Coronavirus Update: How (and Why) to Book Last-Minute Travel With Points and Miles

Mar 16, 2020

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The recent surprise announcement banning most air travel from Europe left many travelers in the lurch, scrambling to adjust their plans. And President Trump has raised the possibility of limiting domestic travel in the near future, which would cause much greater demand for last-minute flights.

Whether you’re currently affected by these bans or concerned about getting caught while traveling without a way to get home, keep this travel tip in mind: Booking last-minute one-way travel with points and miles can be much more cost-effective than paying cash.

Here’s how (and why) to book your last-minute travel with miles.

How to search and book

With dozens of airline reward programs and transferrable credit card points to choose from, the “best” miles and points to use will likely depend on which ones you have. That said, some programs offer much better policies for last-minute travel than others.

Programs to target

Airline programs

These programs do not add close-in booking fees for award flights and still use award charts. That makes them ideal for this use:

To find award availability, use the search tool on each program’s website, looking for one-way fares and choosing the “award” or “use miles” option.

Nerdy tip: Watch out for high taxes and surcharges. These are notoriously high for flights to and from the United Kingdom, which might make cash fares equivalently “cheaper.” 

Many programs will show results from “partner” airlines for award searches. Especially for international routes, flying with a partner might be your best bet.

Credit card programs

The rewards points in each of these programs can be used in two ways: (1) by booking travel directly and (2) by transferring to airline partners and booking award travel through them. It is the second use that makes sense in this case since the first essentially treats points as cash (and last-minute cash fares may be expensive).

Using credit card points to book award travel is a four-step process:

  1. Search for award availability on partners before transferring points. You can only transfer points one direction, so measure twice and transfer once.

  2. Connect your airline rewards program account to your credit card account through the credit card reward portal. If you don’t have an account with the airline you want to use, no problem — you can create one for free.

  3. Once you’re sure you want to book an award flight, transfer points to the airline program through the credit card reward portal.

  4. Book the flight using your airline rewards account.

How to tell if using miles is “worth it”

Let’s say you find a flight that costs either $600 or 40,000 Alaska miles. How do you know which is the better “deal”? You can do the math yourself, dividing the cash cost (in cents) by the mileage cost, or you can use our calculator:

This is what miles are for

In many ways, booking last-minute one-way travel at times of high demand is the ideal use of award miles. That’s because:

  • Last-minute bookings with cash are almost always more expensive, while award redemptions are often not.

  • Some airline programs still use award charts, which limits how “expensive” an award flight can be.

  • One-way award bookings are usually half the cost of a round-trip ticket, whereas international one-way cash fares can be much more expensive.

For example, let’s say you were trying to find a flight back to Los Angeles from Rome, Italy, last weekend (March 15). The cheapest one-way cash ticket on Google Flights we found was $768:

While United showed award availability for 33,500 miles and $79 in taxes and fees (albeit with more stops than the itinerary above):

Given that we value United miles at 0.8 cent each, this award ticket “costs” the equivalent of $347 (35,000 * $0.008 + $79.45). That’s less than half as much as the cash ticket.

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