Charitable travelers have lots of good routes to take

Frequent-flier miles, hotel points go far in helping others

Strategies

December 19, 2004|By Alfred Borcover | Alfred Borcover,Chicago Tribune

During this gift-giving time of year, travelers have a lot of ways to bring comfort and happiness to others: They can donate frequent-flier miles and hotel points for charitable use, and they can contribute to organizations that help people in lands where they've traveled.

"The easiest way to donate miles is directly through a frequent-flier program," said Randy Petersen, editor of InsideFlyer magazine and a frequent-flier guru. "You can donate individual miles -- 1,000 miles, 2,500 miles, 5,000 miles, as many as you wish. You don't have to give a whole award," which would amount to 25,000 miles for a round-trip domestic ticket.

Airlines and hotels often list the charities they support with these donated miles or points on their Web sites.

There are other ways in which you can donate your miles to charities, Petersen said. "A lot of people have their own charities of choice, but giving them miles is a little more difficult. You can't donate individual miles, only individual awards. It requires more communication with the charity of choice. You end up being kind of a travel agent.

"Once the charity decides to accept the award, it will give you the name of the member of that organization that could use the award," he added. "You then have to go to the airport, arrange with the airline and transfer the award over to that person. It requires you to be pretty committed."

To assist would-be contributors, a listing of airlines and hotel chains with charity programs is available at the Award Donation Center (miledonor.com), a site established by Petersen about three years ago. In addition to the programs, the site also lists individuals and groups seeking award donations.

Petersen said he gets a lot of questions from his readers about how to donate miles, thus the Web site, but "80 percent of the people I come in contact with have a secondary question: 'Hey, is it tax deductible?' The answer is no. There is no legal way for you to donate your miles or points to charity and take any type of tax deduction."

Petersen explained that individuals can't take a deduction because the Internal Revenue Service says the person never really paid for the value of those miles.

"In essence," Petersen said, "when somebody flies and earns miles, the person doesn't pay any more or any less for the ticket, or for the purchases he or she make using a miles credit card. There's no way to balance that with a tax deduction."

Taxes aside, Petersen noted another reason to donate miles: "In all the major reward programs in the U.S., including hotel programs, points still expire unless you have activity within your account. Activity includes anything, whether it's earning miles or redeeming miles. So if you've got an account that's dormant and miles may be expiring, if you donate a small amount of those miles, even if it's a minimal amount -- 1,000 miles -- to a charity working with the airline, that activity ... will extend your miles for another three years."

Many travelers feel compassion for people in other lands who truly need a helping hand. Two examples: Heifer International (heifer.org; 800-698-2511), a nonprofit organization based in Little Rock, Ark., has been fighting hunger worldwide for 60 years. People can contribute toward buying trees, pigs, sheep, goats, llamas, bees, rabbits and water buffalo for communities in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin and South America.

Seva Foundation (seva.org; 800-223-7382), based in Berkeley, Calif., has been around for more than 25 years, providing assistance to communities in India, Nepal, Tibet, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Mexico and Guatemala, as well as to Native Americans.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

In brief

Air passengers are encouraged to travel light

From the Federal Aviation Administration comes some polite prodding on traveling light, preventing our luggage from blocking another flier's path or crashing down on her head.

"Think small." So goes a slogan on the federal agency's Web site. By most airlines' rules, carry-on luggage can measure up to 45 inches in combined height, width and depth, which seems an overly generous accommodation.

"Think safe." Carry-ons can injure when tumbling from an overhead bin onto a body below. So, be careful.

Better yet, drop the big bags at the checkout counter. The FAA calls that "thinking smart." Trusting the 45-incher to the security of the cargo hold poses fewer frustrations for those who prefer to travel light. They cross the plane's threshold with a book in hand and a parcel of personal effects tiny enough to tuck under the seat.

This helps the flight attendants as well as the passengers.

"Excess or oversized baggage has definitely been an issue for flight attendants, on the matter of safety and other points," said David Kameras, spokesman for the Association of Flight Attendants in Washington. "It's not just the size of these, it's weight and the fact that attendants are having to hoist them."

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