Using Miles for a Last Minute Family Emergency

by on December 9, 2013 · 16 comments

in Points Guy Pointers, United

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Although I normally dedicate space on the site to talking about how to maximize miles by earning them and redeeming for high-value trips and premium travel, one of the ways miles are most valuable is for last-minute emergencies when airfares can skyrocket and be a huge blow to your wallet and your morale when you’re facing a difficult situation already. I was reminded of that value last week when my family got some bad news that meant I had to travel to Asheveille, North Carolina, for a single day and return to New York the following afternoon. Because of the short notice, my options were limited and I was set on finding a non-stop option so that I could maximize my time on the ground in Asheville. Unfortunately that meant very few flight choices and the prospect of a very expensive ticket – one which a lot of flyers might find prohibitively expensive. The flight that suited my needs – pretty much the only one I saw – was on United and was a non-stop in the afternoon from Asheville directly to Newark. The good news was that there were some tickets left. The bad news was, even a coach seat (it’s a regional Embraer, so that’s pretty much all there is) were a sky-high $805!

The cheapest seats I could find were $805.

The cheapest seats I could find were $805.

This was both the most convenient option I could find, as well as the lowest price, if you can believe it! Luckily, I had some other options. Instead of pricing out fares, I decided to do an award search instead since United allows one-way awards, and sure enough, a day before I was supposed to fly, there was plenty of award space. The grand total? 10,000 miles and $2.50. Screen shot 2013-12-08 at 5.05.53 PMNot only did I get the flight I needed, but I got it at an amazing price where I was getting a whopping 8 cents per mile in value. This once again illustrates the frustrating dynamic of last-minute airfare pricing where airlines increase fares at the last minute, sometimes until they’re astronomically expensive, in order to gouge business and last-minute travelers who have to get somewhere at a certain time. But at the same time, airlines release a lot of last-minute saver award availability, which makes those miles even more valuable (even if that value is inflated). More importantly, it proves again that points and miles are the best travel insurance policy. While most people probably have a 10,000-mile cushion in their account, this was a very cheap redemption and you’ll likely be using more miles than that. In fact, I had just used United miles to book my EVA ticket to the Maldives, so my account only had a few thousand miles in it. However, this is just another reason why I say that having transferable points like American Express Membership Rewards (with 16 airline partners), Chase Ultimate Rewards (5 airline partners) and Starwood Preferred Guest (31 airline partners) points is the best travel insurance policy you can have. As soon as I found that award, I was able to top up my United account instantly using Chase Ultimate Rewards points and then book my award immediately when I needed to. Starwood points are less useful because the transfer times can take weeks, but most Amex and Chase airline partners are instant or within 48 hours.

The one other thing to remember is that many airlines have last-minute award booking fees in the $75 range, which can bring your award ticket value down further. My United fee was waived because of my Platinum elite status, but among those airlines that don’t charge last-minute fees are Alaska, Air Canada, British Airways, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America.

As I said, though I usually use my miles for the fun of experiencing the newest, best premium airline products, the single most valuable use of points and miles is their ability to get you where you need to be, when you need to be there. In that respect, being able to use miles for last-minute emergencies and to be able to get to my family this weekend in a difficult time was the most valuable redemption of all. For more information, check out these posts: -Using Points and Miles For Last-Minute Travel and Emergencies -The Best Travel Insurance Policy: Miles and Elite Status -Saving Money By Using Miles in an Emergency – And A Rundown of Last-Minute Airline Fees -Why Transferable Points Are Best -The Ultimate Guide To Starwood Preferred Guest Airline Transfer Partners -The Ultimate Guide To American Express Membership Rewards Transfer Partners -The Ultimate Guide to Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • dee seiffer

    I hope your family is okay, Brian.

  • vortix

    Excellent point – this was precisely the reason I started collecting miles via credit card signup bonuses. I was in a similar situation, and was unable to attend an uncle’s funeral across the country due to high airfare costs (as was much of my family). That moment made me decide that I never want to have that problem again. Sorry to hear about your recent bad news, and I hope everyone is doing OK.

  • rtlaw

    I only see you mentioning the flight from Asheville to NY. How did you get from NY to Asheville?

  • Kathy

    This post is well-timed – Question for Brian or others in the know – My grandfather was moved to hospice this weekend and will likely go today or tomorrow, according to the doctors. My family is tentatively planning his service (yes, I know that is a bit morbid given that he is still alive, but most everyone will have to travel) for December 21. My fiance and I had already booked tickets to travel home on December 21, but we will need to move to an earlier flight that day to get back in time for the service. I am Gold Medallion on Delta and my fiance is Silver. Is there a way to get the change fees waived as a sort of bereavement exemption?

  • Santastico

    Hope nobody ever needs to use it but here is the link for Delta’s bereavement tickets.

  • Kathy

    I answered my own question for those who are curious. Had a lovely woman on the Delta GM line help me. I called just to ask about protocol, and she was actually able to change flights today even though my grandfather is not yet deceased – she just called over to his hospice center while I was on hold to verify that he is there. She waived our change fees and we paid a $20 fare difference on one ticket and actually got a small credit on the other. Was a huge relief to get this taken care of ahead of time, so major thanks to Delta on this one – so thankful to not have to scan and email death certificates or obits or the like, and to get it done before fare differences skyrocketed.

  • thepointsguy

    In my experience they are still really expensive.. but thanks for posting- at least an option for those who need it

  • thepointsguy

    So sorry for your grandfather’s situation, but glad Delta was able to do the right thing and waive fees.

  • thepointsguy

    I was able to get to Asheville from Miami on the last leg of a different award ticket.

  • thepointsguy

    Thanks for your thoughts.. appreciate it. With grandma now :-)

  • Kathy

    It’s so nice when they do the right thing. Enjoy your time with grandma and I hope everything turns out ok!

  • Sparty

    I am trying to book a trip to the Rose Bowl over New Year’s and flights from the Midwest to Southern California are in the $700-$800 range during that timeframe and Delta award travel is starting at 60,000 miles. If one had plenty of MR points to spare, what airline transfer partner would make the best value from say ORD-LAX? Willing to fly in to SAN/SNA/ONT as well or depart from MKE/MDW. Thanks!

  • dee seiffer

    Sorry about your grandfather, Kathy. Nice to hear that the Delta rep was so compassionate.

    Brian, I bet Grandma is very glad you are there with her.

    We were lucky to get the last seats on a same day, one-way on Delta in February when our son was admitted to the emergency room in Vegas and they wanted to do emergency surgery. We got the last flight out of New York before we got hit with 3 feet of snow. Thankfully the price was reasonable so we didn’t dip into miles. But, miles and/or cash, I guess it is a part of our financial planning to be able to get to our family when they need us. BTW – We flew via air ambulance back to his home in Colorado. He had the surgery and is doing great.

  • David Rae

    Had to Book a last minute flight over thanksgiving. Had delta status, used miles, which got me a great value for my miles. And with status even got an upgrade on 1 leg of the flight. Always good to check both miles or purchase.

  • Tigerjetta

    Thank you for this post. My immediate family is in Malaysia and my Mom is diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. Another reason to save my points. FYI, I’ve tried purchasing Delta bereavement tix in the past (family funeral in Malaysia) and you’re right, they’re pricey.

  • Kenny

    how did you not get dinged with the close end fee?

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