Need A Last-Minute Award On United Airlines? It Might Pay To Check Truly Last-Minute

One of the best use of frequent flier miles is for last-minute flights.  Whether it’s a family emergency or something exciting that pops up on short notice, expensive airline tickets can be a big barrier to achieving your goal.

Certain airlines are notorious for releasing saver inventory, the cheaper award seats, very close to departure.  Lufthansa is an airline where I’ve found international First Class seats available within a week or two of departure.  Finding those seats a few months out is much more challenging.

My personal experience with United Airlines is that I don’t generally find inventory changing in favor of the customer the closer you get to departure.  However, I’ve had two situations within the last few weeks where that was not the case.

In both cases, I checked for the flight I need a few days prior to departure.  In each case, the cheapest seats available were 25,000 miles one-way.  That can still be a good deal if the price of a last-minute ticket is sky-high.

When I checked the day prior to departure, the picture had gotten much more rosy.

 

The Final Two Pennies

A 10,000 mile one-way award is rarely a bad deal.  In both of the recent cases I note above, there didn’t appear to be a ton of seats left for sale on the flights.  I couldn’t be 100% sure, but I’d guess each flight had more than 5 seats but less than 15.  So, these weren’t wide open flights.  And, they were to popular destinations.  One was hub-to-hub (Dulles to O’Hare).

I’m not sure if this is an intentional shift by United or just something I’ve never run into.  I think it makes sense for United to actively look at yields and consider releasing saver inventory close to departure.  The counter-argument is that you don’t want a customer who would have purchased a ticket (or redeemed 25,000 miles) to grab a saver award if you can help it.  That’s the delicate dance of yield management.

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5 Comments

  1. Where’s the $75 close in fee? Don’t see that on your graphic and it’s always there 3 weeks out.

    Agree on your premise, though – United often has awards open with a few days of travel, but you have to pay that extra $75 for the “privilege.”

    1. JRG, good point on the fee. But, it’s not a straight $75. It’s a sliding scale depending on elite status, with general members only paying $75. And, that fee wouldn’t have applied in this case, since the needs came up well inside the 21-day window where they assess that fee.

  2. If you’ve got the MileagePlus Club card the close-in booking fees are waved.
    Just that benefit alone saves me at least $450 a year.

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