Nobody likes to think about bad things happening to friends or family members who live far away, but it’s the reality of life as we know it. So, rather than pretend that your elderly parents will never develop a health problem which will require you to fly last-minute, it’s better to have a plan in place. Miles and points can be a terrific tool, but they won’t always be the best choice. Let me share a recent example.
Few days ago I got a phone call from a good friend of ours. He sounded distressed and wanted my help. His wife’s mother just had a stroke, so they were looking at options for flying from Tampa, Fl to Columbus, OH the following day. All one-way tickets were $350 or more. He was hoping I could find something cheaper. They said it would be best to fly from Tampa (25 minutes away), but Orlando would work (1.5 hours away) if the cost was significantly less.
I know this couple doesn’t have a lot of money, so wanted to see if I can somehow utilize my miles and points. Currently, I have access to AAdvantage, Avios and Southwest currencies. I should get a huge pile of Membership Rewards in a few months, which will increase my options.
AAdvantage vs. Avios vs. Southwest
So, here is what I found. There was a sAAver ticket available via AAdvantage at a cost of 12,500 miles+$5 one way. But, as most of you know, American charges $75 close-in booking fee. I value AA miles at around penny each, so it would be an equivalent of paying $205, and she would have to pay for checked luggage. The flight did involve a connection, so…
A better route would be to just use Avios currency, redeemable on American Airlines. Why? That program doesn’t charge a close-in booking fee. I would have to pay 15,000 Avios, 7,500 for each leg of the trip since the price is per segment. Still, spending 2,500 extra Avios to save $75 is most certainly the way to go. Since I value Avios also at a penny each, it would represent savings of $50 (see my post for more on Avios booking process).
In all likelihood, I would have to call Avios center to reserve this award ticket because very often their website doesn’t display connecting AA flights. Still, it would be worth it. My time is valuable, but not so valuable as to forego $50 in exchange for spending 30 minutes on the phone.
So, I found a possible solution, but I didn’t like the fact that she would have to make a connection. With her mother having health crisis, this wasn’t an ideal situation. Of course, there was also Rapid Rewards program which I haven’t yet checked. Unfortunately, when you book last-minute tickets on Southwest, you will usually pay through the nose. And sure enough, next day Tampa-Columbus flight was running at 35,000 points. Yikes!
I checked Orlando, not expecting much. But lo and behold, there was a non-stop flight for 15,000 Rapid Rewards points. And of course, bags fly free. This redemption looked like a winner, but as I’ve mentioned earlier, Orlando is 1.5 hours away from their house. So, I’ve decided to check one last option.
Forget the miles, just pay cash
I wasn’t sure if Allegiant flies from St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport (also 25 minutes away from their house) to Columbus, so I went to their website to check it out. Well, apparently they do fly to a small military airport located near Columbus. There was a non-stop flight the following morning and the cost was $191. Since Allegiant is a low-cost carrier, they do charge for bags and any other extras.
I called our friend and mentioned all the options to him. Amazingly, he has never heard of Allegiant Airlines. Since the flight was non-stop and left at a convenient time, he decided to book it rather than spend extra 3 hours on trip to Orlando. In fact, he looked at Allegiant website and found a one-way return ticket a week later for $100 and booked it as well. So, the total came down to less than $300, about half of what they were looking at paying before they called me.
Since I was planning on using miles and points to help them, I thought it was only fair to offer to go half on this airline ticket. After all, you can redeem 15,000 Rapid Rewards points for $150 Walmart gift card.
But mama didn’t raise no fool! Instead of money, I went ahead and sent them a $150 Walmart gift card which I bought with my Amex Platinum. That way, I was able to assist a friend in need and get closer to meeting minimum spending requirements in order to get my sign-up bonus. Walmart gift card is almost as good as cash in my circle of friends.
Know your options ahead of time
It’s not about being morbid, it’s about being prudent. If you have close relatives who live in another state or country, study various redemption options and know which carriers fly non-stop and are most convenient. Then find a mileage program that charges the least for an award ticket on those carriers. In many cases, it will be a foreign program.
1) Best options for United flights
Of course, there is United program. It does charge close-in booking fee. If you need to redeem miles on a short flight, you’ll pay as little as 10,000 miles one-way (on distance of less than 700 miles).
Often, Air Canada Aeroplan program which partners with Membership Rewards (instant transfer) will be just as good or better. It costs 12,500 miles to fly anywhere within Continental US, including Alaska. Of course, I’m assuming there is “low” availability on United. Avoid Singapore KrisFlyer because miles usually don’t transfer instantly.
If you live near United hub and most of your options involve United flights, you should probably have some United miles on-hand at all times. That way, even if there is no “low” availability, you’ll be able to use your United currency at higher redemption level.
Last-minute tickets are expensive, so even if you pay 17,500 miles+close-in booking fee, you’ll probably come out ahead. Alternatively, collect Ultimate Rewards and make sure you have a premium card like Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Ink Plus.
2) Best options for Delta flights
Delta doesn’t charge close-in booking fees and can be a terrific option for its hub captive flyers. Availability has improved considerably over the last few years. You can transfer Delta miles instantly from Amex Membership Rewards program. As you probably know, Air France has just become a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards (instant), a welcome addition.
Interestingly, Air France mimics Delta dynamic pricing on domestic awards, so you should be able to use Flying Blue miles on more expensive (mileage- wise) Delta tickets. The lowest level is 12,500 miles one-way anywhere within Continental US, including Alaska.
You can book Delta flights online through Air France website, which is a huge plus. In emergency, every minute counts.
3) Best options for American and Alaska Air flights
Obviously, you can just use AAdvantage miles. The principle I’ve mentioned earlier when I talked about United currency applies to AAdvantage miles as well. Avios (British Airways currency) can be extremely handy for American and Alaska Air operated flights. As I’ve said earlier, there is no close-in booking fee, and as long as you don’t have more than one connection, you’ll probably come out ahead.
The best option by far is Ultimate Rewards program because Avios transfer instantly on 1:1 basis. Membership Rewards points aren’t quite as good because the ratio is 1,000:800. Still, it’s an option and if your flight cost is exorbitant and you don’t have access to UR points or AA miles, definitely consider it.
4) Don’t forget lesser known airlines
It’s also important to know which low-cost niche carriers serve your surrounding area. Very often, they might be your very best option. BTW, when I checked UR portal and put in the airports served by Allegiant, the system didn’t recognize the one in Ohio (code LCK). Even if I had Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Ink Plus, I would not have been able to get 1.25 cent per point. Perhaps a phone call would do the trick, but I’m not sure.
My emergency plan
Most of my husband’s close relatives live right here in Florida, but my entire family is in Europe, specifically, a far flung corner of Europe where very few airlines fly. Out of those that do, by far the best option is Lufthansa. I can fly from Tampa to Minsk with only one connection in Frankfurt. Unfortunately, Lufthansa is a super greedy airline that adds up to $550 in fuel surcharges on a roundtrip economy ticket.
The only way to avoid this ridiculous fee is to book through United program, its Star partner. I can either hoard United miles or pay an annual fee on Chase Sapphire Preferred. I’m cheap and refuse to pay annual fees, so instead I keep 40,000 non-transferable UR points in my Chase Freedom account.
As I wrote in this post, if the emergency comes up, the plan is to call Chase and convert Freedom to Sapphire Preferred. Update: my reader Audrey has pointed out in the comments that it took her several days to convert her regular Sapphire card to Chase Sapphire Preferred, so my plan may not work.
Of course, I’m assuming that United will have economy availability on Lufthansa at a cost of 30,000 United miles. Even with a close-in booking fee, this is by far my best option.
Other choices involve Avios and AAdvantage. Neither is ideal because I would likely have to buy a separate ticket to my home country. I have enough Avios to get me either to Dublin or Dusseldorf with low or no fuel surcharges.
AAdvantage miles might work for redemption on Finnair (OneWorld partner). Finnair flies from Miami to Vilnius, Lithuania, which is located 4 hours from my hometown, factoring in border crossing. Obviously, there is a connection in Helsinki. Someone who has an EU visa could pick me up in Vilnius. As I’ve said, it’s not a perfect solution, but I would do whatever is necessary to avoid paying for an exorbitant last-minute flight to Europe.
Once I get the sign-up bonus on Amex Platinum (100K MR points), I’ll have another option: Transfer to Delta. While not ideal, I could redeem miles on flights operated by Aeroflot, an airline that flies from Moscow to Minsk. Aeroflot is a partner of Delta, so there is a possibility of combining flights on both airlines. Here is a hypothetical Tampa-New York-Moscow-Minsk award flight leaving the following day:
As you can see, there is a fuel surcharge, but it’s not terrible. When I looked, the cheapest revenue flights to Minsk that leave the next day currently run at $1,000 one-way. So burning 30,000 Sky miles that transfer instantly from MR program is preferable even if you have to pay $180 in taxes. I would be getting over 2.7 CPM (cents per mile). As I said earlier, Delta does not charge close-in booking fee, so that’s another plus.
But what about Air France? It charges 25,000 miles for one-way award tickets from USA to Europe, and also happens to be a SkyTeam partner. I checked, and the same itinerary was not available on Flying Blue website. Air France search engine isn’t the best, to put it mildly. I could call and try to book it over the phone (and I probably would), but there are no guarantees of success.
Regardless, Delta option is almost as good. Note that MR program does charge tax on mileage transfers to domestic airlines, but it’s usually not big enough to be a deal breaker.
I could also transfer MR points to Virgin Atlantic 1:1 and redeem miles on Orlando-London route. It’s 22,500 miles one-way plus around $165 in fuel surcharges. London is a major hub of several discount carriers, so I would have no problem finding a last-minute cheap flight to Vilnius.
Speaking of low-cost carriers, I know that Jetairfly flies from Orlando-Sanford or Miami to Brussels non-stop. The departures are only on certain days of the week, but it is a cheaper option, compared to other ones on the market. Here is the flight I found, assuming I would have to leave the following morning:
OK, we are in Brussels, now what? I could buy a separate ticket to Vilnius for around $150 all-in before leaving US and hope I don’t miss the connection. Another possibility is redeeming miles for intra-Europe segment. Brussels Airlines flies to Vilnius non-stop, and it’s part of Star Alliance. It costs 15,000 miles via United or Air Canada Aeroplan program, though the latter imposes fuel surcharges. On the other hand, United has close-in ticketing fee.
Honestly, it’s very unlikely I would be taking this route. There is always a chance something could go wrong when it comes to connecting flights. But if fares were ridiculously high, I would consider it. Similarly, if you can’t find award availability and revenue fare is exorbitantly expensive, consider using a combination of paid and award tickets.
The last thing you’d want to do when emergency strikes is to Google various award charts and research alliances. Do yourself a favor and look this stuff up ahead of time. Hopefully you’ll never have to use your miles and points for this purpose. But if you do, at least, you won’t end up overpaying.
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