Saving Money By Using Miles in an Emergency: A Rundown of Last Minute Airline Award Booking Fees

Sep 11, 2013

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I flew to South Africa last week to visit some friends on a quick trip that I had decided to go on last-minute when they invited me and I was able to find a roundtrip economy ticket on KLM from New York to Cape Town via Amsterdam for $1,540.

Flight Review: KLM 777-200 JFK-AMS-CPT
KLM’s Economy Comfort Seats that I flew down to Cape Town on.

I was having a fantastic time in Cape Town, but while I was there, a family emergency came up (everything is okay, but it was important for me to get home) and I had to cut my trip short by several days.

Changing My Flight – The Options
My first thought was just to call KLM and see about changing my ticket. I could do so for a $300 change fee – there would have been no difference in fare price – but I would have been in a regular coach seat with no Economy Comfort for extra room, and I was not sure I would fit since the pitch on those seats is just 31 inches. The agent I spoke to also said it would be possible to change my ticket to a business class seat on my new flight, but that would have cost me $2,190, which I wanted to avoid.

Delta is operating 767′s with lie-flat seats on JFK-LAX 4 times per day.
BusinessElite cabin of the Delta 767 which I flew from LHR-EWR.

Before committing to anything, I decided to check out and see if there were any last-minute saver awards back to the US.  SkyMiles are often called “SkyPesos” because the limited number of low-level awards make getting a good value from them very hard and people often spend many times the amount of miles a regular saver award would require to get the award that they wan. However, when it comes to last-minute trips, Delta, like other airlines, releases more low-level award seats.

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 8.28.35 PM

So I went online on Saturday and sure enough, I found a ticket from Cape Town to Amsterdam on KLM and Amsterdam to Newark on Delta all in business class at the low level departing the very next day at 11:25pm.

However, because Delta charges as many miles for a one-way award as for a roundtrip, I didn’t want to waste half my miles, so I decided just to put in a dummy booking of a return to South Africa next March on new partner Virgin Atlantic – hey, I love it here, so why not come back? I found plenty of open dates and just chose one then booked my award for a total of 120,000 miles and $141 in taxes and fees – less than the $300 change fee I would have paid to change my ticket and still have to fly economy! Not only that, but Delta doesn’t charge close-in award booking fees like American, United and US Airways do, so I got out of paying anywhere from $25-$75 more for my ticket (depending on elite status) just to book it.

I booked the return in economy so I’d have to shell out less miles and pay less taxes- I can always reprice the award in business class as long as I do it more than 72 hours before my dummy return trip. Delta normally charges $150 to change awards, but I’m Platinum, so I can do it for free.

Points Are The Best Travel Insurance Policy
Now, I know that not everyone has an extra 120,000 miles to play around with, and I am constantly using my own miles on various airlines booking the travel I need, but this is just another reason why having transferable points like American Express Membership Rewards (with 16 airline partners), Chase Ultimate Rewards (5 airline partner) and Starwood Preferred Guest (31 airline partners) points is the best travel insurance policy you can have. I was able to top up my Delta account using Amex points and then book my award immediately when I needed to. Starwood points are less useful because the transfer times can take weeks, but most Amex and Chase airline partners are instant or within 48 hours.

Having transferrable points such as Amex Membership Rewards allow for the most flexibility.
Having transferrable points such as Amex Membership Rewards allow for the most flexibility.

Emergencies can come up at the drop of a hat and you can find yourself needing to book an extremely expensive last-minute ticket or having to pay change fees in the hundreds of dollars per ticket. However, the last minute is when airlines also tend to dump a lot of award availability into their systems hoping to unload unsold seats. While they might charge you an astronomical price to just buy your ticket, you can wind up getting great values from your miles in this situation.

Although I usually use my miles to experience the newest, best premium products in the skies, in my opinion, the single most valuable aspect of points and miles is not a simple cents-per-point valuation, but rather their ability to get you where you need to be, when you need to be there – and in that respect, using miles for last-minute emergencies is a godsend. Without them (and the ability to use valuable transfer partners like Amex Membership Rewards), I wouldn’t have been able to get home when I needed to this time around, and being able to do so was a priceless experience.

British Airways is just one of the many airlines that doesn't charge last minute award booking fees.
British Airways is just one of the many airlines that doesn’t charge last minute award booking fees.

Last-Minute Booking Fees By Airline
For future reference, here is a quick list of the major US airlines as well as some others that are Amex and Chase transfer partners) and the last-minute booking fees they will (or won’t) charge you:

Air Canada: $0 (Transfer partner of American Express, Starwood Preferred Guest)
Alaska: $0 (Transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest)
American: $75 for tickets booked within 21 days of departure: waived for all AA elites (Transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest)
ANA: $0 (Transfer partner of Amex and SPG)
British Airways: $0, BA is partners with American, so it may make sense to use Avios for last minute AA awards- especially for short and mid-haul flights which may require less miles (Transfer partner of American Express, Chase Ultimate Rewards and SPG)
Delta: $0 (Transfer partner of Amex and SPG)
Hawaiian Airlines: $0 (Transfer partner of Amex and SPG)
JetBlue: $0 (Transfer partner of Amex)
Singapore Airlines: $0 (Transfer partner of Amex and SPG)
Southwest: $0 (Transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards)
United: $75 for non-elites, $50 for Silver, $25 for Gold, $0 for 1k, Global Services, Platinum (Transfer partner of Chase and SPG)
US Airways: $75, waived for Gold, Platinum and Chairman’s Preferred members (Transfer partner of SPG)
Virgin America: $0 (Transfer partner of Amex and SPG)

For more information, check out these posts:

Using Points and Miles For Last-Minute Travel and Emergencies
The Best Travel Insurance Policy: Miles and Elite Status
Why Transferable Points Are Best
The Ultimate Guide To Starwood Preferred Guest Airline Transfer Partners
The Ultimate Guide To American Express Membership Rewards Transfer Partners
The Ultimate Guide to Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners

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