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Using Points and Miles for Last Minute Travel and Emergencies

by on April 12, 2011 · 10 comments

in American, American Express, Continental, Credit Cards, Points Guy Pointers, Starwood, United, US Airways

While I love accruing and using miles for extravagant vacations just as much as the next mileage junkie, I recently used them for last minute emergency travel for a relative and they saved me a ton of money. Unfortunately, for so many people who face unexpected deaths and other emergencies, the sky-high cost of last minute airfare can be another huge blow in a time when you are already suffering. Airlines do have bereavement fares, but in my limited experience, they are still very expensive.

However, miles and points can come to the rescue, like they did in my situation. My family member needed to book a next day trip from NYC to Jacksonville and the cheapest price for a non-stop was on Delta and priced out at $516.40. In the scheme of things it could have been more expensive, but it’s still a huge hit to the wallet, especially since multiple nights of hotel and car rental are required for this trip. For many people a family emergency can cost thousands of dollars, especially when you need to travel with children.

LGA JAX Paid Ticket

However, when I pulled up the Delta award search, numerous non-stop options were available at the 25,000 mile level and taxes were a reasonable; $5, since Delta doesn’t charge for last minute awards like other airlines  (Continental charges $75, American $100, US Airways $75 – United does not have last minute fees. ). Note: most airlines waive these fees for elite members and many even offer enhanced award availability, thus reinforcing why attaining elite status can save you real money.

25,000 Miles and $5 on Delta

Luckily, I have a boatload of Delta miles, so going this route was a no-brainer. However, even if I had Star Alliance miles (Continental, United or US Airways) I could have booked for 25,000 miles as well – but fees would have been higher. Except for United, in which case it would make sense to transfer your Continental miles to United and book the same exact flights with them to avoid their $75 fee. The only problem with United is that they have a terrible online award engine, so it may take a call to get the same flights that appear on Continental.com. I hope when the merger is complete, that they truly take the best aspects of both programs; the online search capabilities of continental.com and the consumer-friendly last minute fee waiver of United.

American Airlines for 25,000 plus $110

Continental for 25,000 miles and $82.50

The best way to hedge your bets is to accrue points in a program that let’s you transfer into all three of the alliances, like Starwood (note some Starwood airline transfers can take more than a week, so always confirm with Starwood the length of time the transfer will take before initiating) or American Express Membership Rewards. I personally use an American Express Platinum card for the extreme flexibility it provides. Amex points can be instantly transferred to Skyteam (Delta), Star Alliance (Continental until Sept 30, 2011, Air Canada) and Oneworld (British Airways) as well as other carriers like JetBlue, Airtran and Frontier. This flexibility can be critical, especially for last minute travel when you have few options. In fact, if I didn’t have any Delta miles, I could have transferred Amex points to Delta, and with the current 50% transfer bonus, I would have only needed 17,000 points for this trip.

Overall, having a nice stockpile of miles and points can save you in a time of need. So even if you don’t want to jet-set around the globe, I recommend having a nice balance to use when life inevitably throws you a curveball.

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author.s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.

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  • HoKo

    Keep in mind that the transfer time for SPG transfers varies and is not nearly as quick as the average MR transfer so I don’t know if SPG would be the best solution for emergency travel when you need the points in your account immediately to book a ticket leaving within a couple days.

    Also the horrible 2:1 redemtpion ratio for UA & CO would make this a pretty painful decision. Probably better off transferring to a different *A partner and then booking the tickets through them.

    All of that being said, I’ve never actually transferred SPG points to an airline before (I’ve just read about the transfer times a lot on FT and travel blogs)

    What have people’s experiences been with average transfer time from SPG to ______ airline program

  • The Points Guy

    Good point HoKo- and thats the exact reason why I use Amex because the transfers are instantaneous (in most cases). However, SPG can go through in a couple days, but sometimes over 7 days, which wouldn’t be much help in an emergency. I’ll add in that disclaimer

  • Lee

    So if one have to choose, spg or mr ?

  • The Points Guy

    @Lee- MR because they transfer instantly. If SPG transferred instantly it would be a much harder decision and would depend on your travel needs

  • Brendan

    What a timely post based on my last 2 days. I agree that last-minute necessities are one of the best uses of miles. The only time I actually booked travel with miles was for a LAN promotion, and I’ve been saving miles for other airline programs to hopefully take a very long-haul flight for 2 in business or first class. Still, the value in using miles for domestic travel in extreme circumstances trumps having a nicer seat and flying experience in the future. Yesterday, I booked a flight for my significant other from NYC-YYZ (Toronto) for tonight to attend a funeral tomorrow. The least expensive direct flight for today with a Thursday or Friday return was nearly $850, with direct flights costing over $1,100 (this flight is less than 2 hours, uggg). $55 and 25,000 Delta miles made it so there were no financial worries for the last-minute bereavement trip. Even if I have to wait a bit longer for a fancy trip to Asia or South Africa, I can’t think of a better use of miles.

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  • Lee

    For emergency yes MR probably better choice since it transfer instantly. but for general points collection and usage, will you choose amex MR or SPG?

  • John

    I just received an email today (4/14) from United saying that as of 6/15/2011 they will be charging $75 for “booking an award ticket less than 21 days prior to departure” (or what they term a “Close-in award booking fee”). So one of the big advantages of United’s mileage program with respect to last-minute travel is apparently going away. I guess they chose instead to adopt the Continental policy you describe in the post above.

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