Anatomy of a Last Minute Award: Charleston to Newark (United $75 Trick Still Alive!)

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We typically go over international premium cabin redemptions in our Anatomy of an Award posts. They’re great inspiration and good teaching tools for when you’re planning big trips.

While I’m sure we’d all love to be flying around the world in a flat bed all the time, that’s not the reality most live in. Needing to book a ticket to see family or friends for whatever last minute reason, days out from the departure date? That’s a pretty common reality, and one my father found himself in today.

Below I’ll go over the process we went through to find the best way of getting to Newark, New Jersey this weekend for a quick, three night trip.

Checking the Cash Price

Since my dad’s happy with economy flights when flying within the United States, I first checked the price in cash on Google Flights as it very well could be a better idea to pay cash if the price is right. His origin is Charleston, South Carolina and desired destination Newark, New Jersey. He needs to arrive by noon on Friday, and return on Monday.

You can a set filter for arrival times on Google Flights by clicking the Times drop down.
You can a set filter for arrival times on Google Flights by clicking the Times drop down.

There was only one outbound flight that worked for him, leaving 6:15 am Friday morning, but multiple return options Monday that would do.

Whichever return he chose would, all in, cost $433 roundtrip. I searched the outbound and return separately to see if either of the one ways was cheaper, but they weren’t. However, the outbound leg was $30 more expensive than the return ($232 for outbound, $202 for the return).

So we knew the cheapest cash ticket of flights he found acceptable was $433. I kept that number and the prices of each one way in mind when looking at award space/prices.

Current Balances & What They’re Good For Domestically

My dad has plenty of Ultimate Rewards (a chunk of which were earned by the Sapphire Reserve, so they’re worth 1.5 cents each redeeming on cash flights), some United miles, and plenty of American Airlines miles at the moment.

Ultimate Rewards transfer to…

  • British Airways
  • Korean Air
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • United Airlines
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Flying Blue

Domestically, those loyalty programs give one access to American Airlines award space (via Avios), Delta award space (via Korean and Flying Blue miles), United award space (via United and Singapore miles), and Southwest award space (via Southwest Rapid Rewards).

Aside from his Ultimate Rewards, his United miles obviously give him access to United award space, and his AAdvantage miles to American Airlines and Alaska award space.

I already knew from prior experience that the only direct flight between Charleston and Newark is on United, so I checked United first.

United Award Space

Outbound

There was a Saver level economy seat open on Friday on that same cash flight we saw above, for 10k United miles. The distance between Charleston, SC and Newark, NJ is barely under 700 miles (629 miles–use gcmap.com to find flight distances yourself), which is when the price of a domestic award changes from 10k to 12k United miles.

As booking an award for two days from now is within 21 days of departure, United would charge a close-in booking fee, which is why the out-of-pocket cost is so high. I was pretty sure I could use the trick to avoid the $75 close-in booking fee if necessary, so I considered this flight a valid option as redeeming 10,000 miles and paying $5.60 in taxes is getting roughly 2.26 cents per United mile.

The same award space is bookable with Singapore miles, and Singapore wouldn’t charge any close-in booking fee. But it would cost 12,500 miles and they would have to be transferred from Ultimate Rewards to Singapore, which on average can take up to two business days.

Return

On Monday, there was a Saver level seat available for one for 10k United miles and $80.60 in taxes/fees, but again I figured that could be reduced to just $5.60 with the $75 United trick.

But remember, paying cash for this flight in the return direction would be $232. That would make for slightly worse redemption (1.96 cents per mile), especially considering my dad would have to transfer Ultimate Rewards to United miles since he only has enough United miles to cover one direction.

Southwest Rapid Rewards 

The best way to maximize Rapid Rewards is by booking flights when Southwest has a fare sale (like they are right now actually, through tomorrow!) or far ahead of departure since award prices are directly tied to the cash price of the ticket. Sadly the Charleston to Newark nor the Newark to Charleston routes are on sale, and the tickets cost tons of Rapid Rewards in both directions.

Delta Award Space

Outbound & Return

The only award space available flying Delta in either direction was exorbitantly expensive and therefore not available to my dad as only the lowest level (Saver level) Delta award space can be booked with partner Flying Blue or Korean miles.

American Airlines Award Space

Outbound

The were two Saver level options departing Friday, but the first one departs very early and the second one arrives way too late in the evening. Not to mention both have a connection.

Return

Nada.

Final Decision

United definitely had the best options.

Since my dad wants to save his Ultimate Rewards for a premium cabin redemption to Italy coming up, he decided redeeming 10k United miles on the more expensive outbound flight this Friday (that would otherwise cost him $232) and purchasing a $202 cash ticket for the return on Monday was the best idea. I agreed with him.

We booked his cash flight (with his Chase Sapphire Reserve so he could earn 606 Ultimate Rewards–3 per dollar spent). Then I taught him how to evade United’s $75 close-in booking fee.

Avoiding the $75 in Close-Booking Award Fee

You can read specifics about the trick here. Essentially, all you need to do if you want to book a United award within 21 days of departure is book the same flight for 1+ months in the future, then immediately call in to change it to within 21 days of departure. No close in ticketing fee will be charged.

This is the award flight we wanted, departing Friday, August 4.

I looked for the same flight in September, and while I couldn’t find award space on that exact UA3813 flight, I found one that departed about half an hour later with the same origin and destination. The out of pocket expense was listed as just $5.60, since it was more than 21 days out from departure. I booked it.

Then I called MileagePlus and asked them to change the award to the flight and date above. The agent did so with no question, informing me that since I was within the 24 hour grace period of free changes there would be no further fees for changing the award. The confirmation email arrived a few minutes later and there was no mention of an additional $75 fee.

If you ever try this trick and get an agent that does want to charge you for the close-in booking fee, hang up and call again until you get one that doesn’t. You can always cancel your award for free within 24 hours (as long as it’s at least 7 days before departure) if you don’t ever find an agent oblivious to the close-in booking fee, but I doubt from my experience that will be necessary.

Bottom Line

In the end, we booked my father an economy award flying United from Charleston to Newark this Friday for 10k United miles and $5.60. For the return direction, he paid $202 on his Sapphire Reserve for a return flight in United economy on Monday.

And I’m happy to report that the trick to avoid the $75 close-in award booking fee that United collects is still alive!


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7 COMMENTS

    • As far as I’m aware it only works with United. However Alaska Mileage Plan doesn’t charge close-in booking fees so if you had Alaska miles you could book AA SAAver space last minute and pay no fee.

  1. Doesn’t JetBlue fly into JFK at super low cash prices? Obviously not the exact same airport, but a chnge of airports is often worthwhile.

    • Yes they do, sometimes, but not usually a few days before departure (there weren’t any cheap JetBlue flights, I checked just in case).

      In this case, my dad was trying to get to a friends place in New Jersey so the airport made a bigger difference.

    • Yes, that is true, and I’ve added a note to the post to clarify that. But if you’re performing the trick correctly you would ALWAYS be booking the original flight more than a week out, thats the point… you’d be booking a flight a month out so no close-in fee is added.

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