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But sometimes, emergencies, like the death or illness of a family member, can force you to book last-minute tickets. And these fares can be very expensive.
I normally recommend folks use their miles and not hoard them, because award prices usually go up over time. Good deals don’t last forever.
But having a stash of miles & points for these emergencies may be the difference between you being there to support your loved ones or not.
Let’s look at the best miles & points to save in case of emergency travel.
Last-Minute Fares Are Expensive
In the past, many airlines offered bereavement fares in the event of the death or critical illness of a family member. These fares weren’t typically very good in the 1st place!
But now, most major US airlines do NOT offer bereavement tickets. And many folks don’t have the flexibility to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a last-minute seat.
Especially if you need to get somewhere quickly. Last minute non-stop flights are even pricier!
Suppose you’re in New York and suddenly have to travel to Los Angeles due to a death in the family.
A round-trip, non-stop ticket from New York to Los Angeles normally costs ~$300 when you book in advance.
I checked prices using ITA Matrix for travel tomorrow (from the date I wrote this post), returning in 4 days, and the cheapest non-stop, round-trip fare was almost $1,000!
Emily and I have learned from experience that having a “savings account” of miles & points can be a lifesaver in these situations.
Which Miles & Points Are Best for Last-Minute Travel?
Before you commit to an emergency miles & points fund, think about where you’ll likely need a last-minute trip.
Perhaps you have aging parents in a different city. Or a dear friend with a worsening illness overseas.
Of course, it’s not always possible to plan for every situation. But knowing which airlines and routes are possible in advance can help you prepare.
Because of this, I suggest collecting transferable points for the most flexibility.
1. Chase Ultimate Rewards
Link: Chase Ink Plus
Link: Chase Sapphire Preferred
My top pick for a miles & points “emergency fund” is Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Here’s why:
- Your points are flexible and they never expire
- You can transfer points to a spouse or domestic partner
- Points transfers to airline & hotel partners are usually instant and are easily made online (note that you must have a Chase Ink Bold, Chase Ink Plus, or Chase Sapphire Preferred card to transfer Ultimate Rewards points to travel partners)
- Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partners include options for domestic and international travel, like Southwest, United Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and British Airways
- There are lots of ways to earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points
- If you can’t find available award seats, you can use Chase Ultimate Rewards points toward paid tickets (no blackout dates) at 1.25 cents per point through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal (if you have the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, or Ink Bold)
a. Award Flights
Using miles for last-minute award tickets can sometimes be challenging. That’s because it’s often hard to find award seats close to the date of travel.
But it’s worth checking, because some airlines release award seats a few days before departure.
If you do find available award seats, keep in mind some airlines, like United Airlines, charge an extra fee for bookings made close to the date of travel. Read my post for a trick to avoid these fees.
And there’s another option! If you can find saver award seats, you can use Singapore Airlines miles to book United Airlines flights. And they do NOT add a last-minute award booking fee! (Remember, your Chase Ultimate Rewards points also transfer to Singapore Airlines.)
Some Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partners are better in certain situations. For example, you can book award flights on Alaska Airlines or American Airlines with British Airways Avios points.
Flights under 650 miles only cost 4,500 British Airways Avios points each way. And there are no last-minute booking fees.
Looking at our previous example, I found non-stop flights (almost the exact ones!) between New York and Los Angeles, departing the next day and returning in 4 days. You’d pay 25,000 British Airways Avios points and ~$11.
Southwest is another option, especially because you can always book an award seat as long as there’s a paid ticket available. And you’ll get 2 free checked bags.
Looking at the same New York to Los Angeles example, the cheapest Southwest award tickets for the same dates cost 28,962 Southwest points plus ~$11.
However, there are NO non-stop options. So this might not be suitable if you need to get somewhere in a hurry.
If you’re unsure of your return date, Southwest could be a better deal. There are no fees to change or cancel your flight, and points are refunded to your account.
Remember, once you transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to a travel partner, you can NOT get them back! So be 100% sure award seats are available before you transfer.
b. Paid Flights
If you can’t find award seats, remember you can use Chase Ultimate Rewards points towards paid travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.
That’s great flexibility! And there are no black-out dates.
I like that you can use Chase Ultimate Rewards points to pay for all or part of your ticket. So if you have no choice but to book a paid flight, you can at least off-set some of the cost by using points.
And remember, you can also use Chase Ultimate Rewards points for paid hotel rooms and car rentals.
2. Citi ThankYou
Link: Citi Prestige
Link: Citi ThankYou Premier
Citi ThankYou points aren’t as good for transferring to travel partners as Chase Ultimate Rewards points, because most of their airline partners are NOT US based.
And it can take up to 14 days for transfers to complete (although in my experience it usually takes a few days). That’s not helpful if you need to fly in a day or two!
But there are still good options for using your Citi ThankYou points for last-minute paid flights.
And it’s easy to earn Citi ThankYou points. Both the Citi Prestige and Citi ThankYou Premier card have big 50,000 Citi ThankYou point sign-up bonuses after you complete the minimum spending requirements.
I like these cards because they have terrific spending category bonuses, like travel, dining, and entertainment. So if you spend a lot in these categories you can earn points very quickly.
Book Paid Flights With Citi ThankYou Points
You can book paid flights with Citi ThankYou points through the Citi ThankYou travel center.
Folks with the Citi Prestige get the best deal. That’s because their Citi ThankYou points are worth 1.6 cents each toward paid airfare on American Airlines or their codeshare partners (even internationally)
And their Citi ThankYou points are worth 1.33 cents each toward flights on other airlines. There are NO blackout dates.
If you don’t have the Citi Prestige, but have the Citi ThankYou Premier, you can book paid flights with Citi ThankYou points at a rate of 1.25 cents per point.
Like Chase Ultimate Rewards, this also applies to hotels and car rentals.
Note: The Citi Prestige also includes a $250 airline fee credit each calendar year, which includes airfare. So if you must book last-minute paid travel, you can apply this credit to reduce your costs.
It’s almost like having an airfare insurance policy. And if you’re approaching the end of the year and haven’t needed it, you could always use it towards your holiday travel.
What About Other Programs?
That’s because it can take 2 to 4 weeks for points to transfer to airline partners!
And while you can use American Express Membership Rewards points to book paid tickets on the American Express Travel site, your points are only worth 1 cent each.
That said, if you know your home airport is only served by a couple of airlines, it might be worth collecting miles and points in their frequent flyer programs.
Check out my Hot Deals page for cards that earn specific airline miles.
Book Travel for Others
Sometimes, it might be better to book a flight for a friend or family member who needs to be with their loved ones during a difficult time.
It’s easy to book award flights for friends and family members. And it could make a huge difference to someone who might not otherwise be able to make it to a bedside or funeral.
Most of the time in our hobby we’re focused on flights for adventure or to vacation with people we care about. But I’m also very grateful to have miles and points in case Emily and I need to support someone in an emergency.
I would never want to feel helpless because I was unable to get on a plane to spend very important time with family. Thankfully, miles and points gives us all an opportunity to jump on a plane at a moment’s notice when being at a loved one’s side makes all the difference.
Chase Ultimate Rewards points are ideal for this situation, because they transfer to airline partners almost instantly. Or you can use them to book paid travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal with no blackout dates.
For paid tickets, another good option is Citi ThankYou points. Citi Prestige cardholders can use their points at 1.6 cents each toward American Airlines or codeshare flights, and 1.33 cents each on other airlines.
And Citi ThankYou Premier cardholders can book paid airfare with points at a rate of 1.25 cents each. You can use points to pay for all or part of your flight.
I’d love if y’all would share your tips for using miles and points for last-minute travel in the comments.