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Sunday Reader Email Question: How Do I Maximize Travel for a Family of 4?

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TPG reader Charmaine asks:

“How do I begin to maximize traveling with a family of 4 (2 adults, one 4 year old, and a 16 month old) starting from barely any frequent flyer miles (I believe we have 50,000 on AA Advantage and 75,000 Amex reward points)?  We have excellent credit so getting additional credit cards shouldn’t be a problem.”

From what I hear, kids are expensive, so you hit it right on the nose with maximizing credit card spend. It also always amazes me how often only one parent accrues the lion share of credit card points and the other doesn’t or is simply an additional cardholder. That’s a slow way to rack up points!

Instead, tag team and both rake in huge sign-up bonuses! As I wrote about in another reader email today, 2011 is the year of the monster credit card bonuses, so the best way to maximize your miles is to get in on the action and both bring home the bacon.

As long as you both have good credit, I’d say the following are the best deals right now – if you each got these three offers, you’ll have more than enough points for the whole crew – for probably a couple vacations!
1) Citi: 150,000 miles for the Citi AA Visa and American Express. When you apply in the same day, it counts as 1 inquiry on your credit. Just note you’ll need to spend $1,500 and $4,000 on the Visa and Amex respectively, so don’t bite off more than you can chew. Read this post for more details – the offer technically expired, but people are still getting in on it. This is not one of my referral links so I cannot vouch 100% that it will work, though read the comments on the post.
2) Chase: I think the 50,000 point Sapphire Preferred is their top card offer right now. Read this post for more information, but it’s 50,000 points after $3,000 spend within 3 months, $85 annual fee waived for the first year and those points can be transferred 1:1 to Continental, British Airways, Hyatt (major value to be had there), Priority Club (huge value if you can take advantage of their 5,000 point promo “PointBreaks” nights), Marriott and Amtrak. You also get a 7% bonus on all points earned each year, which means the 50k sign-up bonus is actually 53,500. No foreign transaction fees (in case you have any international travel lined up) and you can transfer these points to top up family member accounts.
However, if you fly Southwest, look into their 50,000 point Southwest Visa. Those 50k points are earned after your first purchase (so a good option if you are trying to hit spend requirements on other cards) and can be used for up to $825 in Wanna Get Away Fares. Note there is a $99 annual fee.
3) American Express: This one is a little tricky, because their best offers are technically private, though many people are having success getting the sign-up bonuses bumped, though I cannot guarantee. Right now the Platinum Card has a 25,000 point bonus, but many people are getting that bumped to 100,000 by simply asking once they’ve been approved. Read this post for more information. The card has a $450 annual fee, but comes with a ton of benefits like $200 in airline rebates, lounge access and a ton more- read my full review for more info. If $450 is a lot to take on, a safer bet is the Premier Rewards, which has a 15,000 point bonus and the first year $195 annual fee waived. Per the “it never hurts to ask” post, many people have successfully asked for this sign-up bonus to be 75,000 points and gotten it. Good luck if you go with either (be sure to report back).

As for some general family points travel tips:
1) Don’t carry the burden yourself. Even if your spouse doesn’t have significant income, they can claim household income on their credit card applications. While credit card companies were super strict about income guidelines during the depths of the credit crisis/recession, they have relaxed restrictions across the board. It always surprises me how many financial heads of the household try to do all the work themselves and don’t even consider getting their spouses in on the game. If your spouse doesn’t want to deal with it then just take their SSN and grab the reins of their credit card sign-ups and frequent flyer account management, which leads me to …
2) Manage all family accounts centrally with one Award Wallet account. This will make your life easier. To date there is no online app to help track spend requirements for credit cards (gee, maybe I should create one), but a simple Excel spreadsheet should suffice. Just make sure to keep all payments in check, because missing one can end the credit card bonus gravy train.
3) Focus on accruing flexible, transferable points. American Express and Chase Ultimate Rewards both allow points to be transferred to anyone in your family (or anyone else in the world for that matter) instantly. So if you and your spouse each have 100,000 Amex points,  you can instantly combine them into one transfer partner frequent flyer account.
4) British Airways allows household accounts, which can make reaching award levels easier. You can have up to 6 people in your “household” and your miles will pool together and whenever you redeem for an award the miles come proportionately out of everyone’s account.
5) Sign the little ones up for frequent flyer programs! This week we saw a bunch of free miles promos (American and Starwood had up to 3,000 free points each). If your little ones had AA/SPG accounts, you could have possibly increased your family’s net point/mile worth 4 fold instead of yourself. Again, don’t carry the burden yourself!
6) Focus on programs that allow one-way awards. Finding 4 award seats on one airline is a feat- especially on the same airline both ways on a roundtrip. However, if you have United and American miles, for example, you can fly AA/Alaska one way and United/Continental/US Airways the other way. It greatly increases the chances you will find 4 seats. If you focus on Delta, you are putting all of your eggs in one basket and you’ll most likely have to redeem at higher levels, thus making your family travel more expensive. (This advice coming from a Delta Diamond, but my reasons for being with Delta are primarily for great elite status and domestic upgrades for me, myself and I – hardly the concern of someone looking after a family of 4!).
7) You may want to look into a Capital One card.  You will earn 2 points for every dollar spent and each point equates to 1 cent towards travel. Essentially you are getting a 2% return on your spend to be used for any flight – so you don’t have to worry about award availability. Under normal programs, you earn 1 mile per dollar spent and domestic awards start at 25,000 miles ($50,000 in spend). With a Capital One card, you’d only need to have $25,000 in spend to get that $500, plus you earn miles on flights booked through Capital One. This option makes sense for families who use their points for coach travel to relatively inexpensive destinations. Unfortunately, you missed out on Capital One’s big 100,000 point sign-up bonus, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they brought it back – you never know!

I’m sure there are a ton of other tips, so I hope other TPG readers chime in, but I hope this helps get you off to a good start!

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