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Domestic flights can easily be the most difficult award tickets to book. Sure, routes like business class to Australia are a challenge, but the task can be managed when you’re looking 10 months in the future. When you have to book domestic travel last-minute — especially around a holiday or during a peak travel week — you can quickly find yourself in a no-win award-booking situation. Today, I’ll recount my latest lose-lose situation and share advice on what to do when you find yourself in a similar boat.

Bachelorettes, Showers and Weddings, Oh My

My younger brother is getting married in his home city of Charleston, South Carolina, which happens to be Travel + Leisure’s #1 US city to visit from 2012-2017. Watching the growth in the low country with my own eyes after visiting family there my entire life has been nothing short of amazing. With that kind of popularity comes high airfare and stiff competition for award seats.

My sister, a high school teacher in Houston, gave me a call with an airfare conundrum. A lifelong friend’s bachelorette party is in Asheville, North Carolina the weekend before my brother’s wedding in Charleston. Sandwiched between the two weekends is spring break for every major district in the Houston area. Great for not missing work as a teacher, but very bad for trying to fly anywhere to or from Houston. And with the number-one city in the US to visit her ultimate destination, during spring break, with fixed commitment dates, finding award seats or affordable revenue fares would be a huge challenge. Even without searching, I knew this would most likely be a lost cause.

The Options

At the time of searching, a perfect itinerary would be leaving Houston for Asheville Friday evening after school and returning from Charleston on Sunday after the wedding. Delta had the cheapest revenue fare: a stomach-churning $881 for a round-trip domestic flight:

Or 85,000 miles:

United wanted 25,000 miles for the outbound and didn’t have any award seats available for the return, even at the Everyday level with my additional XN availability due to having the United MileagePlus Explorer Card:

Southwest doesn’t serve Asheville, but does fly to Charlotte, which is a two-hour drive from Asheville. However, the only flight after school doesn’t land until 1:55am on Saturday, meaning a two-hour drive afterwards is not a safe decision. The return from Charleston on Southwest was almost 23,000 points, which my sister simply doesn’t have:

No matter what routing, time or airline I tried, there wasn’t anything affordable for an award or revenue ticket.

I’ve routinely redeemed miles for family, but 65,000 American miles for a domestic flight, which is enough to book transpacific business class, was simply not an option. We were stuck.

What Can You Do?

When you’re in a situation like this, you have two options: pay the extraordinary points or cash required or adjust your schedule and routing. High school teachers are underpaid in my opinion, but even with adequate pay $881 is out of the question. I have points and miles, but 85,000 SkyMiles or any combination of the other required loyalty currencies was out of my budget. It was time to improvise.

Here are the strategies we undertook to come out of a no-win situation relatively unscathed:

  • Adjust Departure and Arrival Airport; Add Rental Car — Fly or depart from farther away and reserve a rental car. This requires finding a one-way rental.
  • Low-Cost Carriers — Don’t forget about Spirit or Allegiant as travel options. They sometimes fly to less than obvious airports. There are also Essential Air Service operators like Contour Airlines and Boutique Air, which have some of the most odd and unknown publicly available routes in the US. Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson International Airport to Muscle Shoals, Alabama? On a Pilatus PC-12 aircraft? Yep, for $59.
  • Fixed-Value Point Currencies — If you have a stash of Capital One Venture or Arrival Plus miles, now’s the time to use them and subsidize the outrageous ticket cost.
  • Cash/Point Emergency Fund — Just like your financial advisor recommends you have a liquid fund of assets to hold you over for ~6 months of living expenses, I always keep an emergency fund of roughly 50,000 transferable points that I won’t touch unless an emergency calls.
  • Hidden City Ticket — While not without risks, a hidden city mileage or revenue ticket, which is a flight with a connection in your desired destination where you simply don’t take the connecting flight, can shave hundreds of dollars or thousands of miles off the cost of a ticket. Don’t check a bag and don’t make it a habit, and keep in mind there’s no guarantee you’ll end up where you want to go in the case of inclement weather or irregular operations. Risk vs. reward here.
  • Greyhoud/Megabus/Amtrak — More leg room than a plane, free Wi-Fi, and often dirt cheap. At the very least, make sure you’re familiar with these websites and routes.
  • Knowledge — This is the most overlooked aspect of getting out of no-win situations. Hopping on Expedia or Priceline and searching for flights won’t present a solution when you know flights are already expensive. Here are tools you need to know how to use:
    • Google Flights — Be able to quickly filter flight results based on departure/arrival times and operating carrier.
    • Route maps — You can’t find alternative routings and all your options if you can’t easily locate route maps or aren’t familiar with an airport’s Wikipedia page to see all routes and destinations.
    • American Award Map Tool — Input your origin and how many miles you want to spend and see all your possible destinations on a given date. This has saved me at least five times in the past when a nearby airport showed availability that I never would have found searching leg by leg.

In the end, my sister has to miss Friday at school because there simply weren’t any affordable flight options. I found a Spirit flight from Houston to Atlanta late Thursday night for a grand total of $60, including a checked bag!

She’ll hop right into a Category 1 Hyatt for 5,000 points I booked for her to catch some sleep and then catch a ride Friday morning to Asheville with friends headed up from the Atlanta area for the bachelorette weekend. That’s a solid win-win outcome.

For the return from Charleston, however, there simply weren’t any solid alternatives offered by considering the above options, and she dug into her cash reserves. She paid $375 for a one-way United ticket back to Houston. Definitely a big ouch, but not an $881 ouch.

Bottom Line

By utilizing alternatives and an exhaustive search, we cut the price down from a potential $881 to $420 out of pocket and an extra vacation day. On the plus side, all of our points and miles are still in tact. In a no-win situation, there’s no substitute for knowledge and familiarity with the various travel tools at your disposal.

Even if you don’t find better options, at least give yourself the peace of mind of knowing there are no better alternatives and you’ve done your best. I can’t say I’m thrilled that I couldn’t save my sister more money, but given the perfect storm of sky-high award ticket costs and revenue airfare, I think we did pretty well.

Featured photo by Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

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