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Last-minute flights can get expensive. Thankfully, there are lots of different ways to use miles & points to save on last-minute airfare. And you can still save $100s on these flights, even if you currently don’t have a single credit card mile to your name!
With the big game coming up this week, I found a few options you can still book for the 2019 Super Bowl. But even if the Super Bowl isn’t your last-minute destination, you can use these strategies for saving on all sorts of last-minute travel.
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Best Ways to Use Credit Card Miles to Save on Last-Minute Flights
Usually, the biggest hurdle to using any sort of credit card rewards for last-minute travel is being able to find flights the airlines will actually allow you to book with your miles. The cheapest low-level, or saver awards, are limited and during peak dates or seasons they can be blacked out altogether. That means that on the most popular travel dates you might be stuck either not being able to use your miles or having to pay a huge premium.
But there are ways around that. Even though there is no fool proof way to get a deal every time these 3 options for booking last-minute flights can save you some cash, even if it’s just on one-leg of the journey. And if you’re looking for ways to get to the Super Bowl, I’ve included what was available from 4 different areas of the country at the time I was writing this article.
1. Use Points Without Blackout Dates
Neither JetBlue or Southwest has blackout dates for award flights. But the number of points you need to book a flight is tied to the cash price of the ticket. So the trade off for being able to use your points for any seats on any flight is you might end up needing an absurd amount of points.
But looking into JetBlue or Southwest flights could be a good way to secure at least one leg of your journey.
And if you currently have a Southwest Companion Pass, you’re sitting pretty because you can bring along a companion on any Southwest flight for just the cost of taxes and fees. If you have questions about the Southwest Companion Pass, check out our guide.
Note: Right now earning a Southwest Companion Pass has never been easier. Until February 11, 2019, You can get one that’s good until the end of 2019 just by opening a Southwest personal credit card and meeting the minimum spending requirement. You can learn more about these offers here.
I checked the points price for flights departing February 1st or 2nd and returning on February 4th. Here are the round-trip prices to Atlanta for the 2019 Super Bowl from:
- Southwest for 22,000 to 24,000 points round trip (very few cheap outbound flights, but lots of return flights at the cheapest level)
- New York
- Southwest for 33,000 to 40,000 points round trip (very few return flights at the cheapest level)
- JetBlue for ~20,000 points to Atlanta, but 41,000+ points for the return flight
- Los Angeles
- Southwest for 20,000 to 27,000 points (no return flights at the cheapest level)
- JetBlue for ~25,000 points to Atlanta, but 60,000+ points for the return flight
- Southwest has 1 return flight at the cheapest level for ~28,000 points, but no out-bound flights at the cheapest level
- JetBlue for ~25,000 points to Atlanta, but 78,000+ points for the return flight
Both airlines had plenty of seats you can book with points when I checked, but most of those were for the more expensive fares. Personally, I would use this as my last option unless you only have Southwest or JetBlue points or you can find a one-way flight for 12,500 point or less.
2. With United Airlines When You Have Elite Status or a United Airlines Credit Card
United Airlines charges a $75 close-in booking fee for award flights booked within 21 days of departure, unless you have elite status (then the fee is reduced or waived). But there is a trick you can use to avoid that fee. This post explains how to do it and some readers have confirmed that it still works.
United Airlines has a zone-based award chart, so the cost of an award flight will be the same regardless of what the cash price of the ticket is. So you can get some incredible deals, but they can be harder to find because there might not be available saver-level award seats when you want them.
But if you have a United Airlines credit card or United Airlines elite status you’ll be able to book saver-level awards that others can’t. This is a big reason I recently got a United℠ Explorer Business Card.
For domestic flights United Airlines charges:
- 10,000 miles one-way for flights that are 700 miles or less
- 12,500 miles one-way for flights that are over 700 miles
If you don’t have United Airlines elite status or a United Airlines credit card you can book flights to Atlanta from:
- Chicago for 32,500 miles to Atlanta and 25,000 miles for the return flight
- Los Angeles for 12,500 miles to Atlanta and 32,500 miles for the return flight
- New York for 25,000 miles each way
- Seattle for 12,500 to Atlanta and 32,500 miles for the return flight
Even without a United Airlines credit cards, some of those prices are great. But with a card here is what’s available:
- Chicago for only 10,000 miles each way!
- Los Angeles has the same prices, but more flight options
- New York 12,500 miles to Atlanta and 25,000 miles for the return flight
- Seattle 12,500 miles each way
As you can see, have access to more award seats can make a huge difference. Not only can you end up paying less, but you’ll be able to book a wider range of flight times and you’ll have access to better routings. If United Airlines flies to your home airport and you need to book last-minute flights even just once a year, it’s worth getting a United Airlines credit card.
I was able to find saver-level awards on the American Airlines website, so if you have American Airlines miles that could be a good option. But the routings didn’t seem to be as good as with United Airlines and there weren’t as many available award seats as what you will see if you have a United Airlines credit card or elite status. American Airlines charges only 12,500 miles per one-way domestic flights for their saver-level awards and if the flight is 500 or fewer miles it’s only 7,500 miles one-way.
3. Book Flights Now and Pay With Miles Later
This last option can be great if you currently don’t have any credit card miles and still want to save on a flight.
Some credit card miles are like cash back (which could also be a good option for paying for last-minute flights). With these miles, you don’t need to have them in your account in order to book the travel because you’ll just use them to erase the charges later.
For example, if you were approved for the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card you would earn 50,000 Venture miles after spending $3,000 within the first 3 months of account opening. Those miles can be used to erase $500 in eligible travel expenses that were charged to the card in the past 90 days.
So you could get the card, pay for your flights, and as long as you earned the bonus and got the miles within 90 days, you could use them to remove the charge from your account. Check out Joseph’s more detailed post on how this works with Capital One miles.
This can easily end up being the best option of the bunch because you won’t be limiting yourself to a single airline. I found flights to Atlanta from the cities listed above for $300 to $400, which isn’t bad although some of the cheapest fares didn’t include a carry-on.
If you’re going to try this method for saving on last-minute flights with credit card miles these are the catches you need to be aware of:
- You’ll want to make sure the bank will expedite your credit card, otherwise it might not arrive for up to 2 weeks after you’re approved
- Make sure your miles or points are going to post to your account while you can still use them for the flight you already booked. Points and miles typically show up in your rewards account after the statement period in which you met the minimum spending requirement closes. So you can meet the spending requirement within 90 days, but not have access to your points until after 90 days
I was just approved for the United Explorer Business Card and I wanted to use it for an estimated quarterly income tax payment that was due in 3 days. I called Chase and they were able to overnight it to me for free. Most banks do offer an expedited shipping option, but you’ll have to call and ask. Sometimes you’ll be charged an extra fee and sometimes expedited shipping isn’t an option. If you want to know if getting your credit card expedited is an option, check out this post for each bank’s rules.
Capital One miles aren’t the only credit card miles that work for this trick. You could use the Arrival miles you earn with the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® to erase any eligible travel purchase of $100+ made with your card in the past 120 days. And the sign-up bonus for that card is at an all-time high too. Check out our review of the Barclaycard Arrival Plus for more details.
Use Chase Ultimate Rewards Points to Cover All 3 Options
If you’re traveling last-minute, chances are you aren’t going to know which option is best for your situation. But if you have a collection of Chase Ultimate Rewards points you can actually use any of the options I already discussed.
Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer at a 1:1 ratio to United Airlines, Southwest, and JetBlue. So you’re covered if you want to book awards flights with those airlines. But you can also redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points for cash back at a rate of 1 cent each. So if you currently don’t have any points, you can apply for a card and use them for strategy number 3.
You can earn transferable Chase Ultimate Rewards points with these cards:
The Chase Ultimate Rewards points you earn with the cards listed below are worth 1 cent each for various redemptions, but they can only be transferred to Chase’s airline partners if you also have one of the cards listed above:
- Chase Freedom®
- Chase Freedom Unlimited®
- Ink Business Cash℠ Credit Card
- Ink Business Unlimited℠ Credit Card
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