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How Can I Donate My Frequent Flyer Miles to a Worthy Cause?

Dear Tim—

As a long-time frequent flyer, I have accumulated more than 300,000 miles in United’s program, plus odd lots of miles in various other programs.

I’m now retired, however, and my traveling days have come to an end.

I have offered to use the miles for trips for family members, but so far there haven’t been any takers. Go figure, right?

I know I can’t sell the miles (although the logic of that eludes me).

I do want to make use of the miles in some meaningful way, and a friend recently suggested I donate them to charity. Not sure how to actually do that, but it sounds like a decent option.

Can you help me?

Mr. B

Dear Mr. B—

There’s typically an upsurge in charitable mileage donations during the holiday season, so your question is a timely one.

Since the bulk of your miles are with United, let’s begin with their Charity Miles program, which is typical of the major carriers’ approach to mileage donations.

On United’s website, Mileage Plus members are invited to donate between 1,000 and 90,000 miles to a range of charities, including the American Cancer Society, the American Red Cross, The Dream Foundation, Guide Dogs of America, Make-a-Wish Foundation, Salvation Army, and the Special Olympics.

Note that the supported charities are generally national, sometimes international, in scope. That’s understandable from the standpoint of United, or other airlines that have the same policy. But it leaves smaller local non-profits without a ready link to would-be supporters.

Making a donation is a three-step process. First, enter your member information (Mileage Plus number, password, email address). Then choose the charity to receive your donation from a drop-down list. Next, choose the number of miles to donate. Press the “Donate” button and you’re done.

That’s the quick and easy way to get your miles into the hands of worthy organizations. If you’re willing to spend your time as well as your miles, there’s a less formal way to scratch the charitable itch as well.

Guerrilla Giving

Do you have a favored local charity? Do they have a travel budget? Your donation of frequent flyer award tickets could save them money, which could then be used for other purposes.

Notice that I referenced your donation of award tickets, not miles. While you can donate miles to the airlines’ designated charity partners, you generally cannot transfer miles to non-profits not already on the airlines’ lists of supported organizations (just as you cannot readily transfer your miles to another individual’s account).

What you can do, however, is deal directly with the charity and redeem your miles for tickets issued in the name of people traveling on behalf of the organization, either aid-givers or aid-receivers.

This will require a fair amount of coordination between yourself and the charity to determine who will be traveling, when they’ll be traveling, and where. And you’ll have to arrange to get the tickets into the hands of those actually traveling. It’s definitely a more labor-intensive process.

But it’s also likely to be more fulfilling than the relatively anonymous donation procedure through the airlines.

And really, shouldn’t giving be rewarding?

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