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The best points and miles to use for last-minute flights

Jan. 18, 2021
7 min read
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With the ongoing pandemic, it's hard to visualize a world when travel becomes normal again, yet we're getting closer to that reality every day. When it finally happens, you may find yourself in need of a last-minute award ticket. However, not all currencies are created equal when it comes to booking flights on short notice — so today, I want to go over the best points and miles for last-minute tickets.

I'm working on the premise that you can only work with the miles you have, not ones you can get from a bonus.

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(Photo by Maskot / Getty Images)
(Photo by Maskot / Getty Images.)

If you are stressed, keep it simple

If flights weren't exorbitantly expensive and I just needed to get from Point A to Point B on a certain date, I'd consider Capital One miles first. The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is my go-to when I don't have the time to spend with award charts and transfer partners. With Capital One miles, you just offset your ticket's cost from your credit card statement.

You can also book tickets directly with Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou points, but you need to use their portals. Earn Chase Ultimate Rewards with cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Chase Freedom Flex. We like the Citi Premier® Card for ThankYou points. Points are worth 1.5 cents toward travel with the Sapphire Reserve and 1.25 cents with the Preferred.

Related: Comparing the best fixed-value point credit cards

The power of transferable points

There are five major transferable point programs. We've written extensively about how every traveler should earn transferable points in some way. These points give you incredible flexibility when it comes time to redeem them for hotel stays and flights. As a reminder, here are the programs that fall into this category:

Between these five, you have more than 40 different airline programs to choose from when you're ready to transfer your points. Rather than being pigeonholed into one airline's points or miles, you can transfer points to a program with availability and decent award rates.

However, each of these programs has different transfer times when it comes to converting miles, ranging from instantaneous (like transferring Ultimate Rewards points to United) to a week or even longer (like transferring ThankYou points to Etihad Guest). We've investigated these times in the past for each of the programs, so be sure to refer to the following posts for estimates on when you can expect your transfer to be completed:

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In addition, some airlines tack on added fees for last-minute bookings, making them less attractive when it comes to redeeming award tickets in the days or hours before a flight.

So which specific programs are a great option for these awards? Here's my list:

Delta SkyMiles

(Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy.)

The first program I'll highlight is one that is generally reviled in the frequent-flyer world thanks to actions like devaluing awards without warning and pulling award charts from its website. Nevertheless, the Delta SkyMiles program is a solid option for booking last-minute award tickets for a couple of key reasons. The first is the carrier's partnership with Membership Rewards. Your points transfer instantly, so you don't have to worry about award inventory disappearing.

The other key benefit to booking award tickets with Delta is the lack of last-minute ticketing fees. If you redeem SkyMiles for a flight even on the day of departure, you'll only pay the regular taxes and fees that you'd pay on an award ticket booked a month or even six months ahead of time. You won't be on the hook for close-in booking fees, which can top $75 per person.

Related: The ultimate guide to Delta partners

British Airways Executive Club

(Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG.)

British Airways is one of my favorite airlines for award redemptions, thanks to the carrier's distance-based award chart. In many cases, it results in lower rates for partner flights than you'd get by booking directly with that partner. If you're booking last-minute, the value proposition is even sweeter since the Executive Club also imposes no fees on these awards.

What makes British Airways even more attractive for last-minute redemptions is that it partners with three of the major transferable programs (Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy). On the flip side, American only partners with Marriott. In addition, both Amex and Chase points will transfer instantly at a 1:1 ratio, again avoiding that dreaded wait while you hope that award inventory doesn't disappear. You can also earn British Airways Avios with the British Airways Visa Signature® Card.

Aeroplan

(Photo by Katie Genter / The Points Guy.)

If you're looking to redeem miles for flights on United, Air Canada's Aeroplan program is a great option. Aeroplan offers solid value, especially when you're booking last minute, and it doesn't charge close-in booking fees on award tickets. You can transfer your Membership Rewards points to Aeroplan — and, best of all, they'll post instantly.

Related: Here are 7 of our favorite ways to use Amex Membership Rewards points

Southwest and Jet Blue

I put Southwest and JetBlue in the same bucket because neither airline charges close-in fees, but both link redemption rates to ticket prices at a somewhat fixed rate. You might be better off paying cash and offsetting the cost with a card such as Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which lets you use miles to cover travel purchases.

If you'd prefer to pay with points, Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer instantly to Southwest and JetBlue at a 1:1 ratio. JetBlue is also an American Express transfer partner, but neither offers good value compared to fixed rewards, so we recommend shying away from that redemption.

Bottom line

Unfortunately, redeeming award tickets within days or even a couple of weeks of departure may cost you more than if you planned ahead, especially if you book through the wrong program. But as we've outlined here, it's not impossible. This illustrates the power of the fixed-value and transferable-point currencies, as you can wait to determine how you spend your points until you need them.

Featured image by Photo by People Image Studio/Shutterstock
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG featured card

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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Rewards

1 - 5X points
5XGet 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com
1.5XEarn 1.5X points on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year
1X1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.

Intro offer

Earn 150,000 points120,000 points
The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

Annual Fee

$695

Recommended Credit

670-850
Good, Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
  • Gold status at Marriott and Hilton hotels (enrollment required)
  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
Apply for The Business Platinum Card® from American Express
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TPG Exclusive Offer
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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

5XGet 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com
1.5XEarn 1.5X points on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year
1X1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

    Earn 150,000 points
    120,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $695
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Good, Excellent

Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
  • Gold status at Marriott and Hilton hotels (enrollment required)
  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.