The Best Points and Miles for Last-Minute Awards

Nov 15, 2017

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If you’re a frequent flyer, chances are quite good that you’ve experienced the frustration of a canceled flight and a less-than-convenient rebooking, whether around the holidays or when you simply need to stick to a schedule. Or maybe you’ve had a sudden death in the family and needed to jet off to a relative’s funeral. These types of situations are where points and miles can come to the rescue, as airlines often open up additional award inventory in the days leading up to a flight. However, not all currencies are created equal when it comes to booking these tickets, so today I want to go over the best points and miles for last-minute award tickets.

The Power of Transferable Points

Sapphire Reserve Amex Platinum Citi Prestige
Transferable point programs give you the flexibility to convert your points to different airlines when you’re ready to book rather than being forced into a single currency.

The first and most important type of currency to discuss involves the four major transferable point programs. I’ve written before about how every traveler should earn transferable points in some way, as these points give you incredible flexibility when it comes time to redeem. As a reminder, here are the programs that fall into this category:

Between these four, you have more than 40 different airline programs from which to choose when you go to transfer your points. Rather than being pigeon-holed into one airline’s points or miles, you can be a bit more choosy and only transfer points to a program with availability and decent award rates.

That being said, each of these programs has different transfer times when it comes to converting miles, ranging from instantaneous (like transferring Ultimate Rewards points to United) to a week or even longer (like transferring ThankYou points to Etihad Guest). We’ve investigated these times in the past for each of the four programs, so be sure to refer to the following posts for estimates on when to expect your transfer to be completed:

In addition, some airlines tack on added fees for last-minute bookings, making them less attractive when it comes to redeeming award tickets in the days or hours before a flight.

So which specific programs are a great option for these awards? Here’s my list:

Delta SkyMiles

Delta Premium Image
If you’re booking a last-minute flight, Delta is a great option.

The first program I’ll highlight is one that is generally reviled in the frequent flyer world thanks to actions like devaluing awards without warning and pulling award charts from its website. Nevertheless, the Delta SkyMiles program is a solid option when it comes to booking last-minute award tickets for a couple of key reasons. The first is the carrier’s partnership with Membership Rewards. While I long for the days of large transfer bonuses, your points do post instantly so you don’t have to worry about award inventory disappearing. There are also many ways to earn Membership Rewards points quite quickly, including the welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $5,000 in the first three months and the 5x earning rate on airfare with The Platinum Card® from American Express.

The other key benefit to booking these award tickets with Delta is the lack of last-minute ticketing fees. If you redeem SkyMiles for a flight even the day of departure, you’ll only pay the regular taxes and fees that you’d pay on an award ticket booked a month or even six months ahead of time. This is in sharp contrast to United and American, both of which tack on a $75 fee for award tickets booked within 21 days of departure. Keep in mind too that these fees are per person, so if you’re traveling with the family they can really add up.

Of course, just because United and American charge these fees doesn’t mean you can’t book last-minute awards on their flights, as you’ll see in just a bit.

Boosting your SkyMiles balance: In addition to transferring points from Membership Rewards to SkyMiles, you can also boost your account balance with the Delta Amex cards. The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express is currently offering 30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new card within your first three months.

British Airways Executive Club

American DFW 777-300ER
Booking a last-minute award on American? Be sure to think about redeeming British Airways Avios to avoid the $75 fee.

One of my favorite airlines for award redemptions in general is British Airways thanks to the carrier’s distance-based award chart, which in many cases results in lower rates for partner flights than you’d get by booking directly with that partner. However, if you’re booking last-minute, the value proposition is even sweeter since the Executive Club also imposes no fees on these awards. Since American is one of British Airways’ key partners, you can redeem Avios for last-minute American flights to circumvent the $75 fee mentioned earlier. It also may save you points!

Here’s a quick example for a round-trip itinerary over Thanksgiving weekend, flying from DFW to SJC in business with saver availability:

As you can see, this round-trip itinerary would set you back 100,000 miles plus $172.40, due to American’s close-in booking fee in each direction. However, take a look at what these same exact flights would be through British Airways:

In this example, you’re not only saving the $75 each way but also using 20,000 fewer points/miles for the exact same flights. This is a fantastic example of “Book this, not that” when it comes to airline partnerships.

What makes British Airways even more attractive for these redemptions is that it partners with three of the major transferable programs (Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards and SPG), while American only partners with SPG. In addition, both Amex and Chase points will transfer instantly, again avoiding that dreaded wait while you hope that award inventory doesn’t disappear. And thankfully, there’s once again a 1:1 transfer ratio when moving Membership Rewards points to British Airways.

Boosting your British Airways balance: In addition to transferring points from Chase, Amex or SPG, you can also apply for the British Airways Visa Signature Card, which is currently offering a bonus of 4 Avios for every $1 spent on all purchases within your first year up to $30,000. That’s up to 120,000 bonus Avios.


IMG United economy plus seats 787-9 featured
Booking award tickets with Aeroplan will ensure that you can fly United without any last-minute fees.

If you’re instead looking to redeem miles for flights on United, a great option is Air Canada’s Aeroplan program. Even though it has had some award ticket issues recently (most of which have since been resolved), the program does offer some solid value, especially when you’re booking last-minute. Like the two programs mentioned above, Aeroplan doesn’t charge close-in booking fees on award tickets, so that United flight that carries an extra $75 cost per person can be had for the same number of miles and just the standard taxes and fees.

Here’s an example of a round-trip flight from Houston (IAH) to San Francisco (SFO) booked through United for travel over Thanksgiving:

Here are the exact same flights booked through Aeroplan:

As you can see, you’ll spend the same number of miles but keep about $150 in your pocket, and if you transfer Membership Rewards points to Aeroplan, they will post instantly.

Boosting your Aeroplan balance: The Aeroplan program doesn’t have fantastic credit card options, so your best bet is to open a card that earns Membership Rewards points like The Platinum Card from American Express.

Bottom Line

Many airlines will open up last-minute award inventory when it becomes clear that they won’t be able to sell those final seats to paying customers. Unfortunately, purchasing award tickets within days or even a couple weeks of departure may incur extra fees if you book through the wrong program. Once again, this illustrates the power of the transferable-point currency, as you can wait to determine where to transfer your points until you confirm availability. Hopefully this post has shed some light on how best to do this at the last minute.

Featured image courtesy of Tempura via Getty Images.

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