My friend recently took a trip to LA, to be present at his friend’s surprise engagement party. He was thrilled to be there and wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But he was also reeling over how high the cost of his plane ticket was, booked just two days in advance. Missing the party wasn’t an option, so instead he forked over three times as much as the ticket would have cost if booked reasonably ahead of time.
There are many reasons we need to book travel at the last minute. It may be for romantic events and spontaneous vacations or more unfortunate occasions like a death in the family (bereavement fares are becoming less common) or a relative falling ill. We may need to hop on a plane at a moment’s notice to close a critical sales deal or assist in an important meeting. Points or miles are a good way to take last-minute travel without breaking the bank.
Using points and miles for a last-minute reward flight
As a savvy points and miles traveler, you’re probably accustomed to planning your trips well in advance. For the best availability, this is definitely the preferred option as many airlines only offer a limited number of seats to be booked by travelers using points. But you might be surprised at how well your points can work for you when booking last-minute travel. If a flight is under-booked, some airlines may open up more rewards seats in the weeks and days leading up to departure.
At this point, the airline knows the possibility of selling those seats to paying customers is less likely so they’ll release them as reward seats instead.
Passenger flight changes and cancellations can also open up more reward seats. I’ve been lucky enough to book a reward flight as short as a few hours before departure.
Some airlines are even known for opening up premium or first-class tickets for rewards customers within a few days of the flight if there are still seats remaining.
Last-minute booking fees and how to avoid them
If you’re able to snag a last-minute reward flight, do keep in mind that some airlines charge a fee, also known as the close-in award ticketing fee, if you’re booking less than 21 days before the departure date. The fee usually ranges from $75 to $100, but many airlines reduce the fee or waive it altogether for their Elite Status members, or members holding a premium affiliated credit card. If you’re looking for an airline with no extra fee on last-minute awards bookings, try Alaska Airlines, British Airways, Delta, JetBlue or Southwest.
Cash in on credit card rewards points
Sometimes it’s just not possible to find availability for a reward flight and you’ll need to pay for your ticket the old-fashioned way. In that case, consider converting points or miles to cash to pay for part, or even all, of your out-of-pocket ticket cost. A travel rewards credit card that isn’t affiliated with a particular airline or hotel allows you to apply your points to any travel purchase you make.
For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards offers anywhere from 1 cent to 1.25 cents per point, depending on which credit card you carry.
A ‘savings account’ for emergencies
Like having an emergency fund in your savings account to access in case you face a financial setback, many loyalty aficionados keep a cache of reward points or miles to tap into for last-minute trips. Emergency travel is understandably hard to predict, but if you have a destination you frequently fly to for work or loved ones located in another city, it’s a good idea to calculate the cost of a return ticket to that destination and keep a stash of reserve miles to use in case of last-minute emergencies.
If you need to beef up your “reserve fund”, consider buying some of the rewards currency from your main programs outright. Several times a year, most of the popular airlines and hotels in North America run sales and promotions that give you more – sometimes up to double your purchase – when you buy points and miles to top up your balance.
It’s a great way to stock up for less, keeping you in a more favorable situation when emergencies come up.