The Best Points and Miles for Last-Minute Flights

Jun 11, 2019

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Maybe you just realized that summer vacation starts next week. Or maybe you’ve had a sudden death in the family. In these kinds of last-minute or urgent situations points and miles can come to the rescue. 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 now, not ones you can get from a specific bonus — though it might be wise to keep a stash of miles for a rainy day.

(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 X to Y on Z date, I would consider Arrival Miles first. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard is my go-to when I don’t have the time to spend with award charts and transfer partners. With Barclay Arrival miles, you just offset the cost of your ticket (over $100) from your credit-card statement. Capital One Rewards works in the same way and you can earn miles with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.

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. We like the Citi Premier Card for ThankYou points.

Related: Comparing the Best Fixed-Value Point Credit Cards

The Power of Transferable Points

Sapphire Reserve Amex Platinum Citi Prestige
Transferable point programs give you the flexibility to convert your points to different airlines when you’re ready to book rather than being forced into a single currency.

Another important type of currency to discuss involves the five major transferable point programs. TPG has written extensively about how every traveler should earn transferable points in some way, as these points give you incredible flexibility when it comes time to redeem. As a reminder, here are the programs that fall into this category:

Between these five, you have more than 40 different airline programs from which to choose when you go to transfer your points. Rather than being pigeonholed into one airline’s points or miles, you can be choosy and only 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:

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

Delta One 767-400ER_Business_MSP-HNL
If you’re booking a last-minute flight, Delta is a great option. (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 when it comes to booking last-minute award tickets for a couple of key reasons. The first is the carrier’s partnership with Membership Rewards. Your points post 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. This is in sharp contrast to United and American, both of which tack on a $75 fee for award tickets booked within 21 days of departure. (Although United is eliminating these fees for travel beginning Nov. 15). Keep in mind too that these fees are per person, so if you’re traveling with the family they can really add up.

Of course, just because United and American charge these fees doesn’t mean you can’t book last-minute awards on their flights, as you’ll see in just a bit.

British Airways Executive Club

LAX Airport, March 2019 (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)
Booking a last-minute award on American? Be sure to think about redeeming British Airways Avios to avoid the $75 fee. (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)

One of my favorite airlines for award redemptions in general is British Airways, thanks to the carrier’s distance-based award chart, which in many cases results in lower rates for partner flights than you’d get by booking directly with that partner. However, if you’re booking last-minute, the value proposition is even sweeter since the Executive Club also imposes no fees on these awards. Since American is one of British Airways’ key partners, you can redeem Avios for last-minute American flights to circumvent the $75 fee mentioned earlier. It also may save you points. Just be aware that BA changed its redemption rates for partner airlines on May 30, 2019.

What makes British Airways even more attractive for these redemptions is that it partners with three of the major transferable programs (Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards and Bonvoy). American only partners with Marriott Bonvoy. 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.


(Photo by Katie Genter / The Points Guy)
Booking award tickets with Aeroplan will ensure that you can fly United without any last-minute fees. (Photo by Katie Genter / The Points Guy)

If you’re looking to redeem miles for flights on United, a great option is Air Canada’s Aeroplan program. Aeroplan offers solid value, especially when you’re booking last minute. Like the two programs mentioned above, Aeroplan doesn’t charge close-in booking fees on award tickets, so a United flight that currently carries an extra $75 cost per person can be had for the same number of miles and just the standard taxes and fees. Membership Rewards transfers points to Aeroplan and best of all they will post instantly.

Southwest and Jet Blue

I put Southwest and JetBlue in the same bucket because neither airline charges close-in fees but both link ticket prices to points required for a ticket at a somewhat fixed rate. If you are flush in either currency, you might do better using points than paying cash and offsetting the cost with a card such as Barclay’s Arrival that lets you “erase” a travel purchase with your accrued points.

If you’d prefer to pay with points, Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer instantly to Southwest and JetBlue at a 1:1 ratio if you need to top up. JetBlue is also an American Express and Capital One transfer partner, but neither offers good value compared to fixed rewards.

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 you can see, it is 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 courtesy of Tempura via Getty Images.

2018 TPG Award Winner: Mid-Tier Card of the Year
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card



CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
Intro APR on Purchases
Regular APR
17.74% - 24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
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