Using Points and Miles for Last Minute Travel and Emergencies
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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.
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.
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.
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.