Need a last-minute flight? Then use those points you’ve been saving!


International flights may be tougher to make happen

If you’ve been dragging your feet on deciding whether to fly home for the holidays or take the family somewhere for a little getaway, you know you can use your points/miles and save yourself the headache of high last-minute fares, don’t you?’s points and miles expert, Kurt Adams, says that booking with points at this time of the year can seem like a bit of a challenge, but there are ways around the hassles and that you can do it up until the very last minute.

Last minute trip tips

The first thing to do is manage your expectations. “Some flights may not have last-minute award availability,” he said.

“Or, they may have award availability, but it may not be the fare class you want. You may want business class, but an airline may only be offering award availability for economy seats for your desired flight.”

So, the key then is flexibility and creativity. And Adams was ready with answers when ConsumerAffairs asked for tips. Here goes…

Check with airline partners instead of domestic carriers

“You may want to use your miles to fly on Delta, for example. But what if I told you that booking your Delta flight with Delta SkyMiles might actually cost you more miles than if you booked that same ticket through a partner airline?” Adams asked, then turned to the a-ha moment.

“That’s right. You may be able to get a seat on a Delta flight with fewer miles if you book through Virgin Atlantic instead. The reason why is because domestic airlines have partnerships with other airlines, and those airlines sometimes may offer award availability for a domestic flight you’re eyeing for fewer points.”

Boiling that partnership factor down, it looks like this, but remember that because this is last minute, some of these partners may not have award availability:

Delta: Partner airline to check instead: Virgin Atlantic or Flying Blue

American Airlines: Partner airline to check instead: British Airways

United: Partner airline to check instead: Air Canada Aeroplan

What about Southwest and JetBlue? Good question. Adams says that some banks allow you to transfer your credit card points directly to JetBlue or Southwest.

However, this isn’t always the highest value return on your points because the amount of points you’ll need to redeem those points can be very close to the cash price of the seat.

“You might be better off paying for these last-minute flights in cash if it’s in your budget,” he said.

Use transfer bonuses

In most cases, credit card points transfer at a 1:1 ratio to these airline partners. That means for every 1 credit card point you get 1 mile, but every so often, credit card issuers offer “transfer bonuses” with specific airlines, which range anywhere from 20% to 30%, and Adams likes those odds.

“If there is a 30% transfer bonus running, this means that your points transfer to that specific partner airline at a ratio of 1:1.3,” he said.

Be flexible on both dates and locations

Circling back to the flexibility requirement, Adams says you should also look into not only alternate dates but alternate destinations. For example, if you want to fly to Cincinnati, but can’t find what you want, try Lexington or Louisville Ky., or Dayton or Columbus Ohio. “Close enough” might be just “good enough.”

“The strategy behind both is to get close to your destination for a lower cost, and then take a quick ferry, bus, train, or regional flight to wherever you really want to be,” Adams said – basically the points version of the “Greek Islands Trick.” 

Use award availability search tools

“If you want to avoid comparing award availability by toggling between half a dozen open browser tabs, there are several tools to search for flight award availability,” Adams offered, including these three he thinks are worth considering: “Shows you how to transfer credit card points and provides a comprehensive search engine, but only gives you three free searches before you have to pay,” he said.

PointsYeah: Offers unlimited searches for free, but only searches about 20 airline frequent flier programs, compared to the 30+ that covers. Its searches are lightning quick, which helps for finding last-minute tickets. But after returning results, you’re left on your own to figure out what points currencies transfer to the airline. The free version only allows you to search for availability within the next 90 days, but if you’re booking a last-minute flight, that shouldn’t be a concern.

International flights are a different animal

Most of what Adams suggests pertains to domestic flights. International flights for points are still available, but could be sparse and timing is everything, he said. 

For example, Lufthansa consistently releases award availability 14 days before its flights. In fact, Lufthansa first-class award seats are almost exclusively available two weeks before the departure date.

“When it comes to redeeming points for international flights, you’ll still want to compare which airline is offering the fewest miles. However, for international flights, you’ll also want to pay attention to taxes and fees," he said.

His reasoning here is that even if an airline is offering fewer miles, they may charge hundreds of dollars in surcharges. "You may be better off paying slightly more miles with one partner if it saves you a bunch in taxes and fees,” he said.

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