Airfare is notoriously volatile — a flight can be $300 one day and $600 the next. All it takes is an increase in demand or a flight to reach a certain percentage of seats sold for the algorithm that determines flight prices to raise the rates.
Prices can be extra unstable for last-minute travelers, as airlines know that business travelers are willing to pay big bucks for the last few seats. Last-minute leisure travelers tend to take the hit — that is, unless they have award miles or airline points to use.
“If you are paying in cash, it can be ridiculously expensive when booking last minute, but paying in points and miles can often see the same award price you would have paid had you booked months in advance — not always, but often,” Katy Nastro, a travel expert and company spokesperson for Going. “When cash prices are high, which is usually last minute, this is really where you get the most bang for your buck when using awards.”
As long as there are seats available, Nastro said airlines will typically allow travelers to use their points up until the day of departure. That said, once a flight is close to being filled, the award seats can be limited, and “some airlines also charge close-in booking fees, or increase mileage costs for flights within the next 30 days.”
In short, booking a last-minute flight with points or miles is possible — and typically a better deal than paying cash — but finding a good deal takes some know-how. Here are some tips that Nastro and the Going team suggest you keep in mind.
Airlines typically release award seating a year out, and keep award bookings open until the last minute.
In general, airlines release their flight schedule a year in advance, and their award seating shortly after. Air France, for example, releases its award fares 359 days in advance, while Delta Air Lines waits until 331 days before departure. (The award calendar release date for each airline can be found here.)
If you’re a last-minute traveler, there will likely still be award seats, but they might not be available on a specific flight or in your preferred class of service.
“Airlines typically don’t remove the ability to book a flight with points and miles. You can even book on the day of departure,” Nastro and Daniel Burnham, Going’s senior product operations specialist,. “But because in many cases, there are limited seats available to book with miles, there may or may not be last-minute availability on any specific flight or class of service.”
The best use of your miles or points will likely not be the airline you have them with.
Most airlines belong to one of three major airline alliances: Star Alliance, Oneworld, or Skyteam. United Airlines, for example, is part of Star Alliance so it will cross-sell Lufthansa and Air Canada flights, among others.
The trick is that each airline prices its own flights and its partners’ flights differently, so a United flight might actually be cheaper when booked through Air Canada. It’s even more backward with award travel, where Nastro and Burnham said “the best award price for a specific flight can often only be booked through a different partner airline.”
That said, most airlines release a limited number of lower-priced award tickets that are bookable through their alliance partners (like in the case of Delta and Virgin Atlantic), and a larger number of higher-priced award tickets that can only be booked through their own loyalty program.
This means last-minute travelers may have to use more miles or points and book directly with the airline — although not always.
If you’re not flying out of a major airport, you might need to do a little flight hacking to find a good award seat.
Nastro noted that if you’re flying out of a smaller airport and connecting through a main hub, like Chicago or New York City, the inclusion of your small, starting airport might limit what award availability you see.