Keep calm and collect miles: miles, points, and last minute plans

My husband and I are not very good planners but we like it that way. Many times we are minutes away from checking out of one hotel and have not yet made a plan for our next one. It happens quite frequently in fact.

Or, as is the case today, our Thai visa is days away from expiring and we don’t yet have a plan of where to go next.


How can we be so care-free and unplanned?

For us the answer is frequent flyer miles and hotel points.


Last minute plans can get expensive, especially when you’re talking about flights. But the convenient thing about frequent flyer miles is that not only are the prices fairly fixed and consistent, there is also a likelihood that availability suddenly starts to open back up last minute.

You see when award flights are concerned, you’ll find the best availability either a few months before you plan to travel or mere days before you plan to travel. This is because some people will book tickets speculatively, then cancel the tickets when the time approaches if they realize that they are unable to travel. This means that last minute planning can actually reveal similar availability as advanced planning.

However, there are a few down sides to this last minute planning strategy. Most airline mileage programs will charge a fee of around $75 for last minute award bookings. In this case “last minute” refers to bookings made less than 21 days in advance.

$75 and a handful of frequent flyer miles is still more affordable than paying for a thousand dollar or more flight, not to mention more affordable than a full-fare ticket with minimal restrictions for post-booking adjustments. And if we think of that $75 fee as the price we pay for flexibility, in our opinions at least, it’s worth it to be able to make our plans as we go.

The other down side is that it can be a bit of a gamble.

For instance on one occasion we had plans to meet friends in Chile. Because of a few changed plans we didn’t book our tickets until the very last minute (a day or two before traveling). Unfortunately in this instance, availability didn’t open up by the time we knew we’d need to leave, so we ended up routing all over the place. We flew from NYC to Toronto to Asuncion to Buenos Aires and then finally to Valparaiso where our friend was waiting for us. While at the airport in Toronto we saw that availability was opening up for a direct flight from Toronto to Santiago. So we attempted to change our flights to this more convenient option, but alas, our layover wasn’t long enough for the necessary process and we had to follow through with our miserable series of connections.


Still, it got us to Santiago affordably and at the end of the day, that is our goal. We’ll sacrifice some comfort for affordability and flexibility when we need to.


Lets contrast that less-than successful anecdote with a more successful one. In another instance we arrived in Thailand quite ignorant of the visa details. Just by chance I thought to glance at the stamp in my passport and realized that because we’d entered via land (from Malaysia) rather than by air, our visa only allowed a 15 day visit. This realization was made a few days before our visa was to expire and we did not feel like we’d seen much of Thailand at all, so we had to plan a “visa-run” quickly.

We wanted to do this visa run by air so that we’d get the 30 day visa on arrival rather than 15 days so we hopped online and booked a roundtrip award ticket to Sri Lanka and back.

We ended up loving Sri Lanka. Without miles, our visa-run options would have been minimal. Again, in this scenario British Airways technically charges a fee around $75 for bookings made less than 21 days in advance, but in our opinion, it was worth it to visa-run somewhere we were truly curious to see and return for another 30 days in Thailand.

sri lanka


The last minute planning strategy is much easier when it comes to hotels. We’ve made award bookings online ten minutes before check-in with no greater hassle than needing to show the reference number to the hotel if the booking hasn’t yet showed up in their system.


The value of “last minute” planning

Sometimes there’s a deal you just want to jump on or sometimes there’s a place you hadn’t realized you’d love so much and you want to extend your stay. The nature of travel is that you just don’t know all the pieces of what’s ahead. Still, planning is not impossible. It’s quite possible.

But is it preferable?

For someone who feels anxious without a plan, perhaps it is. But there are certainly some people for whom the greater anxiety comes from a lack of flexibility. For these people, it’s nice to know that flexibility doesn’t have to break the bank.

As far as hotels are concerned, last-minute planning is rarely a problem. And where flights are concerned, it may cost you ~$75 and an extra half day to follow the last-minute route. So it’s all a matter of what that flexibility is worth to you. But at least by keeping a collection of miles on hand, last minute plans are not going to cost you hundreds as would easily be the case with paid tickets.


How do I keep miles on hand?

The “how” of keeping miles on hand does require a little planning but luckily there are resources.

For instance this Complete Guide to Miles Earning with Credit Cards is the perfect how-to to start with.

I recommend visiting the complete guide but the basics are as follows. Provided you have a credit score in the 700’s, you may consider applying for a variety of travel rewards cards.  Some of these cards will earn miles directly into your mileage program account and others will earn points that can transfer to a variety of hotel or airline programs.

But all of the recommended travel rewards cards generally come up with a  sign-up bonus to get you started out. In most cases the bonus is enough for a round-trip international flight. And if you learn how to use your miles wisely, perhaps you can go even further with those bonuses.


Application Strategies

The reason I’ve said that this can take some planning is because keeping a healthy credit-score requires spacing out credit-card applications. The credit bureau has reason to worry when a person looks desperate for credit. And applying for a slew of cards all at once will definitely make you look desperate.

That’s why we recommend spacing applications out by no less than three months. Ultimately, credit score does matter and is definitely worth intentionality.

You can find out all the details about how travel rewards cards relate to this in our post about improving your credit score.



Ultimately, keeping a “safety fund” of miles is much like keeping a “safety fund” of money. If you are budgeting in such a way that you have money set aside for those occasions where a last minute plan is needed, than that puts you in a position to keep calm and care-free.

But maybe you can make that monetary “safety fund” last even longer by also having a “safety fund” of miles and points on hand. After all, that is the currency of travel and thanks to travel rewards programs and credit cards, you can save them up simply by spending on the cards that reward you.

Posted by | Comments Off on Keep calm and collect miles: miles, points, and last minute plans  | June 19, 2014
Category: General

Comments are closed.