Because of some things that have come up recently, I thought it would be a good time to touch on my emergency miles account. This is an account that I have and only use in case of emergencies. Even if you are not someone that travels much at all, it is still a good idea to collect miles and points for an emergency account in case something happens.
Emergency Miles Account
Airlines are businesses and as such, are not really in a place to offer compassionate assistance all the time. Though there are times that they reach out generously in times of need, those are few and far between. And, if I may say so, that is ok. They are businesses and are not charities. Besides, the moment they began to offer exceptionally cheap airfare or unlimited exceptions in times of personal emergencies would be the moment that people began to take advantage of the generosity (can you imagine how may people would have “sick” relatives in Super Bowl cities the weekend of the Super Bowl?). While airlines do have bereavement fares, these fares may not work for every emergency and I have typically been able to find cheaper fares on my own in cases where they would apply.
So, what can you do?
Last Minute Fares
Last minute airline tickets for domestic destinations can be extremely expensive. International airfare to some destinations can often be obtained at the same price last minute as two months before (to places in Asia, for example). But, not many people find themselves in a position where they need to take an emergency trip to Asia! So, for the purchase option, there are two choices:
Buy from the airline or online travel agent (OTA)
This would be the most expensive route to go. Looking at last minute fares for a number of city pairs shows flight costs for this weekend close to $1,000 and many over that. That is a lot to pay, but in the case of family emergencies, it may end up being a necessary cost to swallow at the time.
Buy through Hotwire or Priceline
Hotwire and Priceline can give the cheapest last minute flights. These flights do not give you control over the hours so it may not work if there is a certain time you are supposed to be somewhere. Another potential problem with Priceline is that you are only allowed to submit one Name Your Own Price per 24 hours without changing the search parameters. So, if you plan on traveling tomorrow, you need to go with a higher price than you may otherwise consider reasonable for your trip. The best way to get the best possible price on Priceline is to check first for the flight on Hotwire and then bid within 5-10% of that price.
One of the advantages of award miles is the ability to often book last minute tickets at regular rate. This means, if the award cost for a domestic ticket on the low end is 25,000, you will often find a last minute ticket for 25,000 miles. This is because if there are too many seats left on the plane and the airline is doubtful of being able to sell them, they will open them up for award redemption. So, since award miles are going to be the best option for emergency trips 99% of the time, what should be the strategy in accumulating an emergency miles account?
1) Select a program that has strong availability to your family’s hometown airports
Since most emergencies will involve family members, it is a good idea to make sure the miles you earn for your emergency account are with an airline that actually flies to the airport near your family. Another point would be to see if it is a hub or spoke airport for certain airlines. For example, if you have family near Salt Lake City, UT, Delta would be a good choice for your emergency account (SLC is a Delta hub).
2) Select a program that is easy to accumulate miles for
If transfer partners do not transfer at good rates or if you cannot get a credit card for the airline, that would obviously not be a good airline to accumulate for. Fortunately, that has nothing US airline frequent flyers need to worry about. It is easy to get miles for all the legacy US airlines. If you are trying to accumulate for international awards, this rule would have come more into play.
3) Flexible program or airline program?
Flexible programs are great and should definitely be a part of your emergency account strategy, but you need to make sure the flexible program can transfer the miles quickly if you need them for an emergency. For example, it can take anywhere from a few days to a month to transfer points from SPG to the various airline partners. That would not make SPG a good account to accumulate points in for emergencies. On the other hand, Ultimate Rewards transfer instantly to United, so that would make it a good program. Membership Rewards transfer within a few minutes to Delta so it would make another good possibility.
4) Be aware of close-in booking fees
American Airlines, US Airways, and United all charge close-in booking fees (typically $75 for award tickets purchased 21 days before departure). These fees still make the ticket cheaper than buying the ticket outright, but it is still something to be aware of. Delta does not charge any close-in booking fees.
5) Know your alternatives
If you need to be able to only book a one-way and Delta is your choice due to the airport of choice, you will still be on the hook for the amount of the miles round-trip (25,000 instead of the typical price for a one-way of 12,500). In a case such as that, you can use Air France miles to book those one-ways on Delta for 12,500 miles. Air France is a transfer partner of Membership Rewards but it can take a few days to transfer, so transfer ahead of time.
Another example would be to use British Airway Avios if your airline of choice is American Airlines. For short-haul AA flights, it only costs 4,500 British Airway Avios one-way and there are no close-in booking fees. British Airway Avios are among the easiest miles to accumulate since they have their own credit card and are transfer partners of Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, and SPG.
6) Collect more than the bare minimum
If the round-trip ticket you will need costs 25,000 miles, don’t stop there. Consider that the ticket you need when you need it might not be available at the low threshold. It would be terrible to have an account and then not be able to use the miles because you are a few thousand short. This way, if you can find them at the minimum, you will still have enough for another person to go with you, should that be needed.
7) Try to have more than one
I have a couple of different emergency miles accounts. I have two that can be used for either international or domestic use. This way, if I am on a trip someplace and there is something that happens while I am there, I will have an exit strategy that can spare me from having to pay hundreds and, possibly, thousands of dollars.
What if you are not able to save for an emergency miles account?
I know that many people may not be able to accumulate all of these different miles for just in case scenarios. If that is the case, just remember that if an emergency does arrive, being able to respond to the emergency will be more valuable than any type of race trip that you could plan. Miles can always be earned, memories are made forever.
To earn the miles talked about here, search for the program on the blog that you are most interested in or check the credit card pages for links.