Don't miss out! Join the thousands of people who subscribe to our once-daily email or our free miles and points Facebook group with all the best travel news. Some links on this page may pay me a commission - as always, thanks for your support if you use them

After aborting a planned trip to Europe with our older two kids, I decided to still salvage my second week of vacation by throwing together a last-minute road trip from Arizona to California. Planning a week out has its cons, but there are definitely pros as well. We’re nearing the tail end of spring “rental car season”, but there are still deals to be had.

(SEE ALSO: Complete list of one way car rental discount codes)

Combined with great last-minute United award space, the trip fell into place pretty easily. The only issue was avoiding the United close-in booking fee.

One of the biggest gripes with United is that although they open up a good amount of last-minute award space, the airline tries to charge you their infamous extortion “close-in booking” fee. I can’t decide if I hate it more or less than hotel resort fees. For the non-elite member, this amounts to a $75 charge. Maybe United can explain to me how the reservation system works so much harder to process this award than those booked further out.

But…not all is lost. There are ways to dodge the United close-in booking fee. Beyond the old date-change trick (SEE: How to book United or American without the $75 close-in booking fee – just note that this no longer works online…you need to call), you can look to mileage currencies with other Star Alliance airlines.

Avoiding the United close-in booking fee on our upcoming trip

If United had their way, tickets for myself and two of my children from Arcata to Tucson would cost 37,500 miles and $241.80. Not fun. And not worth it. The space is there, but booking through United is a less-than-ideal option. But we instead paid 22,500 miles and $91.80. Major savings.

This was made possible by Lifemiles, the mileage currency of Avianca. Two other great options for booking last-minute United flights are Aeroplan and Singapore. I’ll explain the pros and cons of all of these.

Booking a last minute United award with Lifemiles

Luckily, Avianca LifeMiles are a good alternative for avoiding the United close-in booking fee. However, the program still levies a $25 award booking fee. This’ll hit you no matter when you book. You can’t get around it. Still, they have some great sweet spots, and the currency is an awesome option for last-minute tickets.

Even better, Avianca rolled out short-haul award pricing for the United States last year that makes the $25 award fee an easy pill to swallow. The program divides the country into 3 regions. All intra-region travel is only 7,500 miles each way, and can include connections! Be warned, though. The Avianca search engine chokes on more than one connection, at least in my experience.

If you are in need of Lifemiles, consider transferring some of your Citi ThankYou points to the program. Lifemiles is one of the best transfer partners Citi offers. The value of their points went up significantly in my estimation when Lifemiles were added.

Use of Avianca Lifemiles for our trip to the Southwest allowed me to both avoid the United close-in booking fee and save 15,000 miles. #winning

Dodging the United close-in booking fee with Aeroplan

Aeroplan’s days are numbered. But until the future of the program or a new program is announced, they are another great option for skirting the United close-in booking fee. You’ll only pay the $5.60 TSA fee when you book United metal with your Aeroplan miles. Just watch out that you don’t book any segments on Air Canada, as they levy fuel surcharges on their own metal!

A second perk of using Aeroplan miles for United awards (that doesn’t just apply to last-minute bookings) is the fact that you can book a stopover on a domestic award. The only rule here is that you cannot backtrack through the same connecting airport, and you cannot book an open jaw. A valid example is:

San Diego – San Francisco – Boise (stopover), Boise – Denver – Kansas City (destination), Denver – San Francisco – San Diego

You can do all this flying for 25,000 Aeroplan miles and $15.20 CAD. You’d have to fork over an extra 10,000 United miles for the stopover segment if you wanted book with the airline’s own loyalty currency. Aeroplan is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, and generally one of the best. ANA is still my favorite, though (SEE: Booking US to Asia Business Class for 95,000 miles).

Have lots of flexible points? Try Singapore

Although I’ve never redeemed miles through Singapore KrisFlyer (nor even moved miles into their program), they are a fairly good option for domestic U.S. awards as well as flights to Hawaii. Singapore charges the same price of 12,500 miles one way that United does for domestic awards, although they don’t offer any sort of short-haul pricing like both United and Avianca do.

The primary thing Singapore has going for it is the fact that you can transfer points to KrisFlyer from all three major bank currencies. This is a major plus if your points reserves are scattered about and you are looking for awards for the whole family.

Singapore doesn’t levy any charges beyond the TSA security fee, so booking last minute award tickets with Singapore miles is another great way to get around  the United close-in-booking fee.

Should you play chicken with holiday travel?

One of the issues many families face is wanting (or only being able) to travel during peak season, i.e. around holidays. When you’re trying to travel during the same time everyone else is trying to travel, you’ll often be faced with either paying high cash prices or “standard award” prices. It’s can be a no-win situation (SEE: The truth of the traveler’s triangle: the relationship between time, price and location).

This may be anathema to those who like to plan waaay in advance, but waiting until the last minute is a potential (albeit risky) strategy for scoring a United award around the holidays, if you have a bit of flexibility. I’ve seen multiple cases where seats open up 1-3 weeks out. If you go this route, you must obsessively check for space. Make sure you’re willing to face the prospect of not traveling, though!

Case in point: I offered to fly a friend in last Thanksgiving utilizing United award space that opened up during the very last week. Tickets were available out Wednesday evening with a Saturday return. I would have used the same Avianca strategy I employed for our tickets had everything worked out.

Conclusion

Sure, scoring a last minute deal from Atlanta to Topeka on United may not be all that glamorous of an award (and using miles for domestic economy flights isn’t typically that great of a value proposition anyway). But knowing how to beat the United close-in booking fee while still taking advantage of their lat-minute award space could come in handy if you unexpectedly have to travel. Miles will beat last-minute cash tickets almost every time.

Sign up for our once-daily email with the latest tips and tricks on how to travel for free / cheap. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!