5 frequent flyer programs that make it easy to book last-minute summer travel with your miles
- Frequent flyer programs offer a great way to save money by using miles instead of paying cash for airfare, but it can be challenging to find availability if you're looking to book travel at the last minute. Plus, many programs charge close-in booking fees for last-minute awards.
- A handful of airline programs, from Air Canada Aeroplan to Southwest Rapid Rewards, are exceptions to this rule, with good availability for mileage bookings and fewer extra fees.
- It's easy to get miles in most of these programs thanks to partnerships with Amex, Chase, and Citi. For example, if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, you can instantly transfer points to British Airways, JetBlue, and Southwest.
One of the most challenging aspects of frequent flyer programs is finding award availability. You save up thousands of miles, you're ready to book a last-minute trip, and … there are zero seats available on the date you want. Naturally, you keep checking for space to open up and when it does, you're on the hook for close-in booking fees to the tune of $75 per person.
Luckily, some rewards programs don't make you jump through these hoops. They offer generous award availability, don't impose close-in booking fees, and make it easy for you to get the miles you need quickly. Here are five of the best rewards programs for last-minute summer travel.
Alaska Mileage PlanAlaska Airlines Mileage Plan is a fantastic rewards program. Not only does it not impose close-in booking fees on awards, but it also partners with a vast network of renowned airlines that travel around the world. Looking to book a last-minute trip to New York? American Airlines has you covered. Want to experience the magic of Emirates first class? You can, if you've got 180,000 miles to spare for a one-way flight.
Award availability on Alaska's partners varies. For example, Emirates offers lots of economy-class award space but can get stingy when it comes to premium cabins. Meanwhile, Japan Airlines has great award availability, both last minute and well in advance.
Alaska miles are extremely valuable, but you have limited options for earning them. You can transfer Marriott points to Alaska (at a 3:1 ratio), so you could consider the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card, which is currently offering a welcome bonus of 75,000 Marriott points (equivalent to 25,000 Alaska miles) when you spend $3,000 in the first three months. There's also the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card, which is offering 40,000 miles plus a companion fare from $121 ($99 plus taxes and fees from $22) after you spend $2,000 in the first 90 days.
Southwest Rapid Rewards
Southwest Rapid Rewards is a great program for last-minute travel because of the potential to save points as well as cash. The airline has a fare-based redemption program, meaning the number of points required for a flight depends on how much the cash fare costs. Wanna Get Away fares are generally very competitively priced, and the airline occasionally runs some pretty great last-minute fare deals.
When you're traveling last minute, tickets can get expensive. That's where this unique feature of the Southwest Rewards program comes in: the Southwest Companion Pass. Earn 110,000 qualifying points in a year and you can bring a designated companion on all your trips for just the cost of taxes and fees. Yes, that includes paid fares as well as award bookings The best part? The sign-up bonuses from the Southwest credit cards, including the new Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card, count toward the Companion Pass, making it much more attainable.
The fact that Rapid Rewards members don't have to pay close-in booking fees can be a huge money saver on last minute travel. Additionally, all travelers get two free checked bags.If you need more Southwest points, keep in mind that you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest instantly at a 1:1 ratio.
JetBlue TrueBlue is one of those rewards programs that checks off all the boxes for last-minute travelers: no close-in booking fees, flexible redemption options, lots of transfer partners, and a great flying experience.
You can redeem miles for a variety of different award types, ranging from the cheapest Blue fare to Blue Flex, which includes two free checked bags and free ticket changes.
Like Southwest, JetBlue has a fare-based redemption model, meaning the cost of an award ticket will depend on the ticket price. That could work out less favorably when last-minute fares hike up in cost, but it could also work out well during a sale or off-peak travel dates.
Most importantly, JetBlue points are easy to come by. You can pick up the JetBlue Plus Card and score 40,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 within 90 days. Since JetBlue is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Amex Membership Rewards, you can get any number of affiliated credit cards, from the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card to the Platinum Card® from American Express and transfer those points over to JetBlue. Transfers from all three programs are generally instant, which is ideal when you're booking travel last-minute and need the points fast.
British Airways Executive Club
British Airways is part of the Oneworld Alliance, meaning you can use Avios (the airline's points currency) to fly American Airlines or a wide range of international carriers like Iberia, Japan Airlines, and Qatar Airways.
What make British Airways Executive Club ideal for last-minute travel is that its partners generally open up lots of award space at the last minute and you won't have to pay close-in booking fees for these flights. So if you've got your eye on an American Airlines flight for a quick weekend getaway, you'll pay less by booking the flight with your Avios vs. American miles.
Depending on your destination, you might redeem fewer miles as well. British Airways has a distance-based award program, with redemptions starting at 4,000 Avios each way. Looking for a last-minute flight to Vegas out of Los Angeles? It will only cost you 7,500 Avios and $5.60 one way, as opposed to 12,500 AAdvantage miles and up to $80 in taxes and close-in booking fees.Getting Avios for a last-minute flight is also easy, considering the program partners with Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards. There's also the British Airways Visa Signature Card if you want to stock up for future trips. It's offering 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months, and another 50,000 Avios after you spend $20,000 total in the first year.
Air Canada Aeroplan
As a member of the Star Alliance, Air Canada allows Aeroplan members to redeem miles with more than two dozen of the world's best airlines serving 1,300-plus destinations. Aeroplan is a great rewards program for last-minute travel due to its generous award availability, low redemption rates, and lack of close-in booking fees.
While fellow Star Alliance airline United charges 70,000 miles for a one-way business-class ticket to Europe, Aeroplan members can book the same seat for just 55,000 miles. The best part? If you need points quickly for a last-minute flight, you can transfer them from the American Express Membership Rewards program at a 1:1 ratio. Transfers are instant, meaning you can book your last-minute flights quickly.
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