Family Travel Tips for Booking Multiple Awards and When to Split the Team

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TPG contributor Jason Steele returns today to talk about family travel and will be giving weekly tips on the best ways to manage miles and points for the whole family. 

Booking a single award seat is easy, but finding two together is much harder. Finding three business class award seats together on a long haul international flight is rare, and finding four award seats is nearly impossible. That’s what our family has discovered as it has grown.

These days, all our international family trips start with a tremendous effort to search for award seats, and end with a painful decision about how to split the team.

Finding award availability together can be tricky!

Case study: Summer vacation in Italy

Spring is very late in the game to book four award seats for a summer vacation, but that’s when we completed the minimum spending requirements for a couple of American Airlines Citi Executive AAdvantage cards with the 100,000 mile bonus. With some points from Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and the Starwood Preferred Guest program, we had a little bit of flexibility on our side.

American Airlines still offers business class tickets to Europe for 100,000 miles round trip (at least for the moment), but it seems to have zeroed out nearly all business and first class award seats to Europe at the Saver level on flights it operates. We struck out with partners such as Air Berlin and Finnair, and ruled out British Airways due to fuel surcharges.

Only when we searched Iberia.com for awards (that are not visible on AA.com) did we find some availability to Rome, via Madrid. Unfortunately, the best we could find was two seats in business class and two seats in coach on the transatlantic leg, but at least they were on the same flight out of JFK. Since Iberia’s A340 is configured 2-4-2 in economy, the two of us stuck there would at least have window and aisle seats by ourselves.

Iberia often has award availability
Iberia often has award availability that isn’t shown on AA.com. (Love this old school 747)

To get from our home in Denver to JFK, we found several connecting flights with four available saver award seats. Since neither American nor its partners offers non-stop service from Denver to New York, I was happy to fly via Dallas in first class with our six-year-old, while my wife preferred to take an earlier non-stop to LaGuardia with our one-year-old, visit family there, and get dropped off at JFK. Thus, all of our flights would depart home at the same time, and we would all meet up later that evening at JFK for the same flight, albeit in different cabins. Another advantage was that I could check all of our bags through, allowing my wife to travel light.

We had the same difficulty finding award space for our flights home, but got lucky when I realized which Star Alliance Awards were not showing up on United.com. LOT Polish has two daily 787s offering flights from Warsaw to New York that depart four and a half hours apart, and there were plenty of flights with two award seats available in business class.

Sure enough, there were four business class seats departing Warsaw, but on separate flights. We booked them using 45,000 Air Canada Aeroplan miles for each ticket, transferred from a mix of Amex Membership Rewards and Starwood points.  Nevertheless, we plan to try boarding everyone on the earlier flight by asking very nicely for some “agent discretion” at the airport.  If that doesn’t work, my wife and our (then) two-year-old will go home first, while my six-year-old and I will have a few extra hours to explore Warsaw before meeting them at an airport hotel at JFK. Since United offered no award seats home from any New York Airport, we will all return on Southwest via La Guardia the next day.

Flexible scheduling will make your travel plans easier, and might get you a few extra hours in Warsaw!
Flexible scheduling makes travel planning easier, and might get you a few extra hours in Warsaw!

Lessons learned:Best practices for booking large groups

Whether you are parents traveling with children, or just taking a trip with a large group of family or friends, try these tips:

1. Book early and be flexible. This advice is often repeated because it’s so true. While I would rather have booked this trip 10-11 months out, at least we had somewhat flexible travel dates. We were also content to fly into Rome and out of Milan or several other airports.

2. Consider mixed cabins. We didn’t want to start our vacation by having us travel to Europe on vastly different itineraries, or on different dates, so we ended up with two of us in business and two in economy on the seven hour transatlantic flight. It’s not ideal, but it’s much better than going all coach. For example, we should all be able to use priority check-in, and we’ll have a much larger baggage allowance. Also, be sure to inform flight attendants before departure that your party is in different cabins, as they’ll be more likely to allow you to mingle during the flight.

Keep in mind that splitting cabins works especially well in Europe, where most short-haul flights are essentially one cabin. Seats sold as business class simply have an empty middle seat, and perhaps a nicer meal.

3. Have a backup plan to fly together.  You can keep looking for additional award seats to open up, which is always possible, but there are several other ways that we could all end up in the same flight and cabin. For example, many airlines will override award space restrictions when they make a schedule change, even a small one. That’s an opportunity to consolidate all travelers on the same itinerary. Flight delays and cancellations can also be a great chance to suggest that affected travelers be re-accommodated on the same flight as the rest of the party. Finally, we hold out some hope that a friendly LOT staffer will put us all on the same flight. To increase our chances, we’ll check all our luggage on the earlier flight, so that bag matching won’t be an issue.

4. Look at fixed value award programs. Award programs like Southwest, Virgin America, and Jetblue are never going to offer the same value as long-haul business class awards offered by legacy carriers. Yet these programs offer a virtual guarantee that families can travel together, so try using them for short-haul trips or to reach your domestic gateway when traveling overseas. Using our two Southwest Companion Passes, it’s affordable to position our family of four to fly out of just about anywhere.

5. Go far. Americans seem to have the greatest points and miles opportunities, but that means we also consume the bulk of the award seats near home. Outside of North America, however, awards are far easier to find. For example, we had no problem finding four award seats together on flights from Madrid to Rome, and from Milan to Warsaw, which are operated by a regional airline. Once you have your long-haul segment out of the way, groups can usually travel together on award tickets.

6. Build in buffers. When you do have to split the team, don’t plan tight connections. For example, we have a generous layover in JFK before our outbound flight, and we’re all spending the night in New York after returning from Europe. That way, if any of our flights are delayed, we can still meet up rather than having to continue on separately.

Leave extra time to make connections, and you can stroll to your gate.
Avoid tight connections when traveling together, and you can stroll to your gate instead of running.

Final thoughts

It’s a well known fact among outdoor adventurers that smaller groups travel faster, and we’ve found international travel to be less stressful in smaller groups. Kids can’t fight with each other if they’re on separate aircraft, right? Furthermore, our family has started to look at split team travel as a bonding experience, as kids look forward to having some one-on-one time with each parent. Booking award travel for a large group is a challenge, but the rewards are worth it!

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