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How to Buy Plane Tickets on the Same Day of Departure

On a recent excursion I found myself in Washington, DC, and I was ready to leave. There were just two problems: I didn’t know where I wanted to go next, and—perhaps related—I didn’t have an onward plane ticket.

This situation wasn’t that unusual, though. I’ve frequently found myself buying plane tickets very close to departure, and usually getting a good value despite the common perception that they are outrageously expensive.

The secret? Use your miles instead of cash, because last-minute availability is great.

Have you ever been frustrated when looking for an award ticket with your frequent flyer miles, only to be thoroughly disappointed that almost nothing is available? Chances are, you were looking during the same time period that most people do.

The traditional advice of booking “far, far in advance”—sometimes even 330 days out or whenever the airline releases seats into inventory is incomplete. This does work in some cases. Most of us, though, have absolutely no idea where and exactly when we want to fly an entire year from now. I mean, I don’t even know where I’m flying next week … and even if you’re not as bad as me, planning for specific flights a year into the future is tough.

That’s why you need different ninja skills.

First, see what’s out there by asking Skiplagged. As mentioned, you can save a lot of money by using hidden-city ticketing, and this site makes it really simple.

In my case, I decided to head homeward (PDX), but I was open to spending a day or two in Dallas or California on the way. Since I wasn’t sure of the best option, I put three different flights on hold before making my decision:

1. DCA-IND-LAX

Los Angeles, CA

This option would take me to LA via Indianapolis. I’d buy another ticket to get home from there.

2. DCA-PDX (non-stop!)

Portland, OR

This option would take me straight back on Alaska Air.

3. DCA-DFW

Dallas, TX

This option would take me to Dallas. I’d buy another ticket to get home from there.

There were other options I considered as well, including a non-stop United flight from IAD to LAX, easily available with miles. I also thought about connecting through JFK and trying JetBlue’s Mint service, which is supposed to be very nice.

Always Maintain Miles and Points in Flexible Spending Accounts

Speaking of JetBlue, I almost never fly them, but if i need TruBlue points I can transfer them in from American Express (earn these points through the Enhanced Business Platinum card, among others).

I avoid United like the plague, but their points are easily available through Chase Ultimate Rewards (earn these points through the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, among others).

This is yet another reason why keeping a decent balance of miles and points in multiple airline accounts and especially in flexible spending accounts (like Membership Rewards from AmEx and Ultimate Rewards from Chase) is so valuable. I essentially have access to free or cheap tickets whenever I need them, even on airlines I don’t normally fly.

In this case, though, I didn’t even use miles. I found an AA ticket to DFW that cost just $89, so it made much more sense to purchase it. I was also upgraded to First Class for free, thanks to my AA status, and that couldn’t have happened if I was traveling on an award ticket.

The only problem at that point was that I didn’t have an onward flight to PDX. I solved that problem later in the day, booking a non-stop Alaska Airways flight. Bam!

Total cost: $89 for DCA-DFW, $119 for DFW-PDX

I could have used miles, but I didn’t need to. Oh, and for my overnight in Dallas, I stayed at the Hyatt Regency DFW, booked completely on points. We live in a world of wonder!

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Images: 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5

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