How I used points and miles to save over $6,000 on a last-minute trip to Europe

Oct 12, 2020

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Last month, I had to book a last-minute round-trip ticket to Prague for a family matter. Despite the country being closed to Americans due to coronavirus, I was able to enter with my Czech passport as I’m a dual citizen. Current travel restrictions mean fewer airlines are offering U.S. to Europe flights right now, so fares can be all over the place. Some days fares are super cheap while others are extremely expensive.

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Unfortunately, the latter was true in my case. I was searching for flights four days before departure. Flights with one-stop were pricing at $6,400 round-trip in business class, which was way outside of my price range.

This is similar to how last-minute flights to Europe are pricing right now. As of this writing, a round-trip ticket from Newark (EWR) to Prague (PRG) with one-stop is a whopping $6,479 in business class when booking four days out.

Related: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

EWR to Prague Flight Cost October 2020
(Image courtesy of Google Flights)

Naturally, the first thing I did when I saw this was to check my points balances and go on the hunt for award space. In this article, I’ll give you a quick overview of how I booked a last-minute round-trip ticket to Europe during the coronavirus pandemic. Use this as a framework for finding your own last-minute tickets in the future — it can save you thousands of dollars in the process.

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Finding award space to Europe

Swiss Airbus A340
I flew Swiss and Austrian Airlines on my recent trip to Europe. (Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy)

As discussed in the intro, my trip came together just four days before I was set to depart. After deciding to use miles for my flights, I went to work finding last-minute award space that I can book with my suite of available flights. Likewise, I had to find airlines that could actually take me from New York to Prague on either its own metal or with a partner. Again, many routes are cut during the pandemic, so this could actually be pretty difficult.

I started by using Google Flights to check flight pairs that could take me to Europe. In doing this, I quickly realized my best bet was to book with a Star Alliance carrier. Some SkyTeam carriers flew to both New York and Prague, but the connection times weren’t great. Likewise, some of my favorite airlines for getting to Europe are in Star Alliance — and given the short connections — I was sold.

Related: The cheapest business class awards across all three alliances

Previously, I noted that United.com is my go-to for most Star Alliance awards. It shows award space from virtually all Star Alliance carriers online. And while it used to have issues with phantom award space, I’ve found that it’s becoming less of an issue as time goes on. That said, I rarely book with United miles — the airline recently removed its partner award chart and skyrocketed award prices in the process.

With that in mind, I fired up United’s website and started looking for award space. I was looking for a round-trip ticket for a ten-day trip. I quickly found outbound award space on Swiss from Newark (EWR). The flight had a long layover in Zurich (ZRH), though, so I checked to see if the Swiss lounge was open. Indeed it was, so I added this flight to my “book” list.

The flight looked like this on United’s site but with a longer layover — note the “Saver” label at the top of the award price:

Finding Swiss Award Space on United's Website
(Image courtesy of United)

On the return, I looked for another Saver ticket on United.com. This time, I found space on one of my favorite airlines: Austrian Airlines. The flight departed Prague in the morning and had a short layover in Vienna (VIE). The ticket was set to arrive at Newark airport, which was perfect as I planned to drive to the airport.

Related: How Swiss business class manages to remain excellent — even during a pandemic

Booking my ticket with transferrable points

Austrian Airlines 767 at the gate at Newark airport
I used LifeMiles to book my award, but there are other options too. (Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy)

Now that I had my flights nailed down, it was time to find the best way to book them. I had a pretty healthy stock of points when looking to book this ticket. Most notably, I had a large number of American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Additionally, I had 60,000 Avianca LifeMiles from a credit card sign-up bonus, a ton of Alaska and Delta miles and some American miles.

Since these flights were operated by Star Alliance partners, using Alaska, Delta and American miles was out of the picture. I had a handful of options for booking with Amex and Chase points, though, so I took a closer look at my options. On the Chase side, I could use Singapore Airlines Krisflyer or United Airlines MileagePlus. Neither of these were particularly intriguing though, as both have not-so-great redemption rates on Star Alliance flights from the U.S. to Europe.

Plus, while United no longer charges cash close-in fees, it adds a mileage surcharge to partner tickets booked at the last minute. These flights would’ve cost 80,500 miles each-way with minimal taxes and fees, which wasn’t a great deal compared to booking with Amex transfer partners.

On the Amex side, I could use Air Canada Aeroplan, ANA Mileage Club or Avianca LifeMiles. ANA Mileage Club charges the fewest points — just 88,000 miles for a round-trip business class ticket to Europe — it adds high fuel surcharges on Lufthansa Group carriers like Austrian and Swiss. Further, the new Aeroplan hasn’t launched yet, so the program still adds fuel surcharges to these same tickets.

With that in mind, I decided to book with Avianca LifeMiles. These tickets cost 63,000 LifeMiles with minimal taxes and fees each-way. I already had 60,000 LifeMiles in my account, so I only needed to transfer 66,000 Amex points to LifeMiles to book the round-trip ticket. I checked the LifeMiles website and — thankfully — both awards were bookable online, so I transferred my points.

Amex points transfer to LifeMiles instantly, so I could book quickly to avoid losing award space. All in, I spent 66,000 Amex points, 60,000 LifeMiles and just $110 in taxes and fees on my round trip ticket. The cash price of this ticket was $6,479, so I got a massive 5 cents per point in value. This is over double TPG’s Membership Rewards valuation.

Related: Why transferable points are more valuable than ever

Building your own points balance

Having points and miles on hand gives you a hedge against expensive last-minute airfare. If you’re interested in building a mileage balance of your own, consider opening a transferrable points credit card. These points are loyalty points issued by banks and can usually be transferred to a handful of airline and hotel loyalty programs. Likewise, they can be used to cover paid flights or redeemed for gift cards and cash back, though we don’t recommend it.

The most common transferrable points — American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards — can be earned quickly with credit card welcome bonuses and everyday spending.

Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve cards
Start your points and miles journey with Chase cards. (Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

If you’re new to the points and miles world, I recommend starting with Chase Ultimate Rewards. It’s no mystery that I prefer Amex points to Chase points, but with Chase’s 5/24 rule, it’s in your best interest to start with Chase. This rule prohibits anyone who has opened five or more new credit cards in the last 24 months from opening a new Chase card. So start with Chase, and then move on to Amex.

Here’s a look at two of the best Chase cards for earning Chase Ultimate Rewards points:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Earn 100,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve: Earn 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening
American Express Platinum and Gold cards
American Express Membership Rewards points are extremely flexible. (Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Over 5/24? No worries — it’s time to hop on the American Express Membership Rewards train (plane?). There are many different ways to use these points, so make sure to check out TPG’s guide to maximize Amex points for inspiration. Here’s a look at a few of the best American Express cards for earning Membership Rewards points:

The information for the Amex Green Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related: Here are 8 of our favorite ways to use Amex Membership Rewards points

Bottom line

Sure, this redemption is pretty simple on paper. But to me, it illustrates the power of points and miles. I could’ve booked a paid economy ticket and paid out of pocket, but instead, I was to take my first international flight of the year in comfort. I arrived in Prague, rested and ready to visit family that I only see a handful of times every year. It’s hard to put a price-tag on that, but seeing a high cent per point value definitely put a smile on my face too.

So the next time you need to book an expensive last-minute ticket, check award space first. You may walk away saving hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars in the process. And if you still need to build up a balance of miles and points, check out our beginner’s guide.

Safe travels!

Feature photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy

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