Last-minute summer travel: Your rewards cards can help score savings

Yet to book a summer getaway? Don't fret; these tips can help you save on flights and hotels

Rebecca Lake
Personal Finance Writer
Making complex credit topics simple

Travel rewards card tips for a last-minute summer getaway

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The spring warm-up is here and the lazy days of summer aren’t far behind. Have you booked your travel plans yet?

If the answer is no, don’t sweat it. There’s still time to line up a summer getaway even if you’re late to the planning game.

A travel rewards credit card is a critical part of the equation for scoring savings on the fly for summer trips. Here’s what you need to know:

Tips for last-minute summer travel planning

Where you book your flight matters

Booking last-minute summer travel doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice a great deal on flights, hotels or other travel expenses. But you’ll have to do your homework.

“The biggest mistake people make is not comparing prices and sites before booking,” says Jacob Dayan, CEO and co-founder of Community Tax. “You may have a limited time frame, but the extra time it takes to compare different rates could end up saving you hundreds of dollars.”

Comparison shopping is particularly important when using travel rewards, since there can be pros and cons to different booking options.

Those include booking directly through the airline, booking with a third-party travel site such as Expedia or Orbitz, using your card’s online travel portal to book, or transferring rewards to another travel loyalty program, if that’s an option.

A good place to start is Google Flights where you can search the major airlines (minus Southwest and some discount carriers) on the dates you want to travel to get a good idea of the airfare cost. Dave Grossman, travel rewards expert and founder of MilesTalk.com, prefers the direct route for last-minute bookings.

Explore all possible options before booking

“When you book with a third party, they’re acting as your travel agent,” says Grossman, “and in the event your plans change, or the airline changes your ticket, you’ll most likely have to deal with the portal, which can be a hassle.”

Grossman says if you’re booking at the last minute to look at every airline option, not just the ones you fly with the most. He also recommends looking at flights to cities that are near your destination, which may be cheaper to fly in or out of. Don’t assume you have to fly economy to save either.

“It never hurts to run a quick check for first- and business-class fares,” says Grossman. “Once in a while, a seat up front can actually cost less than or almost the same as one at the back of the bus.”

There may be an exception to booking through the airline if your card’s travel portal offers a generous incentive to get you to book. For example, Grossman uses the Chase Sapphire Reserve card for travel, which offers 50 percent more in travel redemption when you book through Ultimate Rewards.

"The biggest mistake people make is not comparing prices and sites before booking. You may have a limited time frame, but the extra time it takes ... could end up saving you hundreds of dollars."

That raises your points value to 1.5 cents, compared to the 1 cent per point value you’d typically get with a travel rewards card.

But don’t overlook how much value you might be able to squeeze out of your rewards if transferring them to another travel loyalty program is a possibility.

“If you have a bank of miles or points, see if any last-minute awards seats are available,” says Grossman. “Usually cash prices don’t come back down at the last minute, but an award-saver seat might open up.”

He recently needed to book a flight to Memphis and found an award seat booking with American Airlines for 12,500 miles. That same flight, however, cost 7,500 Avios miles on British Airways, so he transferred his Chase Sapphire Reserve points to Avios to get the same seat for fewer miles.

Transferring points? Consider your travel timeline

“The amount of time it can take for a points transfer to go through can vary greatly,” says Eliot Hamlisch, vice president of worldwide loyalty and partnerships for Wyndham Hotel Group. “Sometimes it’s instant, other times it may take a few days or longer.”

If you’re considering transferring points down the line, he advises, “do your research now to know how long the transfer will take and what the value of the points will be after they transfer.”

Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfers to most Ultimate Rewards airline partners, including British Airways, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, for example, are instantaneous. However, transferring Ultimate Rewards points to hotel partners such as Ritz-Carlton or Marriott can take two days.

Meanwhile, transferring American Express Membership Rewards points to Iberia can take four days, and to Aeromexico, between two and 12 days. However, transferring Membership Rewards points to hotel partners such as Hilton or Starwood takes no time – the points are transferred instantly.

"If you have a bank of miles or points, see if any last-minute awards seats are available. Usually, cash prices don't come back down at the last minute, but an award-saver seat might open up."

Cash in on travel freebies

Being loyal to one travel rewards card or airline over another can pay off if you’re trying to book summer travel fast on the cheap.

“Most airlines offer some type of value-add product if you’re using their co-branded credit card,” says Tom Spagnola, travel expert and senior vice president of supplier relations for CheapOair.com.

Those travel perks include things such as free checked bags, complimentary lounge access, priority boarding and discounts on companion tickets for round-trip flights.

Those kinds of benefits can offset travel costs if you’re not able to snag a rock-bottom fare, or if your travel rewards only go so far and you’re paying for part of your flight or hotel stay in cash.

 

Video: How your points can pay for memorable experiences

Spagnola says that if you’re planning to open a co-branded airline credit card just for summer travel, know which airlines service your local area, “so you have more flight options to choose from.”

Some markets are dominated by one or two carriers. If you don’t fly often enough to qualify for elite frequent flyer status, “it can make a lot of sense to have the branded card for free checked bags and priority boarding,” says Grossman.

The Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus and Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier cards, for instance, put you on the fast track to a Companion Pass.

The Companion Pass lets a friend or family member fly with you for free for the remainder of the year in which you initially qualify (110,000 points), plus the next full calendar year after that – all you have to pay is taxes and fees. Both cards also come with a sizable introductory points bonus, free checked bags and no change fees.

The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card carries an introductory offer for a companion fare for just the taxes and fees and a companion fare ticket every year on your account anniversary for Alaska Airlines flights booked through AlaskaAir.com. All you pay are the taxes and fees.

Beware of last-minute award booking fees

Speaking of fees, watch out for last-minute charges when booking award tickets. Grossman says American and United both charge $75 to book awards within 21 days of travel. Transferring points or miles from your card to another travel program is an easy way to get around those fees. He offers an example using the Chase Sapphire Reserve card.

“You can transfer points from Chase, American Express, Citi and the Starwood Preferred Guest program to British Airways Avios points,” says Grossman. “Avios partners with American Airlines. If you see a sAAver level award on the American Airlines website, you can also book it with Avios without any close-in booking fee.”

Basic economy? Do the math first

If you’re wary of fees, think twice before booking a basic economy fare or opting for a low-cost airline at the last minute.

“Budget airlines can be cheapest for your route,” says Grossman, but ancillary fees for things such as extra carry-on bags can bump up your ticket price.

Basic economy fares can reduce the cost of a flight by $20 to $30 or more, but “they remove your ability to make changes to your ticket or select seats before check-in and may even restrict you from bringing a carry-on bag on board.”

Grossman’s advice? “Always check your total costs when comparing airfares. That ticket on Frontier may seem like the cheapest option until you add in fees to check a bag or carry one on the plane.”

"Book now, but know your hotel's cancellation policy. If you find a great last-minute deal, you'll be able to take advantage. If not, you'll still have your original room."

Last call on last-minute travel booking

The early bird gets the worm for saving on summer travel and if you’re booking late, you don’t want to delay getting a flight or hotel stay too long.

Spagnola says last-minute travelers shouldn’t underestimate the reality of how quickly flights can sell out.

“Inventory changes constantly by the airlines, especially during peak season, so you may see some flights you like that are available using miles when you’re searching initially,” says Spagnola. “The number of miles may be more than you want to redeem, but it’s a risky proposition to hope the amount of miles needed will be reduced.”

Blackout dates are less common these days, but Grossman says airlines can still restrict your ability to book award travel by not offering those seats during peak periods. “The way that frequent flyer programs give availability for awards is if they don’t think they can sell the seat, they may make it available for award travel.”

Hotel stays: Book now, but keep looking

The same thing can happen with hotel loyalty programs if they book fewer rooms than anticipated. Hamlisch offers a tip for getting the timing right when booking hotel stays.

“Book now, but know your hotel’s cancellation policy,” he says. “If you find a great last-minute deal, you’ll be able to take advantage. If not, you’ll still have your original room.”

See related: 4 ways to travel in the summer on points, Extend your summer for last-minute beach trip on points


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Updated: 11-14-2018