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

by on July 17, 2011 · 24 comments

in Credit Cards, Family Travel, Sunday Reader Questions

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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!

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Mommy Points

    I absolutely agree with everything TPG posted. We are currently a family of three, but we often are doing vacations that also coincide with one or both sets of grandparents, cousins, etc…. so we do have some experience with large families and points. As he said def. get both parents in on the points game with large credit card sign-ups. You do have to be careful about minimum spends when you have multiples of some offers at the same time (ex. if you both got in on the American Airlines 150K deal, then your family would have to spend $11,000 on those credit cards alone in 6 months to get the sign-up bonus). Make sure you don’t bite off more minimum spend than you can chew. The other thing I have done that works for families traveling on points is really start looking very early for reward seats. I literally start looking the day the schedule gets released for the dates I want to travel (about 10.5-11 months out on many airlines). For domestic economy seats I have had very good luck on Continental if I start early and look consistently. I am starting to look at American some too (due to the 150K deal) and am seeing great availability for multiple seats on the same flights on the routes I am interested in there, too.

    One good thing about families and points is that families spend a lot and that spend can translate into many points on credit cards. We rack in tons of points per year just charging daycare! Make sure you have your bills, insurance payments, groceries, clothing purchases, soccer payments, etc… all going on cards that earn points. It adds up crazy quick.

    If either parent has business travel, start trying to have as much of that travel as possible be at one specific hotel chain or airline. That also helps add to the frequent stayer/flyer accounts.

    One final piece of “advice” is when you do get to book award seats on airlines with all your new found miles is strongly consider (assuming you are getting a seat for the youngest and not having him/her on your lap) having the 2nd adult sit directly in front of the 16 month old. So, on many flights you would have three across and then 1 in front. You can switch off who that lucky adult is who isn’t managing the two kiddos, but I have found that when my daughter was about that age, she kicked the seat in front of her like there was no tomorrow. She was not old enough to really reason with effectively to stop doing it and due to the car seat she was in, she was close enough to kick the seat hard. Then, when the lady in front of her reclined her seat it darn near broke my daughter’s legs she went back so hard so fast and pinned them. A little off topic, but wanted to throw it in anyway. :) It wasn’t pleasant for anyone!

    Good luck with your travels!!

  • Anonymous

    Per point (5) in your post, I must have missed the Starwood 3,000 point promo this week. Is it still available? What do I need to do? Thx.

  • Ten60

    On the capital one rewards program I was lucky enough to get in on their match earlier. I trick I learned was when you have a certain credit, say $260.00 when you pay for something that is eligible, say a cruise in my case I paid a partial payment of $260.00 and that way I could use all of my credit. If you book something for $400.00 the $260 credit is not enough. I havent tried it with an airline ticket but I would be surprised if the airline didnt take 2 different credit cards for a booking if you explain it right, no one want to loose a sale, however the airlines do charge you fees if you book by phone unless on delta for example you are gold

  • Heather

    I’m having trouble finding reward hotel rooms for 4 in Europe. Hotel rooms tend to be for 2 in Europe; I hate to book two rooms because my kids are 4 and 6 and I hate to use twice as many points. Even when I find the rare room with two double beds or a bed and sofa bed, I can’t book them with points. I have gold status with Hilton and platinum with Priority Club,which may help with upgrades, but I want to travel in summer 2012 and I’m thinking I can’t count on upgrades. We have 49,000 SPG points, 328,000 Hilton points, 103,000 Priority Club, 25,000 MR points left after transferring to Delta, and have 100,000 Sapphire Points pending. I have seen some Marriotts with two doubles, are they bookable on points?

  • HikerT

    Surprised you didn’t mention credit cards with companion tickets. Could be useful for families. The Barclays US Airways Mastercard has a $99 companion ticket for up to 2 companions. The Alaska Airlines Signature Visa has a $99 annual companion ticket.

    As far as Capital One Venture, I would not recommend applying for any Capital One cards unless the offer is substantial. For someone with good credit, inquiries are going to be the limiting factor in getting cards capital one pulls all 3 credit reporting agencies resulting in 3 inquiries. Not worth it, even for 2% cash back. Fidelity’s 2% cash back Amex would be a better option for cash back.

  • Alanc

    So true about having one parent sit in front of the kids! We learned that one the hard way but now swear by it. Gives one parent a bit of a break, and also avoids the kicking/recline issue. And if one of my kids has a meltdown, at least one of us can pretend we have no idea who those people are! :)

  • Rahul Francis

    I can relate to Charmaine. With two kids of my own (13 and 14), we’ve been racking up those miles. We finally have enough to go to Europe in 2013 for all 4 of us on Lufthansa (business O/W, economy return).

    Only 320,000 miles!

  • Anonymous

    Great point about getting everyone involved in collecting points!

    Flexibility can go a long way in finding extra reward tickets. Traveling mid-week and making plans far out (or close-in) can help a lot.

    If your family is large then it could be wise to check into options that have you flying on separate planes. It may even be the same airlines arriving close together. Of course, flight delays could turn this is into a mess from time to time.

    It also could be good to use miles for some and buy tickets for others. We like to maintain status for parents, so we often buy our tickets to places like Hawaii but will use miles for the children.

  • Mommy Points

    Ha ha – love the pretend you don’t know them trick! ;)

  • Mommy Points

    Honestly, I would consider just booking two rooms. It sounds like a big vacation you are thinking about well in advance. For a big vacation like that it might be worth it to just spend the miles and/or cash to ensure you have the space that you need to make it a great vacation and not have the hassle and stress of worrying about space available upgrades. Another idea is to try really hard to win the free seat the TPG is giving away on the Mega DO 3 and then you can have Hyatt Diamond status and get some suite upgrade certificates that can help you guarantee suite upgrades in advance!

  • Dewhit6959

    I can understand Charmaine’s desire to have miles and points for family travel, but I would strongly caution against applying for all the different credit card offers. I do not have all the financial inputs needed for in depth advice, but I would not even entertain getting into the frequent flyer points/mileage game with a very young family. If you do not own your own home or have at least a 50% equity in your property at current prices, I would only consider one card that gives you miles for the things you will purchase ordinarily and possibly get bonus miles at certain spend points. Keep it simple and don’t spend extra or have various open credit accounts for miles or points. At their current age, you have the opportunity to establish some investment accounts for their future education and realize tax and capital gains savings. Young children do not know the difference in a car trip to the beach or the city and a expensive island vacation. I am hearing quite a few stories from young men that are bitten with the “mileage bug” that are handicapping themselves for future financial obligations. Just my two cents…….

  • Derek

    This is why a lot of people love Marriott but they don’t get a lot of love in the miles/point game. Marriotts are all over and most of the time two doubles are bookable. Some exceptions exist such as in Paris where you can get two doubles at the best ones by paying a small supplement, but it is better than booking two rooms. Most other major cities such as London, NYC, etc, a room with two beds are no problem booked far enough in advance.

    I would look into the credit card for you and your spouse for points. Another trick with Marriott is that you don’t technically have to have the points to book the rooms. You just need to have the points about a week ahead of time. Great for planning purposes.

    Any other questions, let me know.

  • Caleb B


    How exactly are people “handicapping themselves for future financial obligations”??

    Are you hearing about them messing up by missing payments, or are there other mistakes to watch out for?

  • Dewhit6959

    I can give you a prime example of “handicapping yourself” financially. A young man who works for someone I know has been unable to gain a mortgage on a property due to a large credit to income ratio. There is nothing wrong with these offers if chosen wisely and paid off, but in this instance, an individual has lost an opportunity for a long term asset for short term gratification of a free or discounted airline ticket and a few nights at a swanky hotel. The real kicker is he explained he needed the benefits for a travel break from his job and evening MBA studies.

  • Mommy Points

    Credit to income or debt to income ratio? If it is a credit to income, the solution should be simple enough and he could close some accounts. If it is debt to income that is entirely different and that problem could happen with 1 or 2 card just as easily as with many cards. I agree 100% that if you have a large purchase, such as a home, in your future than it is best to hold off on applying for any more credit cards than you need for at least 6 months (maybe more) before the purchase. However, many families already earn their home, are established with their jobs, and do want to share the world with their kids…….and get a break for themselves. Done responsibly, getting a few credit cards each year for large sign-up bonuses should not hurt these families in any significant way. As with everything, just be smart about it.

  • Mommy Points

    earn = own :)

  • Heather

    The Sheraton Madison briefly offered 3,000 SPG points on July 14th for liking them on Facebook. They pulled the offer 90 minutes later after reaching 2,000 fans.

  • Heather

    Thank you for the tips on Marriott. I have 4 Chase cards already, will put Marriott on my list after I cancel one at the end of August. My Sapphire points could convert to Marriott as well. I thought I was going to convert Sapphire points to Continental, but have no immediate plans for Continental/United miles. It’s nice to have choices but it complicates things.

  • Heather

    Thanks for the advice. I read that Hyatt upgrade certificates are only redeemable on paid stays. Somehow I have a hard time summoning enthusiasm for Hyatt, I feel a bit uncomfortable in 5 star hotels, but I’ll keep that in mind!

  • Derek

    One other comment. With the card comes a yearly 1 night certificate at renewal time. It starts at cat 1-4, but after renewal is 1-5. The bad thing is that the cert is only good for 6 months, so if you always take vacation at the same time each year, you want to plan appropriately. Mine is good from april – nov, but I wish it was good into ski season when I might save it for good use rather than just using it because I have too (with kids in school, etc you probably understand). Cheers.

  • Gpapadop

    I know your feelings toward this! We are a family of four and we have never gotten more than two rooms in Europe! We have a routine: my wife stays in the lobby somewhere with one kid or somewhere close by. I go and do the check in with one kid and try to get what I want. We get the keys and, depending on where the elevators are, my kid with me takes the other key to his mom and tells her the room number or we all just go up together on the elevator. After checkin it is smooth sailing, nobody bothers us…

  • Mikes

    If you cruise, Cap1 is a piece of cake. As you say, partial payments are easy to manipulate. Also, on Carnival at least, the “Bon Voyage” gifts are all reimburseble as travel. It makes spending $30 on a $8 bottle of bubbly a bit more tolerable. Lastly, you can buy CCL gift certificates for yourself in increments as small as $25 which are also reimbursable as travel. With airline tickets, Cap1 asked how many tickets were done under a given charge. If you buy 4 tix, you can redeem miles for one ticket that way. (Obviously, a person could also lie and say they bought more tix than they did but that would be unethical.)

  • Mikes

    Charmaine: if you’re willing to have the LO as a lap child, I’d suggest you get a CARES harness. S/he is a bit small right now, but it won’t be long. We actually check the car seats and use the harness instead, as they are much easier to carry through the airport.

    If you have an empty seat next to you, with the CARES you can seat the kid for free. If the flight is not full, the gate agent will usually try to work with you (and other pax) to make a space. After all, nobody wants to sit next to the baby. ;)

    Also, if you do go lap-child remember to bring ID. I had a brainfart in May: thinking that we were only going to California, I didn’t bring their passports. We almost got screwed by Southwest, but they let us on subject to providing proof of age on the way back (which they noted in the computer and did require). Fortunately I had electronic copies of the passports which I could print, but it could have been a big problem otherwise.

  • GuestQuest Vacations

    These are great tips! Families who never traveled before may consider taking a road trip before flying the friendly skies. This way you can see how your kids react to traveling, especially when you’re traveling long distances.

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