Legroom, lounges and legalese: A guide to the best travel gift certificates

It's been quite a few holiday seasons since the economic news was so grim, and undoubtedly many Americans will be cutting back on their travel budgets. This presents an opportunity for you to deliver the perfect gift for family and friends: the world. Or at least a little part of it, through travel gift cards, certificates, and coupons.

There is an array of gift options for a wide variety of travel products, and many major travel suppliers offer such gifts right on their websites. However, each comes with certain rules, restrictions, and caveats. So it pays to educate yourself before you add travel to your holiday shopping list.

You don't always have to buy gift certificates directly from the travel company, since they're often available from banks, rewards programs and other institutions. Third-party gift sites offer products for many companies, including major travel brands. GiftCertificates.com, for example, sells certificates for household-name airlines, hotels, vacation packagers, cruise lines, car rental firms, and travel sites.

Other travel certificates might be transferred or resold; last week I spotted an Avis gift card on craigslist. But beware of buying such certificates second-hand, since travel suppliers may not redeem them in certain cases. You also need to be particularly careful about redeeming with certain franchised travel companies—such as some hotel chains and car rental firms—since rules can vary from location to location. Many travel blogs contain horror stories from consumers who were told their gift certificates were invalid.

Airlines

Many larger carriers will be happy to sell you certificates you can wrap as presents this holiday season. Each card carries its own caveats so it pays to learn about the fine print on policies such as expiration dates. Also, redemption rules may or may not allow purchases of products other than air travel, such as access to airport lounges.

American Airlines offers gift cards in any denomination between $50 and $1,500, and the recipient can use up to eight cards for one ticket purchase on flights originating in the U.S., Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands. The good news is there's no fee and they carry no expiration dates. You can choose either a plastic card for mailing or an electronic card for e-mailing. If you select the priority shipping option, order by Dec. 17th for arrival by Christmas. Details at aa.com.

In addition to selling certificates to purchase tickets, some airlines also allow you to purchase frequent flier mileage as gifts. For example, Delta charges "$0.0275 USD per mile plus a 7.5% federal excise tax" (which also gives you some idea of the monetary value of your miles); learn more at delta.com.

United even allows you to purchase a year of extra legroom for a loved one: An Economy Plus annual gift subscription costs $349, and includes companions traveling on the same itineraries; learn more at store.united.com. In addition, United offers a one-year Red Carpet Club membership for its airport lounges for $500.

Here's a brief rundown on what other major domestic carriers offer:

• Continental not only sells gift certificates, it even provides a gift registry so would-be recipients can let their family and friends make deposits into their "TravelBank" accounts; more at continental.com.

• Delta sells gift certificates that can be used for air travel as well as purchasing Crown Room Club memberships at delta.com.

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