Now that we have reached the beginning of July, most people undoubtedly have their summer travel plans set in stone. If you’re the fairly normal traveler, you probably booked your travel months ago. But if you’re the spontaneous type and are considering a last-minute getaway, there are ways to make it happen. While cash fares may be sky-high, award tickets may be easy enough to come by. This post will cover the best miles and points for last-minute summer flights.
First, I’d like to cover some that aren’t especially good. United miles may be a decent option for booking Star Alliance awards that open up last-minute, but you’ll get hit with an extra $75 fee for booking less than 21-days from departure. Ditto for tickets booked with American Airlines AAdvantage miles. Delta might give you access to more inventory (plus no close-in fees), as their program is pseudo-revenue-based without an award chart. But you’ll generally pay a lot of miles. Essentially, the primary U.S. programs aren’t the best for last minute summer travel.
Transferable Points Are Critical
While stockpiling transferable points is the best strategy for numerous reasons, it is even more important when it comes to booking last-minute award travel. Many of the best miles for last-minute flights can be obtained by transferring points from partner bank rewards programs.
Any of the bank programs is good for maintaining a points balance for last minute summer award flights, but I find that American Express Membership Rewards is the best, as it provides the most flexibility of any program. All of the following best miles and points for last-minute summer flights are transfer partners of Amex Membership Rewards. All of these currencies also have a transfer time from instantaneous to less than 24 hours, so waiting on points won’t be a holdup.
LifeMiles remain an excellent option for many situations. While the program has its quirks, including an award search engine that doesn’t always present you all reasonable options and both missing inventory and difficulties booking with some carriers, it remains a solid choice for last minute award travel. Avianca is a Star Alliance member, and you can use their miles to book numerous carriers, many of which have great last-minute award availability. Just don’t expect help from customer service.
Some of the best options include booking domestic United awards within one zone of their three-zone U.S. award chart. This is a favorite of mine. Partner business class between the U.S. and Europe on SWISS, Lufthansa, and other Star Alliance carriers is another solid use. Business class tickets to Asia aren’t a bad option either. One of the biggest benefits of booking with LifeMiles is that no fuel surcharges are levied. Ever. You will always pay the $25 award booking fee, but that is pretty easy to swallow if you’re saving $100s in other fees.
Avianca LifeMiles are a transfer partner of both Citi ThankYou and American Express Membership Rewards at a 1,000:1,000 ratio (with a bonus from time to time), and transfers process instantly. This puts them at the top of my list of best miles and points for last-minute flights. Plus, they’re going to be better than ever.
In some cases, Aeroplan will be a preferable option to LifeMiles. The program charges fewer miles between the U.S. and Europe, and the award search is generally more reliable. You can also call their phone agents and expect to be helped. Aeroplan is an excellent choice for carriers that do not pass on fuel surcharges, such as Turkish, SWISS, and EgyptAir. For carriers such as Lufthansa and Austrian, expect the co-pay to be steep.
Aeroplan is a decent option for avoiding the close-in fees on United domestic awards. You can also work in a stopover on a round-trip, making them an excellent choice if you need to visit more than one city.
You can convert American Express Membership Rewards to Aeroplan miles in 1,000:1,000 increments, and transfers process instantly.
British Airways Avios
Moving on to Oneworld from the Star Alliance options, British Airways are a great option for booking last-minute award flights on American Airlines in particular. American charges a $75 close-in fee for awards booked by non-elites, and British Airways Avios are a great way to circumvent these on last-minute nonstop flights. For flights with one or more connections, Avios aren’t generally a great option, as British Airways charges per segment.
British Airways Avios are a transfer partner of both Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards. Transfers from both programs are generally instant, but American Express does state that transfers may take up to three working days.
Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
Asia Miles have gone through some changes lately. In particular, partner awards cost more miles, and their award chart devalued somewhat. Still, with no close-in fees and a number of sweet spots for premium economy and business class award tickets, they are a decent choice of miles for last-minute award flights.
The one hang-up is the transfer time. Asia Miles typically take 1-2 days to transfer, which makes jumping on last-minute space a bit hard. If you can hang onto a stash, however, they are a good option. Another plus is that they are generally one of the best options for booking British Airways flights, as the fuel surcharges are often substantially less.
Best Miles and Points For Last-Minute Flights on SkyTeam?
There is no really good option for booking last-minute SkyTeam flights. If there is true saver space available in Delta business class, Virgin Atlantic is a great choice. Prices inflate quickly if you’re not booking nonstop, however. FlyingBlue is another option on the table, but they often charge ludicrous numbers of miles and also levy fuel surcharges. But there are no close-in fees.
While not a great option, Delta SkyMiles may have to do in a pinch. Just expect to pay loads. But it could be better than paying cash.
There are some other currencies that may limited uses, but in general I find these programs to be the best miles and points for booking last-minute flights. Even though summer is upon us, you might just be able to plan that spontaneous escape you’re dreaming about.
Avianca A319 image courtesy of Bernal Saborio under CC-BY-2.0 license. British Airways 747 image courtesy of Kohei Kanno via Flickr under CC-BY-2.0 license.