The Complete Guide to Last-Minute Evacuations

According to FEMA, only 39 percent of American adults have developed a disaster emergency plan and discussed it with their household

There’s no question last-minute evacuations can be scary and stressful, especially if you don’t have the information you need during communication blackouts or loss of power.  Adding last-minute travel to the mix might feel insurmountable.

While disasters are rare, it’s best to plan early and be among the first to leave when you think a bad situation might be on the way, if you have any advance notice.

Your options include flights, rental cars, and simply loading up your vehicle and driving to a safer place.

Regardless of how you evacuate, collecting miles and points with the best travel credit cards can save big bucks at this critical time.  And having a hotel credit card can help you get free lodging when you need somewhere to go.

You’ll also want to consider what to pack, how to bring your pet along, and collecting important documents.  We’ve created a guide to help you plan so you can feel prepared and safe, and save money in the process.

Guide to Last-Minute Evacuations Table of Contents:

Last-Minute Travel by Air

Use Your Miles & Points to Save Money

That’s why it’s a good idea to have a stash of miles or points handy.

And if disaster strikes unexpectedly, you’ll want to book fast, because other folks will likely snag award seats in hopes of saving money, too.  Be sure to practice booking an award ticket or hotel room so you don’t have to learn under pressure.

Having a credit card with a transferable points program gives you the flexibility to use your rewards however you want.  The 4 main programs are:

Between these 4 rewards programs, you have 40+ airline programs to chose from when you’re ready to transfer your points.

Learn the Quirks Now So You Won’t Be Surprised in an Emergency

Keep in mind, purchasing certain award tickets within days or even a couple of weeks before departure can mean extra fees if you book with certain programs.  For example, if you book an award ticket with American Airlines or United Airlines, they both tack on a $75 fee per award ticket booked within 21 days of departure.  But if flights otherwise cost $100s, you might consider paying it to save on an expensive cash ticket.

Delta, on the other hand, does not charge close-in booking fees, just the usual taxes and fees – even on the day of departure.  This is why having a credit card with a transferable points program is helpful.

An extremely important thing to remember is points transfers to airlines are not always instant.   It can take days (or even weeks) for points to transfer, depending on the airline.

For example, it can take up to 24 hours for your American Express Membership Rewards points to transfer to AeroMexico miles.  Most Chase Ultimate Rewards transfers to airlines are instant, while Marriott can take up to ~48 hours to receive your transferred points.

Get familiar with the program you prefer, and make note of which airline miles post instantly after you make a transfer.  You can always transfer the minimum amount to make sure they post immediately before you transfer all your points, if you’re in a potential emergency situation.  Just note that once you make the transfer, it’s final.

You can also book paid flights through bank travel portals, like the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal or Citi ThankYou website.  That’s another helpful way to use your points for flights – and save money – to get you to safety.

Book Early and Show Up for Your Flight

If you have to pay cash, book as early as possible!  Remember, you can cancel most paid flights within 24 hours without penalty.  So snag a seat right away – you can always cancel the same day if you find a cheaper seat.  You just want to make sure you have something booked in case you have to use it.  And prices could rise as demand increases.

I recommend looking at all your options with Google Flights.  If you like to fly Southwest, remember you always have to search directly on their website.

With certain cards, you can book cash flights and use rewards to offset your purchase after the fact.  These cards let you book airline tickets now, then use points for statement credits later:

Having a ticket already bought gives you a better chance of flying standby on an earlier or later flight.

You can fly standby if:

  • Your original flight is canceled or delayed for any reason
  • You’re already at the airport and there’s an open seat on an earlier flight
  • You hold a full-price ticket and want to get on an earlier flight
  • You have a friend or family member working at the airline, and even then, you should be prepared to wait.  Though, this is next to impossible when flights are sold out

You might have to pay a same-day standby fee, but again, even with a fee considered, you could save $100s versus waiting too long to buy tickets.

Pay for Private Flight Services

Chartering a private flight may be the only way to evacuate if major airlines are sold out or flights are canceled.

If you’re in a group, book together because you are paying for the whole aircraft, not per passenger.  It becomes more affordable to book a private flight if you can book with other evacuees.

If you’re out of the country, or nowhere close to home, think about flying to the nearest safe country or destination.  The cost of flying home by private jet can be astronomical, so flying to the closest “safe” hub will make it easier for you to make safer and cheaper reservations once you evacuate.

International airports usually close first in the event of an emergency, whereas smaller, regional airports stay open longer.  Private jets can use the smaller runways at regional airports more easily than commercial airlines, so try to depart from a smaller airport if you can.

Government Assistance

Airlines may coordinate with the government during a disaster to offer cheap or free transport to those affected.  Be sure to call your local emergency number to check if there are any options available to you, especially if you have no other way out.

Booking a last-minute flight can be expensive.  Our advice would be to have rewards points and miles saved up for an event like this, because it will save you $100s, if not $1,000s,  in an emergency.

Last-Minute Travel with a Car Rental

Book Using Miles and Points

If you’re able to evacuate by car, you can save the most money by using miles and points from a rewards credit card toward your last-minute rental.

Rental car prices fluctuate a lot, and there’s no way to tell which way it’ll swing for a last-minute rental.  While it’s always a good practice to book as far in advance as you can, you can’t always do this during an evacuation.

My favorite way to save $100s of dollars on a rental car is by booking through the Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou travel portals.  Citi Premier℠ cardholders can redeem ThankYou points for 1.25 cents each toward car rentals.

And depending which Chase Ultimate Rewards card you have, you can redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points for 1 or 1.25 cents per point.  The exception is for Chase Sapphire Reserve® cardholders, who can redeem toward travel for 1.5 cents per point.

Book Last-Minute Rentals Using Hotwire and Costco Travel

Hotwire and Costco Travel are 2 of the best sites to get the best price on a rental car.

However, Hotwire does NOT allow cancellations or flexibility with their bookings, whereas Costco Travel allows free cancellations and tends to have lower prices than Hotwire.  But of course, you need a Costco membership to use the Costco Travel website.

Personally, I check Costco Travel and the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, and then book whichever is cheaper.  But most of the time, Costco Travel is the winner.

There are a few easy ways to avoid overpaying for your rental car.  If possible, try and book a round-trip rental, because one-way rentals are usually more expensive.  That might not be possible when you evacuate because you might not know when you’ll be able to return, especially if there’s damage to roads, bridges, and other infrastructure.

Don’t Forget to Earn Reward Frequent Flyer Miles When Flying Your Pets

Certain airlines give you bonus miles when you travel with a pet:

  • JetBlue JetPaws – Earn 300 TrueBlue points every time you fly with your pet
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Paws – Earn 1,000 club miles per pet for shorter flights, and 2,000 for longer ones.  Virgin Atlantic does not allow pets in the main cabin unless they are a service animal, so all animals must travel in cargo
  • United Airlines PetSafe Program – Earn 500 United Airlines miles for each pet traveling within the US

Last-Minute Travel By Ground

Traveling with your pets via ground transportation is by far the easiest and most cost-effective way to evacuate.  There’s less planning prior to the trip and less stress during the trip because your beloved pet will be next to you the whole time!

Keep in mind when evacuating an area last-minute with your pet:

  • If you have time, make your pet comfortable with the car prior to the trip, as some have anxiety in cars.  Take short trips to fun places (like a park) so they can associate the car with play time and a new adventure out.  Reward your pet during and at the end of the small trips to build positive associations with car trips
  • When it’s time to leave, gather the essentials, including their crate, leashes, toys, food, water, and bowls (and my dog would definitely say “add treats!”)
  • Stop often for potty and exercise breaks – for you AND your pet!
  • If needed, get potty training pads to protect your car from your pet’s accidents, if they’re prone

Last-Minute Lodging

Pet-friendly accommodations are on the rise, but it can be difficult to find accommodations that accept pets during an evacuation.  Websites such as Pets Welcome can narrow down lodging that allows pets.

And remember, if you’re under mandatory evacuation, hotels may not be able to legally refuse you lodging, even if you have a pet with you.  Know your rights and insist on fair treatment because the law can override their pet policies.

One Final (and Frugal) Checklist

A few cheap must-haves for your emergency kit are:

  • Water
  • Canned, non-perishable food
  • A large, leak-proof container
  • First aid and personal care items such as hand sanitizer, baby wipes, bandages, and rubbing alcohol
  • Layers for cold weather: thermal underwear, wool socks, and blankets
  • Headlights and flashlights with batteries
  • Money, whether it be cash or a couple hundred dollars in a savings account
  • Pet supplies like food and litter
  • Battery-operated radio and a portable phone charger

Establishing an emergency plan or checklist in case you need to leave home abruptly can keep your family safe and take strain away when you’re coping with the aftermath of a natural disaster.  Most of all, it will help you avoid panic and frustration.  And of course, minimize forgetting important items when you’re trying to move fast.

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