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Friendly Skies: Donate Your Frequent Flier Miles

Do you have more frequent-flier miles than you know what to do with, or miles that will expire soon—but not enough to entitle you to an award?In either case, many major airlines' mileage programs make it possible for members to donate miles to worthy nonprofit organizations, which can convert them into free travel for staff members or for those who benefit from their services.

United Airlines' Mileage Plus, for instance, recently added the Breast Cancer Research Foundation to its Charity Miles Program, which also supports the Special Olympics, the American Red Cross, Shriners Hospitals, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and several other groups.

Likewise, Delta Air Lines' SkyMiles has a program called SkyWish that lets members donate miles to CARE, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and the United Way of America. Continental frequent fliers can give to Careforce (which transports ill children), the Brass Ring Society (which allows seriously ill kids to go on a dream trip), or AmeriCares (which provides medical aid in times of natural disaster). American's AAdvantage plan promotes Miles for Kids in Need, using donated miles to provide plane tickets to gravely ill children and their families who need to travel for medical treatment. Some airlines match your mileage donation with a smaller one of their own, and some, like Northwest, allow frequent fliers to sign over free award tickets to charities of their choice.

To prevent mileage credits from going to waste, many people donate them toward the end of the year. "Once you donate them, they do not expire," says American Airlines spokesman Bill Dreslin. There are minimum acceptable donations, however: United's program takes charitable contributions only in blocks of 10,000 miles; at American, Continental, and Delta, the minimum is 5,000. Unfortunately, the mileage donations are not tax-deductible—but they're still a sound investment.

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