Reader Mail: What Mileage Programs to Choose for Last-minute Emergency Travel?

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. 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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Good pointers, thanks. Sounds as though opening an Aeroplan account and accumulating a reserve of Amex MR points will increase the options available for dealing with this kind of scenario.

  2. My experience was domestic US only, so it might differ. If you know you’re going to need to fly then possibly look at getting a low mileage ticket out in the future and then change the travel dates when you need to fly. We had done this for SLC – IAH (found coach RT tickets for $218 total, I know, crazy price). When we saw the need to fly sooner to visit a terminally ill mother we didn’t see many options as the Delta reps all said we’d still have to pay the fare differences. Finally I thought we’d drive so I called a local Atlanta Delta refunds phone number. I explained our trouble and asked if a refund was possible. I was told it’d be no problem but that she’d like to talk to a supervisor first. She got back on the line with me and told me that they’d noted on the reservation that any change fees and fare differences should be waived (she was ready to book the change right then but I didn’t have all our details ironed out yet). After the reservation was noted I later called the normal reservation line and the rep said I see the note on the account and we’ll get this taken care of for you. As long as there was availability they changed it for me. I was told that any later changes would result in charges but that they’d waive those fees this time. While in Houston our mother passed away, so we had to change our return to SLC. I called, expecting to pay the change fees and fare differences for the return, but the Delta rep booked our flights with no additional cost. So, long story to explain that you can find other avenues if you just look. All I had wanted was to actually talk to someone in the USA on the phone and I ended up saving a 23 hour drive. BTW, the Delta refund office had normal ET business hours, something like 8a – 5p ET.

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