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A Thousand Points of Flight

Travel credits can improve your karmic balance sheet

October 16, 2005|ROBIN RAUZI

Any travel junkie knows that frequent-flier miles and similar credits can get you a plane ticket or hotel room. But zipping from one far-flung place to another isn't all "me, me, me." This may come as a shock, but freebie travel points can also satiate more philanthropic urges.

Most airlines and hotel chains that reward repeat customers with credit toward free goodies have relationships with charitable organizations. A donation can be a nifty use for leftover credits such as "orphan miles" on an airline you don't fly on regularly. "You know there's little chance that they're going to accumulate to an award level," says Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com. "In practice, they're worthless to you." In a charitable account, donated travel amenities can make a big difference.

Before Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the most popular large donor program was Operation Hero Miles (www.heromiles.org), in which award tickets are used to fly military personnel home on leave. The program got so many miles, it was expanded to fly family members to visit hospitalized servicemen and women who had been injured in Iraq or Afghanistan. The American Red Cross uses its pool of donated miles to transport volunteers or staff who are responding to emergencies.

Airlines and hotel chains generally have affiliations with a few tried-and-true organizations; the Red Cross and the Make-A-Wish Foundation are frequent recipients. But there are ways to give to your charity of choice too, says Randy Petersen, editor and publisher of InsideFlyer magazine and the sponsor of MileDonor (www.miledonor.com), a clearinghouse for where and how to give. American Express Membership Rewards lets members buy gift certificates in a variety of amounts and uses. MileDonor also has a bulletin board where individuals can post specific requests, such as travel related to medical treatment or international adoptions.

If you're ready to taxi down the runway of giving, Petersen notes that accommodation credits would be a great matchup for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. "The refugees could use donated hotel points at extended-stay properties as they get on their feet."

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