How to Save Money By Redeeming Miles for Last Minute Holiday Travel
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While airlines generally increase the price of tickets drastically in the days leading up to departure, they often take the opposite approach with award seat inventory - releasing a lot of saver (lowest amount of miles needed) availability, making last minute redemptions very attractive. So if you need to get someone at the drop of a hat, having frequent flyer miles and credit card points can take the sting out of buying last-minute tickets. Also, even if you've already booked a peak/standard award using twice the amount of miles, you should monitor to see if saver level seats open up your flight - even if you have to pay a fee to redeposit and rebook your award, it's very likely that the value of the miles you will save outweigh the redeposit fee.
Case in point, this morning my Mom emailed saying that she wanted to see my grandmother this weekend in Asheville, NC. There's a nonstop flight Newark- Asheville, but the flight cost $589, which was pretty steep. However, United also had saver award availability for only 20,000 miles roundtrip (flights under 700 miles are only 20,000 miles roundtrip vs. the standard saver 25,000) and $5 in taxes/fees! Luckily, since I'm a United Premier Platinum, I could book the award for her and avoid the annoying $75 last-minute ticketing fee for travel within 21 days of departure, and then my Mom transferred 20,000 Ultimate Rewards points to me to cover the cost of the awrd. In the end, those 20,000 United miles saved them $584, or 2.9 cents per mile - pretty awesome for a domestic coach redemption.
My parents aren't United flyers, but since they both recently got the Sapphire Preferred and Ink Bold cards with 40,000 and 50,000-point sign-up bonuses respectively, they are able to combine their Ultimate Rewards points and transfer them to United or the other transfer partners (or family members) as needed. This is why flexibility is the key to maximizing the value of your points- having lots of transfer options is critical.
Great saver availability isn't just limited to United. I checked and there's still a lot of availability in premium cabins on transcontinental flights for this weekend, especially on American, so if you've balked at booking a ticket home or to see friends/family due to high prices, you may want to check out last minute award options.
One thing to consider, however, is that many airlines charge a last-minute ticketing fee which can decrease the value of your award. However, depending on the price of the ticket, it can still be worth it to pay this fee to save a boatload of cash.
Last minute award ticketing fees by frequent flyer program:
Air Canada: $0
American: $75 for tickets booked within 21 days of departure: waived for all AA elites)
British Airways: $0 (BA is partners with American, so it may make sense to use Avios for last minute AA awards- especially for short and mid-haul flights which may require less miles).
United: $75 for non-elites, $50 for Silver, $25 for Gold, $0 for 1k, Global Services, Platinum
US Airways: $75, waived for Gold, Platinum and Chairman's Preferred members.
Virgin America: $0