Booking last-minute flights using American Express or Chase Ultimate Rewards points

Last week, Carpe Points reader Jeff asked about how to use points to book last-minute emergency travel to eastern Europe.

Dave, when it comes to points are you referring to amex points or specific airline points? I’m trying to figure out where you find the deals.

My wife may have to make an emergency trip to E.Europe. I’m sitting on 72K AMEX points.

One of the best things about programs like American Express Membership Rewards is that you can either transfer those miles into specific airlines’ programs, or you can use those points (at a much lower value) on American Express Travel. Other programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards have similar programs as well (and I’ll include them for the heck of it).

Both methods (transferring points to airlines directly, or booking using AmEx/Chase’s websites) have their uses, but generally, transferring points to an airline’s program is going to be your best value, especially if you need to book a last-minute flight (since these tend to be very expensive, particularly when flying internationally).

American Express Rewards points are currently transferable to 16 different airlines, across several different alliances. This means that you generally have a good number of options from getting from one place to another. Some of these airlines are notoriously more difficult to book tickets on than others (see my earlier post about British Airways Avios), but generally at least one will allow you to get from Point A to Point B.

American Express Membership Rewards
Transfer Partners

Delta Skymiles
Air Canada Aeroplan
Alitalia MilleMiglia
Asia Miles
British Airways
El Al
Flying Blue (KLM and Air France)
Frontier Airlines
Hawaiian Airlines
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
Virgin America
Virgin Atlantic

Chase Ultimate Rewards
Transfer Partners

Southwest Airlines
United Airlines MileagePlus
British Airways Avios
Korean Air

While the program seems more limited by numbers, the fact that Chase is a transfer partner of United is a HUGE bonus, since their program is generally very good and has great availability — especially last-minute.

One thing to also keep in mind is that because some airlines are partnered with others, you can book flights to and from places that the airline you choose doesn’t fly. For instance, while Air Canada is the national carrier of Canada, I used my points a few months back to book flights from LAX to Berlin on Lufthansa, and last year, booked a flight from Tokyo to Boston on Japan Airlines using British Airways Avios. You can use Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer points to book flights on United, as you can with ANA. Really…the possibilities are endless.

The Easy Way

The easy way to use your points to fly from Point A to Point B is to book through American Express Travel or through Chase’s program. Each point is set at a fixed value – meaning, for instance, 10,000 points is worth $100. When transferring to an airline, your points can be much more valuable.

Since your wife may need to travel in two weeks, I priced out sample flights from San Diego to Prague leaving on July 2, returning on the 9th at a low of $1574. To book that flight (in coach) with points, you’d need 157,400 points (just move the decimal over). Comparatively, if you were to transfer those points into an airline’s program, that same number of points would be almost enough to fly you to Australia in business class.

Not only is this not a very good deal, it doesn’t meet your goal of using your points to pay for the flight. Granted, you’d still earn points for actually flying, but you’d still end up paying at least $850 for that flight.

The trick

Once you’ve earned points, the real trick is finding available seats for flying. But since you haven’t transferred those AmEx MR points into an airline, you have a lot more possibilities to make this a reality. This also means it gets more complicated.

Since you’ve got around 75,000 MR points, that should be enough to get you or your wife — in coach — somewhere in Europe from the United States. Some programs don’t transfer at a 1:1 ratio (sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse, depending on the airline), but generally speaking, that’s enough points for the job.

There are a number of tools to help you find availability on different airlines that are at a very low cost. I prefer sites like ExpertFlyer ($5-10/month — and I do make a commission of that link) and a tool called KVSTool ($35-$75/year) which both show award availability. That said, since we’re going for this on the cheap, one of my favorite ways to price out flights manually is with Air Canada Aeroplan.

You don’t need to be Canadian or ever fly Air Canada to sign up for their frequent-flier program Aeroplan (the same is true with the other transfer partners of American Express, or almost any airline program across the planet).

Once you’ve signed up, you can use their site to see what’s available for the dates you desire.

Some airlines (like British Airways) have better last-minute availability than others, so you may have to hunt around to find an option that works best for you. United always has great availability, but it’s not a transfer partner of American Express.

When trying to figure out how to get somewhere using your points, it’s very important to make sure there are seats available using the frequent flier program you want before transferring those points from American Express or Chase. Once you transfer points, they are not reversible. Be careful.

Keep in mind that some airlines also charge high “fuel surcharge” fees – meaning you’re going to pay a wide-ranging fee in addition to the miles you apply. This is something to keep in mind, especially with European airlines and when planning routes. The Points Guy has a great overview of fuel surcharges on Air Canada (as well as other airlines).

If you find a set of flights you want to book, log on to the American Express Rewards site and transfer the miles into the account of your choice. Keep in mind that some programs (like ANA) take a few days for the transfer to complete. Other programs (like British Airways, Air Canada, others) are nearly instantaneous or simply require you to log out and log back in.

Wrapping up

Nedd to go somewhere at the last minute?

  1. If you haven’t already, sign up for the frequent flier programs of which your credit card (AmEx or Chase) are transfer partners and link them up so you’re ready to go.
  2. When the call comes that you need to fly soon, look at the airlines that are major players in that country for best availability. For instance, you’ll probably find more availability trying to look for seats on Iberia (Spain’s national carrier) to Spain than you might on El Al or on AeroMexico – though that isn’t always true. Or, if you subscribe to sites like ExpertFlyer, use that to find availability (they offer a free trial, too).
  3. When you’ve found flights that are good (minding the potential for fuel surcharges), transfer those points to that airline and book the flight. Remember that some airlines also don’t process those transfers immediately, potentially adding quite a bit of hassle to the process.
  4. Fly.

Your other options are to fly at ridiculously high prices for last-minute travel. Instead, begin to learn the process of transferring points from your credit card program (if applicable) so you can be ready to go at the last minute.

Jeff, I wish you the best of luck trying to find a last-minute seat for your wife’s emergency trip. I’m looking forward to hearing the results of your work!