United Airlines Is My Favorite for Last-Minute Award Flights (Especially Because I Have These 2 Cards In My Wallet!)

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INSIDER SECRET:  There’s a way to avoid United’s $75 close-in booking fee!  We’ll show you how.

I’ll admit, I’m not great at planning things far in advance, and I’ll often let a good deal dictate my travel plans.  There are also instances where something comes up, like a family emergency or severe weather event, and you have no choice but to book a last-minute flight.

When it comes to last-minute bookings, I almost always turn to United Airlines.  Sure, this is partly due to the fact that United Airlines runs lots of flights out of my home airport.

But there are two other reasons why United Airlines award tickets are my go-to option.  And these two “tricks” can save you lots of money on a last-minute flight, too!

These tips are especially relevant right now because through May 16, 2019, you can earn up to 60,000 United Airlines miles after meeting tiered minimum spending requirements on the United℠ Explorer Card.  That’s enough for two round-trip coach flights within the US or a one-way Business Class ticket to Europe!

I’d Say Over 80% of the Award Tickets I Book Are on United Airlines – And There’s a Reason for That!

Why United Airlines Is Great for Last-Minute Award Tickets

1.   The (Seemingly) Underrated United Explorer Card Perk

My first “trick” to booking last-minute United Airlines award tickets is being a United℠ Explorer Card cardholder.  With this card, you’ll have access to more available award seats!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve booked seats that were only available to United cardholders.  That perk is the main reason I keep the United℠ Explorer Card year after year, even with the annual fee.

Having Extra Award Seat Availability Makes It Much Easier to Find Last-Minute Tickets

If you aren’t a United℠ Explorer cardholder already, now is a great time to apply.

And until May 16, 2019, you can earn up to 60,000 United Airlines miles after meeting tiered spending requirements!  That’s enough miles for at least 2 round-trip coach tickets within the US, and you’ll have miles to spare.  You can read a full review of the Chase United Explorer card here.

2.   You Can Use Ultimate Rewards Points for United Airlines Award Flights

In addition to having more available award seats by holding the United℠ Explorer Card, United Airlines is also a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner.  That means I have lots of options for earning the miles I need for an award ticket!

In my opinion (and many others agree!), Chase Ultimate Rewards points are the most valuable points currency because they’re so flexible.  I always keep a stash of Ultimate Rewards points and earn bonus Ultimate Rewards points by using my Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card for travel and restaurant purchases.

The flexibility of Chase Ultimate Rewards points is just one of the many reasons the Sapphire Preferred is our top card for beginners in the miles & points hobby.  And having an Ultimate Rewards points earning card makes it easier to book award tickets with United Airlines!

3.   United Airlines Charges a Close-In Award Ticket Fee – But There’s a Way Around It

If you book a United Airlines award ticket within 21 days of departure they’ll tack on an extra $75 fee per ticket!  This fee is reduced or waived if you have elite status with the airline.

But for the rest of us, there’s a trick to avoiding this fee on last-minute bookings.  United Airlines allows you to make changes to your reservation for free within 24 hours of booking.  So if there’s an award flight you want and it’s within 21 days of departure, you can find an award flight on the same route (so the taxes & fees are the same) that departs in more than 21 days.  Book that flight and then call United Airlines within 24 hours and change it to the flight you originally wanted.

This method isn’t without risk, but typically the worst that can happen is you’ll end up paying the $75 fee (unless someone else books the award you originally wanted before you can make the change – which is a small chance).  If the phone agent you get wants to add the fee, I suggest hanging up and calling again.  If you’re interested, we have a more detailed post on this trick here.

What are your favorite award ticket tricks and tips?  Share them with everyone in the comments below!

And if you want to learn more about United Airlines miles, check out these guides:

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Meghan Hunter is an editor for Million Mile Secrets. She covers points, miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels and general travel. Her work has also appeared in The Points Guy.

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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