How to donate credit card, loyalty rewards

Highway sign with the words Rewards-Next Exit

Are your airline miles about to expire? Are you switching credit cards but have unused reward points on the old card?

Don’t spend them on something you don’t need, and certainly don’t let them go to waste.

Give them to charity instead.

Many credit card issuers make it easy for you to donate your reward points to a charitable cause.

Same goes for major airlines and hotel chains with the leftover miles or hotel points you have in their programs.

These companies partner with a long list of charity organizations, ranging from the American Cancer Society to youth orchestras.

Air miles

When it comes to your frequent-flyer program, you can do some good by donating as few as 500 miles.

Alaska, American, Delta, United and US Airways are the major airlines that allow donations. (Jet Blue and Southwest don’t do it, and Frontier suspended its program.)

The best place to start is the airline’s website, where donation how-tos are listed, usually the list of organizations it partners with, plus donation options. It can be as easy as entering your membership number online, followed by the number of miles you want to donate.

The charities supported by each airline vary. For example, American Airlines supports just two of them: Hero Miles and Miles for Kids in Need.

Hero Miles provides free airline tickets to U.S. service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan on leave, saving each one an average of $1,400 in airfare.

American’s own Miles for Kids in Need program gives air miles to children in need of medical, educational and social services. Last year, the airline donated more than 80 million miles, which turned into transportation for more than 300 children and their families.

Alaska Airlines, which touts its reputation as one of the country’s greenest air fleets, includes green charities such as the Nature Conservancy and the National Forest Foundation.

After a major catastrophe happens, like Haiti’s earthquake or Japan’s tsunami in recent years, it’s common for airlines to allow customers to donate miles to relief-effort organizations, like the Red Cross, helping people affected by the disasters.

The one charitable foundation most U.S. airlines work with is the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America, which helps to make dreams come true for children in need. It raised 121 million miles last year, although granting every kid’s wish requires 50,000 round-trip airline tickets, or 2.5 billion miles, annually.

Make-A-Wish also accepts hotel rewards points from Hilton- and Hyatt-branded credit cards.

Hotel points

Speaking of hotels, some major chains offer options for donating rewards from their loyalty programs. Starwood turns 2,000 points into a $25 check to the American Red Cross, while 500 points buys school supplies for UNICEF.

Hilton Hotels lists multiple charities on its website, but it takes 10,000 HHonors points for a $25 donation — not that charitable to you, the customer.

Marriott supports the American and International Red Cross groups, along with Hotels for Heroes, providing free hotel rooms to military service members undergoing medical treatment away from home.

It also lets customers support the local organizations of their choice by turning points into Marriott checks or dinner certificates that could be used as fundraisers. A "Rewarding Communities" check for $100 equals 33,000 Marriott points.

Credit Card Rewards

Major card issuers like American Express, Capital One, Citi and Discover let you turn reward points into charitable donations. You’ll need to check with your card company to see what kind of program they have for doing so.

For the ones cited above, it’s as easy as logging onto your account online, clicking on the "Redeem Rewards" link and donating unused points just as if you were redeeming them for cash or merchandise. Another method is calling the customer service number on your card to donate by phone.

Before you hand over your points, there are a few questions to ask:

Finally, don’t assume you’ll get a tax deduction. You definitely won’t for donating miles, as those donations are not considered "property" by the IRS and therefore don’t have monetary value.

With rewards points, you have a better chance, especially if your donation is sizable — more than $25. Get a receipt for your donation from your card issuer (most websites generate them automatically), then check with an accountant to see whether it’s tax-deductible.

Even if it’s not, the upside of charitable donations is that if you do so with your credit card, you could earn more rewards points.

And the biggest advantage of all could be knowing that the results of your card purchases are helping those in need.

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