Credit card rewards are perfect for last-minute travel

If you love spontaneous trips, procrastinate travel planning or never know in advance when you will be able to escape work, pack your suitcase. A spur-of-the-moment trip is a great way to use rewards.

“I book last-minute awards all the time,” says Scott Grimmer, founder of MileValue.com, a site dedicated to maximizing rewards value. “They often represent the best value per mile and are frequently the only way to snag coveted international first and business class award space.”

An eleventh hour awards booking isn’t for everyone, though. There are three caveats: This tactic works best if you’re taking an international trip, you want to sit in a premium cabin and you’re using traditional airline miles rather than points pegged to the dollar value of a ticket.

It’s also possible, though it might not be quite as easy or offer as good a value, to travel at the last minute domestically and in economy class, says Tiffany Funk of PointsPros, a service that helps consumers book award travel.

And just to be clear, “last-minute” generally means booking days, rather than weeks or months, in advance, Funk says. “Some people think last-minute means three months out,” she says. “For me, it means tomorrow.”

The best time to book reward travel

Waiting until right before a trip will not work in every situation, so it’s best to do some legwork ahead of time.

Availability varies by airline and route, Grimmer says.

“Award space on some routes with some airlines is great at the last minute, and there are literally some routes that never have award space until 15 days before departure or even two days before departure,” he says. “But on other routes with other airlines, award space is best months in advance and non-existent at the last minute.”

As a general rule, though, there are two best times to book rewards travel: Either about 10 months out from departure or 10 or fewer days out, Funk says.

So, if you missed the boat on that 10-month window and you’re itching to get away from home, don’t shy away from booking a big trip for, say, this weekend.

For example, on a Thursday in early May, Funk says the upcoming weekend would work perfectly for travel to the Netherlands. “It’s tulip season,” she says. “It’d be lovely.”

She starts tapping at her keyboard, looking for an itinerary that would take two travelers from Austin to Amsterdam. She quickly finds plenty of space in business class, noting that these imaginary travelers, since they’re flying out of a non-hub city, would have to connect through another city, like London. There are many options.

“You could leave tomorrow and come back on Sunday,” she says.

Why last-minute award travel works

When you’re paying for a plane ticket in dollars, the conventional wisdom says you should book as early as possible to get a good deal and the best choice of seats. However, with award travel it’s often a different story.

That’s because, as departure approaches, many airlines will open up more seats to awards travelers as soon as they realize those seats probably are not going to sell for cash.

“It’s a perishable inventory,” Funk says.

If a traveler books a seat with rewards, the airline will at least get some compensation, she says. On the other hand, “they get zero dollars if a seat goes out empty.”

When do airlines release last-minute seats? It varies by airline, but award seats sometimes open up as late as the day of the flight, Grimmer says.

Tips for spontaneous award travel

If the adventure of booking a rewards ticket right before a trip appeals to you, use these four tips to get the best deal:

1. Stick with traditional airline programs.
If you’re using any points or “miles” that are worth a fixed amount of cash toward airline tickets, such as Capital One’s Venture miles or Southwest Rapid Rewards, last-minute awards trips are probably a terrible idea, Grimmer says.

Why?

“Because the underlying cash ticket costs a lot, meaning you’ll have to use a lot of these fake miles,” Grimmer says. Instead, use traditional miles like American, Delta or United miles, which charge a fixed amount of miles for a saver-tier award, regardless of whether booked far in advance or the day before departure. “You can often find the most Saver award space at the last minute,” he says.

2. Watch out for late-booking fees. “Unfortunately United and American both charge $75 to book an award within 21 days of travel, but that’s often a fee worth paying,” Grimmer says. If you want to avoid the fee, use a program with an airline that doesn’t charge a fee for booking last minute, like Delta or Singapore Airlines, he says.

3. Size up availability ahead of time. If you know where you want to go but aren’t ready to book, do a search now. Look for flights on your preferred route departing tomorrow and over the next few days. Repeat the search again in a few days.

“That will give you a great idea of last-minute award space,” Grimmer says.

Remember, though, that actual results might look different, especially if you plan to travel in peak season but are searching at an off-peak time. As an example of how this works, look at this flight availability search Grimmer did for a traveler who wanted to go to India but wouldn’t have enough miles to book until right before she wanted to leave.

4. Don’t be afraid to book then change your flight. Many travelers like to plan trips about six weeks out, which tends to be a bad timeframe for rewards travel, Funk says. If you’re planning a trip a month or two out and you don’t see your ideal routes, consider booking a less desirable route to your destination. As you get closer to departure you can search again for a better option. It may be free or cheap to change your ticket.

“We’re conditioned by the airlines to believe that changing a ticket will be expensive, but change fees on award tickets are very reasonable,” Funk says.

If you can handle the stress of booking right before departure, it can pay off. For example, Grimmer has snagged last-minute Saver deals, flying first class on Lufthansa to visit family in Hawaii and go hiking in Patagonia.

“I’ve been rewarded handsomely for waiting,” he says, “when booking farther in advance was either impossible or more expensive.”

 
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