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What a week. Just got back from Memphis. Last Friday, I got one of those phone calls. One of those drop everything and fly home right this minute phone calls.
My dad was in the ICU with a brain lesion near his optical nerve – and no one knew why. Doctors thought it could be anything from a simple infection all the up to brain cancer. He had to have biopsy surgery to find out.
Tickets home were $659 round-trip, or $329 each way. I didn’t want to spend the cash, so I went to my usual tricks: using miles and points to fly cheap or free.
I threw clothes in a bag and headed to the airport. This was the first time I’d ever had to fly back so quickly. It was a bizarre experience I don’t want to repeat any time soon.
And it showed me why having a stash of points ready to use at all times is so important for these situations.
Here’s the series of quick steps I used to fly home right away.
In This Post
When you have to fly immediately, having points for emergency travel can help so much
I’ve booked so many trips by now, the process is automatic.
1. Google Flights
First, a search on Google Flights to check prices and routings. This is also useful for any trip to get an idea of:
- What nonstops are available
- Which airlines fly the route
- Where you could connect if needed
If you see flights are cheap, it’s usually best to go ahead and pay cash rather than dip into your transferable points.
In Dallas, I see lots of flights on American. Typically, flights to Memphis are cheap, but for whatever reason, were selling out for days on end from Dallas (and still are!).
So American has the most nonstops, or I could connect with Delta or United.
2. Run award searches
With a flight in mind on American, I ran through the list of partners and how I could get the points. I can book an American Airlines award flights with:
- American Airlines miles
- Alaska Airlines miles
- Cathay Pacific miles (transfer from Citi ThankYou points or Capital One, but not instant)
- British Airways Avios points (instant transfer from Chase Ultimate Rewards points or Amex Membership Rewards points)
- Qantas miles (transfer from Citi ThankYou points, but takes a few days)
- Business Extra points
I actually had some Qantas miles and/or British Airways Avios points I was willing to burn. The best place to check AA award space is right on their website.
But AA had that route on lockdown until later in the month. Not helpful.
Of course, you can check award flights on other airlines – in this case United and Delta, albeit with a connection.
This is why knowing which points program you can use – and the partners within each program – is so important for situations like this.
For example, I can access United flights with:
- Aeroplan miles (instant transfer from Amex Membership Rewards points or Capital One)
- ANA miles (instant transfer from Amex Membership Rewards points)
- Avianca miles (instant transfer from Amex Membership Rewards points or Citi ThankYou points)
- Singapore miles (instant transfer from Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Amex Membership Rewards points, Citi ThankYou points, or Capital One)
- United miles (instant transfer from Chase Ultimate Rewards points)
Or Delta award flights with:
- Delta miles (instant transfer from Amex Membership Rewards points)
- Flying Blue miles (instant transfer from Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Amex Membership Rewards points, Citi ThankYou points, or Capital One)
- Virgin Atlantic miles (instant transfer from Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Amex Membership Rewards points, or Citi ThankYou points)
3. Decide between a points & miles award or paying cash
If award space is open and the cash price is expensive, definitely transfer your points and book right away!
(This is the beauty of instant transfers – and a huge setback for the Citi ThankYou points program and certain partners that don’t have instant transfers.)
But if there isn’t an award seat open and cash prices are high (like what happened to me), you can decide between:
- Paying cash to the airline
- Using points anyway by booking through the bank portal
I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, so each point is worth 1.5 cents toward travel. For a ~$329 flight, I could use 21,953 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to completely cover the cost.
Is that a good deal? It really depends.
I have plenty of points spread around several programs right now. I felt confident that if I wanted to take a future award trip, my current stash would be enough to cover this flight, and any others I want to book.
Plus, isn’t this what points are for? To use for travel when you don’t want to (or can’t) pay cash?
I didn’t waste time deliberating. My dad was waiting in the hospital. Instead, I booked the flight, plugged in the confirmation number, checked in online, and headed to the airport. While this isn’t a great deal on paper, having my travel covered was a huge weight I didn’t have to deal with on top of everything else going on.
So while this will always be case-by-case, this time I went with the free option and used points to travel home.
It doesn’t take long – and why you should learn
This whole little process took maybe 5 minutes with 3 tabs open (Google Flights, AA.com, and the Ultimate Rewards portal).
Once I found the route, saw there wasn’t space, and used Chase points to book, I was on my way.
Granted, I’ve had practice. And if you have points, you should definitely check and know:
- The best routes to your family from your home airport
- How many points is typical for an award ticket
- Which programs transfer directly to your airline, or partner with that airline
- If those programs have instant transfers
- How to book a ticket through Chase, Amex, or Citi on the fly
That way you aren’t learning in a heated moment – kinda like a fire drill. Once you have it down, you’re good to (literally) go!
What a whirlwind week. This was the first time I thought I might lose one of my parents and it did not feel great. I’m glad I went. Though I’m emotionally drained.
In this case, I used Chase Ultimate Rewards points. The Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve cards are invaluable for emergency travel. And yet another reason why the Chase Sapphire Preferred is such a good card for beginners.
I’m grateful for friends to watch my dog, and work colleagues that told me not to worry about anything. Hospital beds make people look so… small. Seeing someone you love in one of those rooms, with all the machines and bloop sounds and tubes is just such a terrible feeling.
Dad’s surgery went well – and he’s gonna make it. There will be a couple of months of recovery. I’m glad I made it home so fast.
As many trips as I’ve taken for fun, the other side of the points hobby is being able to show up when it matters. And not having to consider the cost was a huge, huge relief on an already harried travel day.
Have you used points to travel for an emergency? Was it as easy to book as my last-minute trip home?* If you liked this post, consider signing up to receive free blog posts in an RSS reader and you’ll never miss an update! And thanks for using my links to apply for new card offers!
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