Frequent Flyers Donate Their Miles to Migrant Families in Need

Most Americans collect some kind of travel rewards with their credit cards. As many as two-thirds, actually. And more than a quarter of those just let the miles expire, essentially leaving money owed to them to revert back to the airlines. Most, for instance, don’t actually spend or fly enough in any given year to earn a free flight. So the reward miles add up, then drain away without ever being spent.

Beth Wilensky is a law professor at the University of Michigan. Her husband travels often for business, building up a lot of reward miles they never have time to use. This year, instead of letting them expire, her family redeemed miles to put a family back together.

Her miles let a father pick up his three-year-old son from Michigan and take him to stay with their extended family. The father and son had been separated by immigration officials at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the little boy sent over 2,000 miles away to a holding center. When they were allowed to reunite, there was no assistance offered for travel. Last-minute tickets sell at a premium; without this help, that father or his family could have spent thousands to get their child back.

Wilensky tweeted about her experience, offering to coordinate other potential donors, but the response—140,000 likes and 30,000 retweets on Twitter alone—quickly overwhelmed her ability to respond, so she instead connected interested parties to two charities: Miles4Migrants and Michigan Support Circle. By Friday, only four days after her initial tweet, Miles4Migrants had received nearly 6 million donated miles, and Michigan Support Circle had 252 new donors on standby.

It’s a kind of need often overlooked. Travel expenses don’t often seem like a dire strait, but they can be the difference between a family never reunited, an immigrant left homeless with no resources wherever he’s released, and a father and son making it to a safe new home, hearts intact.