Using Points for Emergency Travel: Why Having a Stash Is a Huge Relief for Same-Day Flights

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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.

points for emergency travel

I hate hospitals. Using points got me home the same day my dad went to the ICU

Here’s the series of quick steps I used to fly home right away.

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

Not a perfect tool, but a helpful place to start

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.

Ugh, of course

But AA had that route on lockdown until later in the month. Not helpful.

Keep checking

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 bit the bullet and used Chase points for my last-minute flight

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!

Bottom line

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?

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About Harlan

Just a dude living in Dallas.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for the helpful info. Glad everything turned out OK for your dad.

    Hopefully, writing this was a bit cathartic for you as it’s nice to return to a comfort zone where you can feel knowledgeable and in control again.

    • Thank you for reading, Colleen!

      It was a bit cathartic, though I could’ve gone into the emotional stuff a lot more lol. Having a “trial run” really does make me feel better and much more connected. That’s a huge psychological benefit to having points I hadn’t fully considered before.

  2. Best wishes for your dad’s smooth recovery – glad you made it so quickly. Had a similar situation with my mom overseas. I received the news in the US on a Thu evening; with points, was on a plane to Asia Fri at noon, arriving at the hospital 30 min before her (successful) surgery. Wasn’t the most efficient use of points, but I’d still consider one of my best redemptions.

    • Thank you so much! Getting back from overseas would even more of a panic. I’d definitely consider that an excellent redemption. Being there is worth everything.

      Thank you for sharing your story!

  3. It’s harder for overseas – had to do that for my husband’s grandmother in December.
    In the end, we decided to just pay cash – he needed to fly with his family and we didn’t have enough points to cover 4 people, plus they wanted to all get the same flights, so that caused a lot of headaches.

    Hope your dad is feeling better!

    • Slowly but surely recovering! And it def would be tougher with multiple people. Things like this are also the reason to have an emergency savings account – as this would definitely qualify to use emergency funds.

      Hope you are well! Still on the fence about going to FinCon this yearrrr!

  4. Hoping for a speedy recovery! I was able to find last minute award availability to visit my ailing dad overseas about two years ago. I was able to book the flight and left two days later right in time before he passed. One of the best redemptions (in J no less) given the circumstances. Btw, when is the next meetup lol?

    • Wow, that’s incredibly lucky! I was hoping for some last-minute saver space too but I guess everyone wanted to go to Memphis at the same time!

      Next meetup will be very soon! I was just thinking it’s been a while! Prolly after Memorial Day cuz lost of peeps will be traveling. Can’t wait to hear about your next trip!

  5. Again, I hope your Dad was OK and is recovering nicely. The only quibble I have is that Southwest doesn’t show up on most searches and you have to search them separately. That being said, Southwest is almost never a good deal for last minute fares. If you are planning trips in the future, I’d certainly check DAL-MEM on Southwest. I had to fly back to Dallas for family medical issues several years ago. Fortunately, everyone was OK AND this is before BA eliminated 4500 mile flights in North America.

    • For sure! I’ve booked that route before – wish they’d just display their fares everywhere. They’re really not that cheaper or a “budget” option more often than not.

      Thanks for the well-wishes. He’s doing OK, but not the same as before. Slow recovery for sure.

      And YES, I miss the old days with 4,500-mile flights. The game continues to evolve.

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