Plenty of rewards seats remain for last-minute summer travel, survey finds

Tony Mecia
Personal finance writer
Rewards expert who writes the "Cashing In" reader Q&A column for CreditCards.com

Last-minute reward tickets for summer travel

Highlights: 

  • Major U.S. carriers still have reward seats available for summer travel.
  • Booking travel later in summer increases chances of finding award ticket. 
  • Flexibility with airport and dates can help. 

Planning a summer vacation using credit card points but haven’t booked flights yet, don’t despair: There are a surprisingly high number of award seats still available.

Usually, the conventional wisdom on booking air travel on points or miles holds that the earlier you book, the better. Airlines typically open only a small portion of seats for award travel at the lowest mileage levels, so if you can beat other people to them, you can usually spend less in miles than if you wait.

Award ticket search shows availability

That approach still works, but it is also true that there are still a large number of award seats available for summer 2018, even as of late May, according to a CreditCards.com examination of award availability on airline websites. We looked at reward seats on major U.S. carriers for June, July and August to four popular tourist destinations: New York, Los Angeles, Orlando and London. We searched routes from five geographically diverse cities: Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle and Pittsburgh.

See Related: How to plan your summer travel now

The results showed there are still low-level award seats available this summer on 71 percent of the days on the four biggest U.S. carriers. That means you still have a good shot of being able to fly somewhere this summer using a reasonable number of miles: 12,500 miles or less one-way domestically or 30,000 miles or less one-way to Europe.

Of the four destinations tested, New York had the greatest availability, with reward travel available 77 percent of the time during the three summer months. London had the lowest, at 66 percent.

The airlines were mostly consistent as well: American had the most availability, with low-level award seats available 80 percent of the time. United (79 percent) and Southwest (77 percent) followed closely behind. Delta offered low-level seats 51 percent of the time between June and August. That means that even if you have Delta miles, you have a better than even shot of finding award seats to major destinations this summer.

See Related: Best airline credit cards of 2018

Best practices for booking summer travel

Of course, there is no guarantee the specific routes and dates you are seeking will be available. Longer flights and flights involving small airports are probably less likely to be available for booking using points than shorter flights involving major airports.

Here are a few tips for traveling this summer using reward points and miles:

1. Look for later in the summer.
The old rule of being flexible when flying with points still holds true. June offers fewer low-level seats than later months. Travel around the Fourth of July is also popular. Look to August, which is much more available, since many school-age children and their families have finished traveling.

2. Consider rival airlines at major hubs.
Just because an airline offers a lot of flights from a hub airport does not mean it makes a lot of award seats available.

For instance, Atlanta is Delta’s main hub, but the survey shows that Delta lags behind the three other airlines in offering summer award seats out from Atlanta. If you want to fly from Atlanta to London this summer, Delta had no award seats available for 30,000 miles or fewer, while United had seats at that level 88 percent of the time, and American had them 78 percent of the time. Likewise, United offered more award availability out of Dallas – an American hub – than American did.

3. Remember how miles transfer.
If you have Chase Ultimate Rewards points, those can transfer them to United and Southwest. If you have American Express Membership Rewards points, those can be transferred to Delta. Neither of those transfers to American, but if you’re looking to fly on American using points, you can transfer points from Chase or American Express to British Airways, then book an American flight through British Airways.

See Related: Options for transferring points between loyalty programs

4. Consider alternate airports.
Since major airports probably have the most award availability, think about driving to them or flying into them. For example, if you live in Colorado Springs, there will probably be more award availability from Denver than from the airport in Colorado Springs. Likewise, if you want to travel to San Diego and can’t find award availability, look at flights into Los Angeles, which is only a couple of hours north. Or if you can’t find award seats into Los Angeles, look at nearby Burbank and Ontario airports.

5. Avoid Southwest for last-minute flights.
If you book at least a few weeks in advance, Southwest tends to have great award availability. But if you want to go this weekend, Southwest often charges more miles than its rivals. That’s because it more directly links its price in miles to its price in dollars, and last-minute flights cost more. On other carriers, though, you might still be able to find seats at low award levels even a day or two in advance – though watch out for extra fees.

The good news is there is still time to use credit card points for travel this summer. Of course, if you’re able to push a vacation back into the fall, you’re likely to have an even better shot of using those points – and those destinations will probably be a lot less crowded, too.

 See related: 4 ways to travel in the summer using points


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Updated: 10-23-2018