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The Secrets to Cheap Last-Minute Flight Deals: Here’s How to Save

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The Secrets to Cheap Last-Minute Flight Deals:  Here’s How to Save

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If you’ve ever tried to book a flight at the last minute, you’ve probably had the same frustration many of us in that situation face.  Fares are usually sky-high compared to booking in advance, and availability can be very limited (if not impossible to find).  Airlines are happy to charge top dollar to folks who have no choice but to travel at short notice, be it for a family emergency, sudden work trip, or even an opportunity for a spontaneous getaway.

Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to save money on last-minute flights.  Having miles and points from the best travel credit cards will help, and knowing where and how to book can sometimes make the difference between an affordable trip and a painfully expensive experience.

I’ll run through some strategies you can use to find cheap last-minute flight deals.

With a Few Tricks up Your Sleeve You Can Save Money on Last-Minute Flights

How to Get Cheap Last-Minute Flight Deals

1.   Start With Google Flights to Set Your Expectations

Before you start investigating ways to book your last-minute flight, it’s important to get a baseline on the fares airlines are charging for your route and dates right now.  Google Flights is an excellent resource, because you can search for the cheapest fares on multiple airlines at once.  You never know when you might find a cheap ticket.

Google Flights is also handy if you’ve discovered you’ve got some time off and aren’t picky about where you go, or if you’ve had to wait until the last second to book a vacation because of uncertainties in your (or your family’s) schedules.  They’ve got a nifty explore function where you can see a map view of all the places you can go from your airport – you just specify the dates and the maximum price you’re willing to pay.

Use Google Flights to Get a Feel for What Airlines Are Charging for Your Last Minute Flight

Keep in mind, some low-cost airlines (like Southwest) won’t appear on Google Flights, so you’ll have to search those airlines separately on their own websites.

2.   Redeem Airline Miles for Award Flights

While we always recommend booking award flights as early as possible to get the most availability, you might not know that some airlines release extra award seats close to the date of departure.  So don’t assume you won’t be able to find an award flight just because you’re traveling last minute.

For example, award flights to Hawaii can be notoriously difficult to find, especially for a family.  As I write this post, Spring Break is just starting for many kids in New York, and here’s an award I found from Newark to Hawaii for 4 passengers departing in just a couple of days.  And one of the segments is non-stop!

Yup, Those Are Last-Minute Award Flights to Hawaii for a Family of 4 From Newark to Hawaii

You might notice the taxes and fees are high on this redemption.  That’s because United Airlines charges a $75 close-in booking fee for awards booked less than 21 days prior to departure.  But that fee is going away (along with United’s award chart) for travel after November 15, 2019.

Here’s a time I used airline miles to book a last-minute flight.  My dad’s cousin passed away unexpectedly, and tickets to Calgary for the funeral were over $500 at the last minute.  That’s a lot of money for a senior on a fixed income, and he wouldn’t have been able to go.  But luckily there were plenty of award seats available, so I redeemed 15,000 Air Canada Aeroplan miles for his ticket and he was able to attend, which meant a lot to him.

And here’s another example.  Team member Meghan redeemed 25,000 United Airlines miles for a last minute, round-trip domestic ticket for her sister when she realized she had a few days off to visit family before starting a new job.  That same ticket was selling for over $700, and Meghan was able to quickly transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United Airlines to book the flight.

Note:   If you have certain Chase United Airlines cards, you’ll get access to more available United award seats – even if it’s the last seat on the plane.  This includes cards like the United Explorer Card and United℠ Business Card.

The examples above bring up another good reason to collect transferable points.  You’re not locked into a specific airline, so if you suddenly have to book a ticket, you can move your points to the frequent flyer program you need if an award seat is available.  Here are the major transferable points programs and their partners:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards:   Transfer to United Airlines, Southwest, JetBlue, British Airways (for American Airlines flights), and Flying Blue (for Delta flights), and more
  • AMEX Membership Rewards:   Transfer to Delta, Air Canada Aeroplan (for United flights), British Airways, and more
  • Citi ThankYou:   Transfer to Singapore Airlines (for United flights), Qantas (for American Airlines flights), JetBlue, and more
  • Capital One:   Transfer for Singapore Airlines or Air Canada Aeroplan (for United flights), Qantas (for American Airlines flights), and more

If you’re having trouble finding seats, be sure to check out award flights on Southwest and JetBlue.  With both these airlines, as long as there’s a seat for sale on the airplane, you can book it with points.  Keep in mind the price of an award is tied to the cost of a paid ticket, so expensive last-minute tickets will cost more points.  It’s still worth it if you absolutely must get on a certain flight.

3.   Use Flexible Bank Points for Paid Flights Without Blackout Dates

Don’t be discouraged if you can’t find award seats – all is not lost if you have flexible bank points in your arsenal.  You can still redeem miles and points for paid flights by booking tickets through the bank travel portal, or in some cases directly with your card.

The easiest method is to use a card like Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card to pay for your ticket.  Once the transaction posts to your account, you can redeem your miles to “erase” the charge within a certain timeframe.  And it works for just about any airline – even low-cost carriers.

With both of these cards, your miles are worth 1 cent each toward paid travel.  There’s no minimum redemption amount if you use Capital One Venture miles (unless you’re using miles to partially pay for the ticket, in which case the minimum is 2,500 miles or $25).  With Arrival miles, your travel purchase must be at least $100.

You Can Use Capital One Venture Miles to Erase Airfare Charges on Your Card, Even With Low-Cost Airlines (Photo Credit: Spirit Airlines)

You can get a value of more than 1 cent per point if you have certain cards and redeem your points to book airfare through a bank travel site like the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal or Citi ThankYou Travel Portal.  This is my favorite method because there are no blackout dates, and it can actually get you a better deal than transferring points to an airline to book an award flight if a ticket is inexpensive.  It’s easy to do and works similarly to 3rd-party sites like Orbitz or Expedia.

Here’s what your points are worth through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal with these cards:

Chase Ultimate Rewards CardHow Much Are Points Worth Toward Travel?
Chase Sapphire Reserve1.5 cents
Ink Business Preferred Credit Card1.25 cents
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card1.25 cents
Ink Business Cash Credit Card1 cent
Ink Business Unlimited Credit Card1 cent
Chase Freedom1 cent
Chase Freedom Unlimited1 cent

And if you have the Citi Premier℠ Card, your points are worth 1.25 cents each when you book airfare through the Citi ThankYou Travel Portal.  Here’s a test booking I just made for travel 3 days from now (as of date of post writing).  With the Citi Premier, it costs just 11,120 Citi ThankYou points for this one-way flight from Chicago to Los Angeles.  To compare, you’d pay 12,500 American Airlines miles if you booked this as an award ticket.

Redeem Flexible Rewards Like Citi ThankYou Points for Paid Airfare Through the Travel Portal – With No Blackout Dates

Be sure to compare the airfare you found on Google Flights with the prices on the bank portal.  They’re usually the same, but if not, it’s worth a call to see if you can get the same rate.

You can also redeem AMEX Membership Rewards points for airfare through the AMEX Travel Portal at a rate of 1 cent per point.  But here’s another handy trick to save money (and points) if you have The Business Platinum Card® from American Express.

As an AMEX Business Platinum cardholder you get:

  • 35% of your points back for ALL First Class or Business Class flights booked through the AMEX travel portal
  • 35% of your points back for all flights, including coach tickets, booked with your selected airline through the AMEX travel portal

This perk can really soften the blow of having to pay for an expensive last-minute ticket with points.  Be sure to check out Meghan’s post on how she saved over 120,000 AMEX Membership Rewards points last year on flight bookings by having the AMEX Business Platinum.

Here’s one more angle if you have certain AMEX Delta cards, like the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express or Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express.  Cardholders can use their Delta miles through Pay With Miles at a rate of 1 cent per mile toward paid tickets.  It’s handy if you can’t find award seats, but you’ll spend a lot of miles for expensive tickets.

4.   Search Online for Last-Minute Deals

This trick is most useful for folks who are planning a spontaneous vacation or a family trip at short notice.  Perhaps you weren’t able to hammer out plans for Spring Break and are just looking for anywhere cheap to take a trip, or want to book a package deal at a discount.

Sites like Orbitz and Expedia (and there are lots more) advertise last-minute flight, hotel, and vacation package specials that are worth checking out if you’re not super picky about where you go.

Just Want to Get Away – Anywhere? Check Out Last-Minute Deals on 3rd-Party Sites Like Expedia

As with any booking, it’s worth taking a few minutes to compare prices elsewhere just to make sure you’re getting a good deal.  And remember, you can “erase” purchases made with online travel agencies with miles from the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card.

Or, pay with your Chase Sapphire Reserve – you’ll get up to $300 in annual travel credit for purchases with airlines, hotels, online travel agencies, and more.

Bottom Line

Yes, booking airfare at short notice can be pricey, but with miles and points from the best travel credit cards (and a few tricks), you can save money and get deals on last-minute flights.  Here’s what you can do to score cheap (or free) last-minute airfare:

  • Don’t assume – start with Google Flights to see if there are still cheap seats (and set your expectations for what airlines are charging)
  • Redeem airline miles for award flights (if you have transferable points from cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Citi Premier, you’ll have more flexibility)
  • Use flexible bank points to book paid flights with no blackout dates (Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card is one of your easiest options)
  • Search online for last-minute flight or package deals (ideal if you just want a last-minute getaway and aren’t picky about where) through sites like Orbitz and Expedia.

Do you have any tips or go-to sites to find last-minute flight deals?  Share away in the comments!

For more on last-minute travel, check out:

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.

More Info

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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