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

Nov 26, 2019

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Maybe you just realized that the holidays are here. Or maybe you’ve had a death in the family. In these last-minute, 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, not ones you can get from a bonus.

(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 Barclay 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. Unfortunately, Barclay Arrival isn’t taking new applicants at this time. However, Capital One Rewards work 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® (No longer open to new applicants). We like the Citi Premier® Card for ThankYou points.

Related: Comparing the best fixed-value point credit cards

The power of transferable points

There are the 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 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
(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 American, which tacks on a $75 fee for award tickets booked within 21 days of departure. (United eliminated its close-in fees for travel on Nov. 15, 2019.) 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 American charges these fees doesn’t mean you can’t book last-minute awards on its flights as you’ll see next.

British Airways Executive Club

LAX Airport, March 2019 (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)
(Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG.)

Booking a last-minute award on American? Think about redeeming British Airways Avios to avoid the $75 fee. It’s one of my favorite airlines for award redemptions, 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 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.


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

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. You might do better paying cash and offsetting the cost with a card such as Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card 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. JetBlue is also an American Express and Capital One 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 photo by OwenPrice/Getty Images.

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Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
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