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Today TPG Contributor Jason Steele offers insights into booking last minute flights, including tips for finding late award availability and minimizing costs when cash tickets are your only option.

Travelers who book their flights far in advance generally enjoy the least expensive airline tickets and the most award availability. Nevertheless, there are many reasons why people may want or need to travel at the last minute, ranging from an emergency to a desire to be more spontaneous.

Airlines largely view last minute reservations as business travel, and act as if this inventory is very price-inelastic, meaning they can charge pretty much whatever they want and people will still pay it. For example, a previous employer of mine once spent $1,600 for a same day ticket from Denver to Atlanta, when a flight to Australia would have been less expensive.

If there’s some silver lining to this price gouging, it’s that award travel enthusiasts will find their points and miles to be the most valuable when it comes to last minute travel, even though award availability may be scarce.

For the purpose of this discussion, I define last minute travel as a departure within two weeks, which is less time than you need to qualify for advance fares on most carriers.

Last minute travel is always a challenge. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Last minute travel is often a challenge. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Here are the factors to consider when you want to travel at the “last minute.”

Close-in booking fees for award travel

One trick airlines use to monetize the need to travel at the last minute is to impose close-in award booking fees. However, not all airlines do this, so if you’re transferring flexible points to airline miles, consider a program that won’t charge you extra. For example, awards purchased with British Airways Avios will not have the $75 close-in award booking fee charged by American Airlines or US Airways to non-elites. Likewise, ANA and Singapore have no close-in award booking fee, while fellow Star Alliance carrier United does.

Here are the fees from some of the major airlines:

  • Air Canada: $0 (Transfer partner of Amex, SPG)
  • Alaska: $0 (Transfer partner of SPG)
  • American:$75 for tickets booked within 21 days of departure: waived for all AA elites (Transfer partner of SPG)
  • ANA:$0 (Transfer partner of Amex and SPG)
  • British Airways:$0, BA is partners with American, so it may make sense to use Avios for last minute AAdvantage awards- especially for short and mid-haul flights, which may require fewer miles (Transfer partner of Amex, Chase, and SPG)
  • Delta:$0 (Transfer partner of Amex and SPG)
  • Hawaiian Airlines:$0 (Transfer partner of Amex and SPG)
  • JetBlue: $0 (Transfer partner of Amex)
  • Singapore Airlines:$0 (Transfer partner of Amex, Chase, SPG, and Citi)
  • Southwest: $0 (Transfer partner of Chase)
  • United: $75 for non-elites booking within 21 days, $50 for Silver, $25 for Gold, $0 for 1k, Global Services, Platinum (Transfer partner of Chase at 1:1 and SPG at 2:1)
  • US Airways: $75, waived for Gold, Platinum and Chairman’s Preferred members (Transfer partner of SPG)
  • Virgin America:$0 (Transfer partner of Amex, Chase, and SPG)

Point transfer times and award hold policies

When your last minute award travel strategy involves transferring points from flexible reward times, you can’t risk losing your award seats while waiting for your points to show up. With Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards, the transfers are generally instantaneous (transfers to Singapore Airlines sometimes take a day or two.

With the Starwood Preferred Guest program, transfers always take at least a day, but usually less than five. In fact, most American Airlines transfers from SPG are taking less than two days now. However, both American and US Airways offer five day holds on award tickets, allowing you to reserve your flights with confidence that the transfer will take place in time to finalize your ticket. Unfortunately, American only offers a one day hold within 14 days of departure, and US Airways goes to 24 hours within four days of departure.

Citi’s ThankYou Rewards transfer program is so new that there are few reports on transfer times. What evidence there is indicates that transfers to Singapore (perhaps their most valuable partner) are taking one to two days.

Other airlines that allow award holds on award tickets include:

  • Alitalia – 14 days, but only for flights operated by Alitalia.
  • Korean - Five days for partner flights, and up to two days before departure for Korean operated flights.
  • Lufthansa Miles & More - Five day award holds for flights on Asiana, Austrian Croatia, Ethiopian, Jet Airways, Lufthansa, and Swiss.

Booking imperfect flights and awards

When you book last minute flights and awards, you often get some pretty poor choices including red-eyes, multiple connections, out of the way flights, and long layovers. While your choices may be limited when you book your flight, there are opportunities on the day of departure to take alternate flights.

Last minute travelers can take advantage of delays and cancellations and be re-accommodated on better flights. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Last minute travelers can take advantage of delays and cancellations, and be re-accommodated on flights with better schedules. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

For example, there are several ways to stand-by for an alternate flight, including oversell situations, agent discretion (asking nicely), and irregular operations due to weather, air traffic control, or mechanical problems. In addition, many carriers offer some form of paid standby or same-day confirmed travel, such as the latest version of Delta’s policy. In fact, I found that you can even standby for international flights.

Finally, there are some airlines that will open up last minute award space. Lufthansa is well known to only open up award space (to award travelers in other frequent flier programs) in their first class cabin within 14 days of departure.

Thankfully, both American and Alaska allow free changes to award reservations, so long as the origin and destination remain the same. Lately, I have even found that US Airways is releasing more international award space within a few days (or even hours) of departure. Just note that American is unable to ticket a partner award flight within two hours of departure, even on US Airways.

Double price awards

No one wants to feel like they’re wasting miles on a double price or mid-tier award, but these can still offer value when compared to the exorbitant prices of last minute cash tickets. For example, a round-trip flight from Atlanta to Maui on American Airlines in first class prices out at $3,550, and is often 135,000 miles at their AAnytime rate. Considering that the total flight distance is similar to flying from Atlanta to Europe, and the Dallas to Maui leg features an internationally configured business class, 135,000 miles is not that unreasonable. And of course, when you pay for double mileage awards, you end up with a lot more flexibility to book multiple awards to your destination on the most convenient flights.

This $3,500 flight in business class could be booked for 135,000 miles, twice the rate of a saver award.

This $3,500 flight in business class could be booked for 135,000 miles, twice the rate of a saver award.

Ultra discount carriers

As a last resort, travelers who must fly at the last minute and can’t find an available award seat may need to consider an ultra-discount carrier. These are the carriers that market rock-bottom airfares, yet pile on fees for everything imaginable. This business model is becoming increasingly popular all over the world, especially in Europe (on airlines like Ryan Air). In America, Spirit is pioneering this strategy, and Frontier has been rapidly working to emulate it, even before being purchased by the same parent company as Spirit.  To some extent, Allegiant may also be considered an ultra-discount carrier.

Ultra discount carriers like Spirit might be your best bet if there are no awards available (Image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Ultra-discount carriers like Spirit might be your best bet if there’s no award availablity elsewhere (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

It’s with last minute travel that the ultra-low cost strategy can offer travelers the biggest savings compared to other carriers, even when fees are considered.  For example, at the time of writing I found round-trip flights from Denver to Ft. Lauderdale over Labor Day weekend to be over $1,000 on Delta, United, and even Southwest, yet Spirit was $374 and Frontier was $786. So even if you were to budget another $100 for baggage, seat fees, and a soda, you’d still come out far ahead of most other options. Just be sure to familiarize yourself with the carry-on and checked baggage policies of these carriers to minimize fees.

What are your strategies for last minute travel? Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.

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