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Booking very close-in travel within 21 days or less of departure is a situation when airline miles can really shine, as close-in ticket prices are often very high. With some programs, the close-in mileage prices and award availability can be more than fair. An airline may not want to train customers to wait until the last minute to get airfare deals on cash, but they are often willing to let the seats that otherwise would have gone unsold become available on miles since an unsold seat has no value once the flight takes off, and there is value in letting someone redeem their miles for the flight.
Of course award availability and the miles you have at your disposal will primarily dictate how you book your last minute award tickets, but assuming you have choices, there are a couple programs I am partial to for last minute bookings, as well as some that aren’t as great.
American Airlines charges a $75 close-in booking fee per person if you don’t have a fee waiver due to your elite status, so there are drawbacks to using them as a last minute booking award option. However, they do allow for free award ticket holds, even very close to departure. This means you can use them as a back-up plan to lock in an award for free if you need a little time to firm up the details of your close-in travel plans.
British Airways does not charge a close-in booking fee, so I like them theoretically better than American Airlines even for American operated flights. However, be aware that if you really want to book through British Airways to avoid a close-in booking fee and/or make use of their distance based award chart, remember that the seats you may have put on hold with American will no longer be available to book via British Airways since they won’t be in the active inventory.
If you want to avoid close-in booking fees and you don’t want to use the British Airways distance-based award chart, then you can go through Alaska Airlines to book your Alaska, American Airlines, and similar flights. Alaska does charge a $12.50 partner fee each direction if you want to book an airline like American, but that is less than what most airlines charge for close-in booking, so you may still come out ahead.
While the ‘book a seat anytime’ programs like Southwest and JetBlue may have very good last minute award availability, the number of points required is tied to the price of the flight, so they aren’t always good programs to use for last minute bookings. Not only that, but within a couple of weeks of departure on Southwest you are likely only selecting between Business Select and Anytime award rates which not only cost more on points or dollars, but also require more points per cent than the Wanna Get Away tickets. However, if you have a Southwest Companion Pass at your disposal, this may still be a decent value since your companion would only pay the taxes on the flight. Child (up to 11 years old) and senior discounts (65+) can also be useful with close-in Southwest bookings, though you have to call Southwest for the children’s discounted fares.
United can be a good program for close-in bookings if you have elite status or even just have the United Club Card which waives the regular $75 per person close-in booking fee. There are also potentially some other situations where United waives the close-in booking fees, so do some Googling for those tips.
Delta does not charge a cash close-in award ticketing fee, but they also don’t seem to make the lowest priced award tickets available within 21 days of travel, so you are almost always paying more miles to book closer in award tickets that you would be booking further in advance.
Given all of this, United is typically our go-to for last minute award travel since United is decent about making saver awards available at the last minute and we have the United Club card that waives the close-in booking fees. Which program do you use for your last minute award booking needs?