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4 Ways to Save On Last-Minute Family Award Trips

May 22, 2019
9 min read
Summer beach Puerto Rico
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For spring break this year I took a trip with my son and his friend to Florida. We planned our spring break trip on less than a week's notice and for less than $200 out of pocket using miles and points. While some traditional trip-planning rules get thrown out the window when you're trying to put together last-minute trips, other tips come into play. Here's how to save on last-minute award trips for the family.

Photo by Shelby Soblick for The Points Guy

1. Flexibility Is Key

If you are trying to get to a specific destination at the last minute, you will likely pay heavily for the privilege. But if you just want to get outta Dodge, you'll be surprised how many options exist. Spend a few minutes on the TPG Deals page and you may strike gold.

In my case, I utilized the one-way from Florida car-rental deal. (Here are tips for the "perfect" car rental.) We flew into Orlando and, after a little time in Florida, took a leisurely drive home back to Washington, DC, stopping twice along the way. By splitting up the drive, we were only on the road a few hours each day and enjoyed visits to Amelia Island, Florida, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Trust me, you don't want to do I-95 up the East Coast in one stretch with a family if you can possibly avoid it. Our seven-day car rental came to $86, including taxes. Gas added another $60, but under $150 for three people to get around in and then back from Florida? I'll take it.

2. Use the Right Travel Tools

There are plenty of tools to help you plan last-minute travel. Google Flights has a great "Explore" option to inspire you if you know when, but not where, you want to go. Let's say you want to go from DC to Florida on Memorial Day weekend, but don't care which city. By entering your departure, dates, and "Florida" in the arrival box, you'll get a map that looks like the one below. The map shows you that the cheapest beach-adjacent flight goes to Jacksonville for $331.

Screenshot via Google Flights

You can expand the search further by entering "Europe," "Caribbean" or even leaving the destination blank to do a global search.

Here are some other apps that can help with family travel. I'm especially intrigued by Inspirock, which puts together an itinerary for you based on your family's travel style and interests.

3. Avoid Close-In Award-Booking Fees

Hard-core award travelers probably have close-in booking fees memorized. However, it's not common knowledge outside those circles, so here are some quick tips for each airline alliance. Note that flyers with elite status may get reduced or waived fees beyond the standard rules outlined below. Here's a more comprehensive guide to booking last-minute award travel.

Oneworld: American Airlines will charge you a $75 fee for award bookings less than 21 days out, but British Airways won't add close-in fees for the same flights. Try to use British Airways Avios if you want to fly American close-in to travel, especially if you're flying nonstop since British Airways charges Avios based on each segment flown. You can transfer points to British Airways using both American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Even better, Chase is offering a 30% transfer bonus from Ultimate Rewards to BA Avios for a few more days.

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If you need a connecting flight on American Airlines, consider Iberia Avios. Iberia prices by total mileage as opposed to by segment so the flight may cost less in Avios. Iberia used to only allow round-trip booking on partners, but you can now book one ways on American via Iberia Avios.

Star Alliance: United Airlines charges $75 for close-in award bookings as well, though this fee goes away when the airline switches to dynamic pricing on November 15. Air Canada's Aeroplan or Avianca LifeMiles are solid alternatives without an added fees. You can transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to Aeroplan and Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou points or Capital One miles to LifeMiles. LifeMiles is particularly interesting as TPG has recently seen United Flights priced as low as 3,500 LifeMiles.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Avianca LifeMiles

SkyTeam: Delta does not charge last-minute fees on award tickets and with its recent wave of award sales, the airline could be a good option if you can find a match. However, traditionally, Delta does charge additional miles for award flights within the upcoming few weeks of travel.

JetBlue and Southwest: Neither JetBlue or Southwest charges an added close-in award-booking fee. Both programs are revenue-based, so award prices will vary based on how much last-minute fights cost with cash. If you are willing to fly at unpopular times, you're more likely to find a decent rate.

In our case, we flew at o-dark-thirty in the morning, so I found flights to Orlando for 6,800 Southwest Rapid Rewards points plus $5.60 from DC to Orlando. I was pretty happy with that price on five day's notice. I got the Rapid Rewards points from the sign-up bonus on my Southwest credit card.

Related: Best Southwest Airlines Credit Cards for Families

A Southwest Airlines Co. Boeing 737-700 (Registration N713SW) taxis on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Friday, March 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, Calif. © 2019 Patrick T. Fallon for The Points Guy
A Southwest Airlines Co. Boeing 737-700 (Registration N713SW) taxis on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Friday, March 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, Calif. © 2019 Patrick T. Fallon for The Points Guy

4. Earn and Burn

If you take a closer look at your miles and points balances, you may find a last-minute opportunity. In my case, I had two Category 4 certificates from the old version of the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card. I also had the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card’s up to $300 annual statement credit burning a hole in my pocket, made even sweeter by a $60-back-on-$300 spent at Marriott American Express offer (available for eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program). (Learn more about Amex Offers.)

Related: Is a $450 Marriott Credit Card Right for Families?

Using the credits, I booked three nights in a bunk-bed suite at the Sheraton Lake Buena Vista for $111/night. Resort and parking fees were waived because I'm a Marriott Titanium member, and breakfast was free as well. The total, including taxes, came to $376, of which I paid a cash outlay of $16 thanks to my credits. I earned 5,828 Marriott points on the stay, worth $47 by TPG's current valuation. I wouldn't say the stay was free, but it certainly didn't hurt the wallet, either.

Sheraton Lake Buena Vista (Photo by Dia Adams)

Two more old Marriott Category 4 certificates (Marriott now has Category 5 and 6 certificates) came in handy on the way home: one at the Residence Inn in Amelia Island, Florida, and one at the Sheraton in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Free night certificates can be your best friend when planning quick getaways. The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card gives card holders an up to 35k free night certificate (good at Category 5 and below properties) on their anniversary while the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card ups the ante with an up to 50k free night certificate at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program (certain hotels have resort fees) (good at Category 6 and below). World of Hyatt Credit Card also confers a Category 1–4 free night certificate on the card holder's anniversary.

Bottom Line

With miles and points, you have options -- even if you wait until the last minute to book a getaway. While the big trips might require planning every detail months in advance, there's no limit to what you can do at the last minute when you are flexible, lean on deals, know the rules and maximize what you have available to you.

For more last-minute inspiration:

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto
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.