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Last-minute gifts for travelers

SmarterTravel

My wife’s good rule for holiday gift-giving: Don’t buy a product for someone who knows more about the gift than you do. I’m a jazz fan, for example, and every time someone gives me a jazz CD, it’s either a disc I already have, by a performer I don’t like, or of compositions I don’t like. Whether you’re talking art, electronics, clothes, or anything else, unless you’re working from a specific request, you always take a risk when you buy something for someone who knows the gift’s territory better than you do.

Buying access is sometimes the solution. For someone who likes movies, you might go wrong buying a DVD but you can’t miss by giving a membership in Netflix or a subscription to Widescreen Review. Travelers are especially easy, since you can usually find a gift that will be welcome no matter where or when a traveler wants to go. That’s why, since a reader recently asked for gift suggestions, I can list some attractive options. As an added attraction, they’re available instantly for last-minute gift requirements.

Airline gift cards

American, Continental, and Northwest are all promoting holiday gift cards this year.

  • American’s approach is to issue gift cards for $50 or $100. If that’s not enough, you can buy—and the recipient can use—up to eight cards for any given ticket. Once issued, the cards never expire. American is selling them through a bunch of participating retailers as well as by phone, at 800-677-9555. You can find the details on American’s website but you can’t buy online.
  • Northwest’s gift cards come in denominations of $50 to $500. Unlike American’s, they’re valid only one year, but they’re refundable within that time if your recipient can’t use them. You can buy them online only.
  • Continental seems to think it’s more blessed to receive than to give. Its program helps you troll for a travel gift for yourself. You register a Gift Account in your name, starting with an initial $25 deposit, and let anyone who might be interested know that a contribution (by credit card) to the account would be welcome. It’s sort of like a bridal registry. Of course, you could also set up an account for someone else. Make arrangements online.

All three programs share some basic rules. The gift certificates or accounts are good only for travel, not for such non-travel items as airline club memberships, merchandise, and the like, or for the hotel content of vacation packages. Travel is limited to the issuing airline and its affiliated regional lines; it’s not valid on codeshare flights operated by other airlines (except that Northwest includes KLM). The travel credit is valid toward any published airfare, with no further restrictions that I can find, but you can’t use it for upgrades.

I didn’t see any similar gift programs at Delta, United, or US Airways, but you might find something by the time you read this. And some of the smaller lines may also promote gift programs.

Frequent flyer trips…

If you have excess frequent flyer credit lying around in your account, you can give some of it away in the form of award travel. American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, and United all specifically state that you can have award certificates issued in the names of travelers other than yourself. Although I couldn’t find similar language on US Airways’ website, I suspect it will also let you give trip awards to others.

All, however, are adamant that you can’t buy, sell, barter, or trade awards, and they promise various severe forms of retaliation if you try. United says that you might have to show up in person at a United ticket counter to sign the award over to someone else.

With award trips, however, what initially looks like a generous gift of travel might really turn out to be a gift of massive frustration. These days, the travel press is full of stories about the inability of travelers to find frequent flyer seats to just about anywhere anyone would really want to go. If you do give someone an award, be sure to explain the vagaries of frequent flyer travel and the need to be flexible about dates, times, and even destinations.

…But not miles

All the big airlines are happy to sell you miles—either for yourself or for someone else. The problems with buying a bunch of miles are (1) that you pay a stiff price, up to three cents a mile, and (2) the stringent limitations on seats, as noted above. Similarly, several allow you to transfer miles from your account to someone else’s, but, again, the fee is too stiff for the process to make sense. Overall, most people should try to find a decent use for their existing miles rather than to accumulate more.

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