Reader Ian writes:
[M]y wife and I live an ocean away from some of our closest relatives. In our case, we’re in Texas (Houston) and our parents are in North-West Europe.
..at some point we’re going to want/need to fly TATL at short notice. There’s a fair chance that we’ll be upset and not thinking straight. We’re not necessarily going to know how long we want to stay for, so will probably want one-way tickets or low change fees. We’re going to want to arrive as fit as possible in the circumstances, so business class seats and non-stop flights will be priorities. Paying a close-in fee isn’t going to be a deal breaker.
The question is: if you needed to fly to Europe tonight, tomorrow or the next day, is it realistic to look for award options (if so: which airlines would you start with?) or would you just look for the best available paid seats and cough up the cash?
Frankfurt on Lufthansa has excellent availability from Houston, as does BA to London (especially with a couple flights a day).
American miles don’t help with either.
Amex points are great for the flexibility and the instant transfer to a multitude of programs — in particular British Airways and Aeroplan for Star Alliance awards.
I single out both BA and Aeroplan because of their relatively liberal change policies, since you mention not being sure when to come back. Continental is also really good with changes.
Aeroplan charges CDN$90 to make changes and even after departure you can change date and time, but not routing or carrier. BA charges $70 and does one-way awards so you are never post-departure if you book two one-ways rather than roundtrip. Continental also permits changes post-departure.
But beyond the Lufthansa Frankfurt and BA London flights, there’s few guarantees great options out of Houston with respect to really great odds of availability. You could always cough up a mileage premium if you had to.
For my recent trip back from London it was during the BA strike, I booked a one-way United award at double miles as a backup, and then cancelled/redeposited miles when my flight boarded. One of the nice features of United’s (and several other’s) top tier program is the ability to change or cancel awards at no charge. And of course United no longer has “close-in booking fees” either. But beyond that, not a huge Mileage Plus fan because of Starnet blocking which I’ve explained many times.
Bottom-line: for last minute travel and flexibility, I like American Express Membership Rewards points. Sure, Starwood points are more valuable on the whole, but the ability to transfer points instantly is not to be overlooked with Membership Rewards.