How to Use Points for Last-Minute Flights
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I often drag my feet with doing the laundry, waiting until I have no more clean socks in my drawer. But what about when it comes to booking a flight with points?
Can you book a flight with points at the last minute—especially at the holidays? I’ll dive into the potential challenges of finding a last-minute flight with points and share some tips on how to find award flights even if it is coming down to the wire.
Can you use points for last-minute flights?
The short answer is yes, you theoretically can book a last-minute flight with points. As my colleagues Daniel Burnham and Katy Nastro told Travel and Leisure recently, airlines will allow you to use your miles to book a seat up to the last minute.
That said, manage your expectations. Some flights may not have last-minute award availability—the term for being able to use miles to book a flight.
Or, they may have award availability, but it may not be the fare class you want. You may want business class, but an airline may only be offering award availability for economy seats for your desired flight.
In other words, maybe all you find in your sock drawer is a pair of socks with your public radio station printed on them, when what you need is basic black. (I am speaking from experience here.)
But not all hope is lost. If you’re willing to be flexible and a little creative with how to use your points, you still might be able to use your points for a last-minute flight. Here are several strategies you can take.
1. Check with airline partners instead of domestic carriers
You may want to use your miles to fly on Delta, for example. But what if I told you that booking your Delta flight with Delta SkyMiles might actually cost you more miles than if you booked that same ticket through a partner airline?
That’s right. You may be able to get a seat on a Delta flight with fewer miles if you book through Virgin Atlantic instead.
The reason why is because domestic airlines have partnerships with other airlines, and those airlines sometimes may offer award availability for a domestic flight you’re eyeing for fewer points.
Because this is last minute, some of these partners may not have award availability.
If you want to fly…
- Partner airline to check instead: Virgin Atlantic or Flying Blue
- Transferrable card points to partner: American Express, Bilt, Capital One, Chase, and Citi
- Partner airline to check instead: British Airways
- Transferrable card points to partner: American Express, Bilt, Capital One, and Chase
- Partner airline to check instead: Air Canada Aeroplan
- Transferrable card points to partner: Bilt, Capital One, and Chase
Reminder: You can search for flights with partners, but miles don't transfer between partners. In other words, you can find a Delta flight through Virgin but you cannot transfer Delta SkyMiles to Virgin miles (called Virgin Points).
What about Southwest and JetBlue?
Some banks allow you to transfer your credit card points directly to JetBlue or Southwest. But as low-cost airlines, the amount of points you’ll need to redeem tracks very closely with the cash price of the seat. So the award redemptions you see may not be the highest value for your points. You might be better off paying for these last-minute flights in cash, if it’s in your budget.
2. Use transfer bonuses
Normally, credit card points transfer at a 1:1 ratio to these airline partners. That means 1 credit card point becomes 1 mile. Just a heads up: You’ll be required to transfer in increments of 1,000 points.
Every once in a while, credit card issuers offer “transfer bonuses” with specific airlines. These transfer bonuses can range anywhere from 20% to 30%. If there is a 30% transfer bonus running, this means that your points transfer to that specific partner airline at a ratio of 1:1.3.
Math wasn’t my strongest subject in school, but what this means is you will need even fewer points to redeem for your flight.
(Mrs. B., if you're reading this, I just explained math to thousands of people. We've come a long way.)
3. Be flexible—on dates and locations
Flexibility is the golden rule when it comes to searching for award flights—especially when you’re looking to book a flight last minute. This includes the airports you fly in and out of, as well as the actual dates you’re looking for flights.
Ask yourself, can I get close enough? Maybe if you’re in a smaller market, can you get to a larger airport? Same with the return.
For example, I don’t have much luck finding award seats flying to see my family in Wichita, Kansas, but I have a lot more options when I look at Kansas City, Missouri. Sure, there’s a bit of a drive involved, but being flexible on location opens up a few more flight options.
This is basically the points version of the “Greek Island Trick.” The strategy behind both is to get close to your destination for a lower cost, and then take a quick ferry, bus, train, or regional flight to wherever you really want to be.
Being flexible on dates can help, too. Do you have to fly on one specific day, or do you have some wiggle room?
When you’re searching for a cheap flight, most airlines let you see the award availability for the week surrounding your selected date. With some, you can even see a full calendar month.
4. Use award availability search tools
Airlines’ websites are always up-to-date with award availability, but they aren’t an effective way to compare—especially if you have multiple points currencies.
If you want to avoid comparing award availability by toggling between half a dozen open browser tabs, there are several tools to search for flight award availability. Here are a few to consider:
- Point.me: Shows you how to transfer credit card points and provides a comprehensive search engine, but only gives you three free searches before you have to pay.
- PointsYeah: Offers unlimited searches for free, but only searches about 20 airline frequent flier programs, compared to the 30+ that Point.me covers.
- Seats.eero: Its searches are lightning quick, which helps for finding last minute tickets. But after returning results, you’re left on your own to figure out what points currencies transfer to the airline. The free version only allows you to search for availability within the next 90 days, but if you’re booking a last-minute flight, that shouldn’t be a concern.
What about long-haul international flights?
Throughout this newsletter, I assumed that you were looking to take a last-minute domestic flight. But, maybe instead of heading home for the holidays, you’re looking for a last-minute international trip.
If that’s the case, you may be in luck: Lufthansa consistently releases award availability 14 days before its flights. In fact, Lufthansa first-class award seats are almost exclusively available two weeks before the departure date.
How would you redeem your points for a Lufthansa seat? None of the credit cards transfer directly to Lufthansa, but because it is part of the Star Alliance, you could book a Lufthansa seat using your United miles or consider transferring your credit card points to Air Canada Aeroplan miles.
When it comes to redeeming points for international flights, you’ll still want to compare which airline is offering the fewest miles. However, for international flights, you’ll also want to pay attention to taxes and fees. Even if an airline is offering fewer miles, they may charge hundreds of dollars in surcharges. You may be better off paying slightly more miles with one partner if it saves you a bunch in taxes and fees.
Last resort: Pay with points in a card issuer travel portal
If you’re pressed for options and you just have to go with that one Delta flight on December 24, fine. If you still really want or need to use points for this flight, and there isn’t any award availability, you can use your points to pay for this flight through your credit card issuer’s travel portal.
Just be aware that this redemption method is not going to give you the best value for your points. When used this way, your points will be worth about 1 cent to 1.5 cents at best.
This won’t get you the most value for your points, but if you’re in a jam, it could be an option.
Published December 12, 2023
Last updated February 26, 2024
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