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I would like to get a family member a gift card or something similar that they can use to help pay for an airplane ticket to visit.

Certainly I could get a gift card for any given airline, but airfare prices change all the time, so knowing which airline to get the card for is impossible. I've seen a generic debit card like Vanilla Visa recommended but then there is no guarantee the recipient will use it for a flight as it can be used on anything. If possible I would like to ensure the gift is eventually used for what it was intended for.

Is there any method for giving someone funds to use for flights that works on any airline, but can only be used for plane tickets?

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    If you can't trust the recipient to use the money for a plane ticket, how would you specifically trust the recipient to use the money to visit. Even if what you wanted existed, they could just as easily use it buy a plane ticket to go somewhere else or buy a plane ticket for someone else in exchange for cash. – Zach Lipton Dec 20 '18 at 5:15
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    @ZachLipton: In this case the recipient is simply not very good at saving. If I give a liquid asset they will "plan" to use it as intended, but life happens and they get short of funds and use it with the intent to save the money back later, but it never happens. If such a product is available I'd prefer the peace of mind knowing it will be used as I wanted. :) – Nathanael Dec 20 '18 at 5:54
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    Do you want to restrict it really only to flights, or are other travel expenses (mostly hotels) ok? A voucher or credit with a travel agent may work in that case. Not sure if there are any online travel booking sites that have this feature, but a brick and mortar travel agent definitely will. – jcaron Dec 20 '18 at 7:21
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    @Nathanael Unless I specifically asked for assistance to achieve a larger purchase then I would hate to receive a "gift" that forces me to spend more money to use said "gift". If they're bad with money now then what makes you think they'll be good to make up the difference of the total cost minus your "gift"? I envision this gift sitting around until it expires or is forgotten and you will end up asking "so when are you coming to visit?" and receive a sheepish answer of "oh, I can't quite afford it yet." ad infinitum. – MonkeyZeus Dec 20 '18 at 18:31
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    FWIW that seems like a passive-aggressive gift. Here, have a thing, that I'll make efforts to ensure that you can only use to please me. Hum. – Lightness Races with Monica Dec 21 '18 at 14:43
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Indirectly. You can give them a voucher that tells them you will buy them a plane ticket of their choosing up to a given amount.

Far more personal too than simply handing some precharged card.

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    This is a good answer, and it's a solution I've used before for somone close to me who is notorious for losing physical gift cards, or letting them expire before using them. Just make the voucher look really nice and special. Not just a print out with "Good for a flight." on it. Something more personal, colorful, perhaps even using local imagery of where you live to inspire them to visit your part of the country. (Another benefit of this solution is that if they never use it, it costs you nothing.) – Headblender Dec 20 '18 at 22:43
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    If you do this, it might be in your interest to include an expiration date. At least for me, I don't like having to remember that I owe someone something. – Kodos Johnson Dec 21 '18 at 3:21
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    @KodosJohnson: I feel like a gift with an expiration date is... weird... – Mehrdad Dec 21 '18 at 6:36
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    This reminds me of one of the "FRIENDS" episodes (googling it I found it was 04x06), where Joey wants to gift his girlfriend one of his "coupons for an hour of "Joey Love."" ;) In any case +1, this is the exact way to make sure the "coupon" is used just like the OP wants; I'd suggest also to word it like "just tell me when you want to come and I'll find the plane" rather than "choose a flight and I'll give you a refund" (you'll also add your time for researches to the "coupon", and you'll show your friend that you really want him to visit you) – frarugi87 Dec 21 '18 at 9:04
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    @Mehrdad While I agree with the sentiment, in practice it makes some sense and is not unusual. After all it's reasonable not to hold the giver in financial uncertainty for an unknown quantity of time. This is why gift cards expire, and why cheques expire. I've previously forgotten to cash in a cheque given as a gift for a few months and was politely (well, ish) prompted by the kind giver to get on with it so they could balance their books. This was a fair request, although personally I'd have to feel like I really needed to balance my books in order to make the request after the fact. – Lightness Races with Monica Dec 21 '18 at 14:46
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A quick search reveals Flight Gift Card to be quite suitable. From what the website says, it supports 300 airlines over 70 countries with a validity of 2 years for the gift card. They deliver the card via direct email, printable copy or an option to mail the physical card.

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First, to be useful for purchasing flights, this card should work on plenty of merchants. This would include not only the airlines themselves, but also travel agencies. Those include both brick-and-mortar stores and online merchants like Priceline or Orbitz. They generally use the same merchant ID for all their bookings (flight, hotel, cruise, car rental etc), so filtering by merchant ID is not feasible.

Second, even airlines themselves sometimes use 3rd party processors; for example Blue Air uses "maxitours.be" for processing their credit card purchases.

Thus I doubt what you'd like to do is even theoretically possible using the suggested avenue (prepaid gift card).

The only method I can think of would be by invoking a third party. For example you can provide the money to a travel agency (or travel agent) you trust, and specify that those could only be used to purchase flights.

  • It doesn't necessarily have to be a gift card, that's just what I hand in mind. In the end I'd like to help the recipient pay for a trip at a later date, and something I can gift and have the funds already reserved/set aside for them for that specific purpose would be preferred. – Nathanael Dec 20 '18 at 6:01
  • You're thinking of the normal credit card networks. They have a specific card network for airlines precisely to solve the travel filtering problem for companies, and to lower costs to airlines. – user71659 Dec 21 '18 at 18:44
  • As far as I know, UATP doesn't issue gift cards, and their cards are not issued directly to consumers, only via corporations. – George Y. Dec 28 '18 at 0:44
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There is a program call SkyHour which offers this service, you pay a rate per hour of the flight, it works on over 350 airlines, you can give it as a gift, and multiple people can even contribute to one gift in order to help someone build up to a very big flight.

The downside is that it is not like a gift card where you can use it to pay for part of a flight. If the flight is quite long and you only gift them part of a flight they would need to buy the rest of the hours.

Disclaimer: I have never used this service. They seem to charge $60 per flight hour, which on some routes would be a good deal and on others may be quite a bit more expensive than average.

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    This is really interesting. Playing around with it a bunch, it seems like the booking engine is designed to not offer any flight options that cost much more than $60/hour, so they're not eating the cost of more expensive flights (they credit some of the savings from cheaper flights back to you as a credit for a future booking). This limits the selection a lot: there are plenty of $296 nonstop SFO-SEA flights tomorrow, but SkyHour only offers ones with connections many hours out of the way (Los Angeles, Phoenix) since they won't sell a $296 ticket to me for 2.25 hours=$135. – Zach Lipton Dec 23 '18 at 5:26
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    It's a really fascinating looking option, but I'd be extra worried about buying someone SkyHours that they could have a difficult time using because the site won't sell tickets that don't make financial sense for the company. In any case, thanks for sharing it here, and welcome to travel.stackexchange! – Zach Lipton Dec 23 '18 at 5:30

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