year by offering its members double Membership Rewards points for every dollar you donate with an eligible, enrolled American Express card. The GivingExpress program makes giving easy. You can choose to donate from over one million charitable organizations online and receive an emailed receipt suitable for your tax records. You can search organizations by name, keywords, location or categories such as international human rights or health care. The search engine, powered by GuideStar, is very thorough and includes information such as full financial reports, mission statements and more regarding the individual organizations. You can even set up recurring donations. You will be charged a 2.25 percent processing fee through Just Give, but this is a normal occurrence when donating with a credit card, and you can deduct the full amount of your donation from your taxes to the extent allowed by law.

Another way to get miles while doing good was brought to our attention by the knowledgeable folks at FlyerTalk. Kiva is an organization that connects individual small business owners in developing countries with individuals willing to loan money to them (as little as $25 is asked). You are essentially sponsoring a business, and as the loans are repaid, you get your loan money back. You’ll lose the interest the money might make in savings, but many believe the gains are worth the loss. And if you use your co-branded frequent travel credit card to pay the loan through PayPal, you will also earn miles. Visit www.kiva.org to read all about this worthwhile organization.

The Charitable Role of the Industry
Many airlines have programs where they donate free flights to non-profit organizations to be used for silent auction or raffle prizes. The recipient of the prize will be presented with a flight coupon for their personal use. The individual airlines have different preferences about how they wish to be approached with flight requests, but most prefer the request be directed toward their community relations department (not their frequent flyer program department) online or in writing within specific parameters. In 2007, Frontier Airlines provided over 600 non-profit organizations with close to 1,500 seats to be used for emergency medical needs or fundraisers and Southwest and JetBlue have been known to be quite generous with giving flight coupons to non-profits. Southwest gave away more than 10,000 tickets over the past year to non-profit organizations and for medical emergencies. You can learn more at the Southwest Web site under About SWA, Community Relations.

American offers a unique AAdvantage Fund Raising program where non-profit organizations can reward donors with AAdvantage miles. This program is run by Mitch-Stuart, Inc., a recipient of a Distinguished Achievement award bestowed by Randy Petersen at the Freddie Awards in 2005: “In recognition for pioneering the ‘frequent funder’ concept, which resulted in the donation of more than $350 million and the awarding of more than 500 million miles to organizations such as the American Cancer Society, The United Way, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and hundreds more.”

Mitch-Stuart, Inc. also works with non-profits to market the miles concept to donors and offers travel packages and flight certificates to non-profits for their use as auction items or incentives. Travel package partners include American Airlines, United Airlines, The Ritz-Carlton, Marriott, Hyatt, Fairmont, Disney and Carnival Cruise Lines. Visit http://www.mitchstuart.com for full information.

Frequent travel programs also are known to run promotions around their donation program. For example, through Dec. 31, 2007, Northwest Airlines will match all donations of WorldPerks miles to Guide Dogs of America — up to 1,000,000 miles. Guide Dogs of America’s mission is to provide professionally trained guide dogs and instruction, at no cost, to blind and visually impaired individuals so that they may pursue their goals of independence and greater mobility. You can donate through AirCares at http://www.insideflyer.com/link/?644

This past year, several programs teamed up over Memorial Day weekend to match mileage donations from members to the Fisher House Foundation, which gives free airline tickets to wounded service members and their families. Delta SkyMiles members stood out donating 128 million miles — and all the miles from more than 3,000 members were matched by Delta — that’s enough miles to provide up to 5,000 domestic roundtrip tickets.

Air Canada donated one million Aeroplan miles each to five organizations that promote children’s health, fight poverty among young people and grant special wishes.

Hilton HHonors members this fall could earn up to 6,000 HHonors points for theifundraising efforts with Walk for Hope to Cure Breast Cancer. And under the “SkyMiles Home Run Program”, Delta Air Lines pledged to donate 25,000 miles to Atlanta’s Dream House for Medically Fragile Children for each homerun hit by Jeff Francoeur. Francoeur finished off the season with 19 homeruns, and SkyMiles donated 475,000 miles to the organization. Founded in 2001, the Dream House for Medically Fragile Children provides resources and support to help families and communities prepare for children with special medical needs.

Currently, IHG Priority Club Rewards members will see their points donations matched by Priority Club up to a total $100,000 for the victims of the recent Southern California wildfires. The members’ points are converted to cash and donated to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.

Another current promotion sees United Mileage Plus teaming up with the American Cancer Society to give a teddy bear to a child with cancer for every 7,500 Mileage Plus miles or $50 donated to the American Cancer Society. Funds raised through the proceeds will benefit the American Cancer Society in its dedication to save lives, diminish suffering and prevent cancer through research, education, advocacy and service. “We’re really pleased to partner with the American Cancer Society to battle a disease that impacts everyone in some way,” says Jeff Kovick, United Airlines Public Relations, “and we look forward to bringing some smiles to children’s faces across the country.” Go to united.com for full information for this limited-time promotion.

The list is much longer than these few examples, but it’s obvious that the airlines and hotels are using their frequent travel programs to be their community ambassadors.

So, is it better to give than to recieve? It appears you can do both with miles and points and be quite happy about it.

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