Using Miles for a Last Minute Family Emergency

Dec 9, 2013

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Although I normally dedicate space on the site to talking about how to maximize miles by earning them and redeeming for high-value trips and premium travel, one of the ways miles are most valuable is for last-minute emergencies when airfares can skyrocket and be a huge blow to your wallet and your morale when you’re facing a difficult situation already. I was reminded of that value last week when my family got some bad news that meant I had to travel to Asheveille, North Carolina, for a single day and return to New York the following afternoon. Because of the short notice, my options were limited and I was set on finding a non-stop option so that I could maximize my time on the ground in Asheville. Unfortunately that meant very few flight choices and the prospect of a very expensive ticket – one which a lot of flyers might find prohibitively expensive. The flight that suited my needs – pretty much the only one I saw – was on United and was a non-stop in the afternoon from Asheville directly to Newark. The good news was that there were some tickets left. The bad news was, even a coach seat (it’s a regional Embraer, so that’s pretty much all there is) were a sky-high $805!

The cheapest seats I could find were $805.
The cheapest seats I could find were $805.

This was both the most convenient option I could find, as well as the lowest price, if you can believe it! Luckily, I had some other options. Instead of pricing out fares, I decided to do an award search instead since United allows one-way awards, and sure enough, a day before I was supposed to fly, there was plenty of award space. The grand total? 10,000 miles and $2.50. Screen shot 2013-12-08 at 5.05.53 PMNot only did I get the flight I needed, but I got it at an amazing price where I was getting a whopping 8 cents per mile in value. This once again illustrates the frustrating dynamic of last-minute airfare pricing where airlines increase fares at the last minute, sometimes until they’re astronomically expensive, in order to gouge business and last-minute travelers who have to get somewhere at a certain time. But at the same time, airlines release a lot of last-minute saver award availability, which makes those miles even more valuable (even if that value is inflated). More importantly, it proves again that points and miles are the best travel insurance policy. While most people probably have a 10,000-mile cushion in their account, this was a very cheap redemption and you’ll likely be using more miles than that. In fact, I had just used United miles to book my EVA ticket to the Maldives, so my account only had a few thousand miles in it. However, this is just another reason why I say that having transferable points like American Express Membership Rewards (with 16 airline partners), Chase Ultimate Rewards (5 airline partners) and Starwood Preferred Guest (31 airline partners) points is the best travel insurance policy you can have. As soon as I found that award, I was able to top up my United account instantly using Chase Ultimate Rewards 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.

The one other thing to remember is that many airlines have last-minute award booking fees in the $75 range, which can bring your award ticket value down further. My United fee was waived because of my Platinum elite status, but among those airlines that don’t charge last-minute fees are Alaska, Air Canada, British Airways, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America.

As I said, though I usually use my miles for the fun of experiencing the newest, best premium airline products, the single most valuable use of points and miles is their ability to get you where you need to be, when you need to be there. In that respect, being able to use miles for last-minute emergencies and to be able to get to my family this weekend in a difficult time was the most valuable redemption of all. For more information, check out these posts: –Using Points and Miles For Last-Minute Travel and EmergenciesThe Best Travel Insurance Policy: Miles and Elite StatusSaving Money By Using Miles in an Emergency – And A Rundown of Last-Minute Airline FeesWhy Transferable Points Are BestThe Ultimate Guide To Starwood Preferred Guest Airline Transfer PartnersThe Ultimate Guide To American Express Membership Rewards Transfer PartnersThe Ultimate Guide to Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners

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