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

by on May 16, 2014 · 18 comments

in Aadvantage, Aeroplan, Air Canada, American, American Express, Chase, Citi, Iberia, Membership Rewards, Southwest, star alliance, Starwood, Ultimate Rewards, United

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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!

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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  • eip

    Excellent post! And I agree that splitting the kids on different flights has many advantages!

  • Dynastar

    I did seven people (two families) to Kona this summer, and it was not easy. In the end I split everyone into three groups and used an Arrivals card to pay cash for one of the tickets. Frankly with my kids, age 7 and 4, splitting them up is a feature, not a bug. :)

  • Anita

    If you happen to be flying with the family on United in coach, consider purchasing the Economy Plus subscription.

    Instead of booking business class for our family of five on our return from Europe next month (for an additional 100k United miles just to upgrade us on the return), I purchased the full year group subscription to E+ seats for about $1000. It allows me and up to 8 people traveling with me to book E+ seats on all legs of all flights. The Europe trip alone was 20 legs (5 people x 4 legs), and we’ve flown at least 18 other segments during the year. In addition, it appears that any flight I book before the subscription period expires is eligible for the E+ seat selection even if the flight occurs after the subscription is over.

    So I am getting nearly 2 years worth of E+ seats for 5 people for $1000.

  • Karen

    My kids are older now, but still want to try and get on the same flight. 6 of us to Hawaii out of New York next Summer will probably be impossible but I will try. Thanks for the tips..

  • http://www.mileageupdate.com/ MileageUpdate

    When you said family travel and splitting it up. I thought Me and Mrs on one flight and the kids on the other flight. :)

  • Jason Steele

    Perhaps once the kids are in college….

  • Jason Steele

    Good tip! Does E+ work for award tickets?

  • Anita

    Yes, it works for award or paid tickets. Tickets just must be booked from the account linked to the subscription.

  • austinpop

    My 2 kids are now 18 and 15, and over the years we have taken many a trip where we’ve been fortunate to get all 4 of us together in business class. In fact, this summer will be the first time where the kids’ll be in coach for 1 segment. We’re flying:
    IAH-PEK-SIN on Air China (4 biz seats)
    SIN-BOM on SQ (2 biz, 2 coach)
    BOM-IST-IAH on TK (4 biz).

    My point is that there are only a few airlines where 4 or more biz seats are routinely (or even ever) available. It would be great if you or TPG could do a survey listing those. My starter list would be: CA, TK, LH, KL, AF, UA, US. Additionally, it would be good to have a list of airlines that never have more than say 2 biz award seats on any given flight, like SQ (at least for partner awards).

  • eric

    i booked a flight on AA from sjd to nyc, via lax, and they made a schedule change by an hour in sjd, i now have a longer layover in LAX.. is there a way for them to put me on the transcon? so far they refuse.. any ideas? am i in my rights to demand it?

  • sw

    Took advantage of the new BA 380 2x daily out of LAX when it was announced no problem finding 4 club world seats – did book 11 months out though

  • Darren Rosenblum

    Five of us traveled using miles on Delta (I paid my fare) and there were a total of two awards. I had to stay on top of them to get economy comfort seats since they didn’t release them and then they finally did release them, we grabbed them (at a reduced price since I’m Gold) and then a week before the trip I checked the time of the trip and discovered that they had split us all up – me separated from my 4-year old and my parents in another part of the plane, out of economy comfort. I was furious about it but they basically did very little but refund the economy comfort fees. We all sat apart in the end since the gate agent couldn’t fix it either. It was terrible. They really should allow merging of points for award redemption.

  • Bob Hobson

    Good tips, thanks. I want to add something that was a life saver on my last trip to Rome. I lost my passport during the day and had no idea it was missing. Fortunately, I had a tracer tag on it. A waiter where I ate lunch found it and entered my tracker number on the website. I was automatically sent a text message (and an email) with a pickup location before I ever even knew my passport was missing. Lucky for me, I was leaving in the morning for Germany and getting a new passport would have been impossible. Tags are available through mystufflostandfound.com That tag saved my trip from total disaster and I put them on my phone, laptop and almost everything that travels with me now.

  • Takhliq

    I know its not a popular choice but Saudi airlines would be another one with plenty of Biz seats available. I flew with them from Washington Dulles to Lahore Pakistan in December. Family of 5 and all in Biz on the same flight.

  • jmw2323

    I had to split the family 2+2 for EI BOS-DUB. Got 7 months time to hopefully get the 4 of us back together. FLights are less that 3 hours apart.

    Return flight is MAD-ORD on IB. Did mixed cabin with the kids sitting in Y

  • Denver Ken

    We just booked on Hawaiian for spring break. Booked my Mother in Law out of JFK on Hawaiian to Maui (JFK-HNL-OGG). The connecting inter-island flight was included. If you have the Hawaiian World Elite Mastercard you can book for 17,500 miles each way (if available, ours were). It is definitely a great deal. See TGP posts on Hawaiian to learn more. They had a whole series on it.

  • George Schlosser

    Booked a trip to Italy for my husband and mother-in-law to celebrate her 65th birthday. Managed to get all of us in BA First there and Club World on the way back. I had a travel together ticket, so had to use BA, I don’t mind the surcharges because still come out in the end only spending 1/2 the points.

  • Amelia

    If you are using two awards, remember to phone your airline and have the two awards connected together. This way, the system knows you are travelling together. This has saved me a few headaches, especially for Christmas flights, when so many things can happen last minute.

    I am really surprised they didn’t do more to ensure the 4 year old was with you, however.

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