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Family Award Travel Destinations and Availability for Summer

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Booking award travel early has its merits, since you’re likely to see better availability and find the seats and routings you want. Summer is 9 months away, and while not everyone knows their schedule that far in advance, it’s not too early to start planning. Today TPG Contributor Jason Steele looks at some great international family destinations and award options for each of them so you can get a jump start on your travel plans for 2015.

With the arrival of fall, savvy travel rewards enthusiasts are actually looking at planning their trips for next summer. Why plan so early? Summer is a peak season for all travelers, and there’s extremely high demand for limited award space availability. When you add to that the needs of families who require several seats, preferably together, booking as early as fall makes sense if you want to make sure you get the summer award travel you have in mind.

So here are some of my favorite family destinations for which summer award seats are difficult to find, but currently available for a family of four.

South Africa is an incredible family destination for summer. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
South Africa is an incredible family destination for summer. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

South Africa
South Africa is an amazing destination for families, as well as for singles and couples. It’s far away, but I found South Africa to be a very friendly. modern country with a favorable exchange rate. It’s a great jumping off point to take a safari in neighboring Namibia and Botswana, or to view wildlife in the many game parks and preserves within South Africa itself. Our summer is their (very mild) winter, which is considered to be the best time to view game animals, since they’re easier to spot when the leaves have fallen.

It’s very difficult to secure multiple award seats on the handful of South African Airways flights from the US, or the single daily Delta flight. Instead, most travelers will end up flying through Europe. For example, here are two of the many different options for a family of four in economy class traveling in June, using United MileagePlus miles:

You can find four award seats to South Africa next summer, but the availability  will shrink dramatically over time.
You can find four award seats to South Africa next summer, but availability will shrink quickly.

Other tips to get you to South Africa:

1. Use ANA to find long-haul flights on South African. Although South African Airways is a member of the Star Alliance, and you can use points from United or other Star Alliance carriers to book their flights, it’s one of several airlines that do not show award seats on United.com. Instead, look for award seats on South African Airways using the award search engine of ANA Airlines of Japan. Also, consider connections on African Star Alliance carriers Egyptair and Ethiopian.

2. Break up the journey when you search. South Africa is so far away that it will often take three or more connections to reach your destination, and award search engines are very poor at creating those itineraries. Instead, try searching from your origin to a mid-point in Europe or Africa that is a hub for one of your airline’s partners. If you find the seats you need, then search again from that point to your destination. Next, try to construct a multi-city itinerary that you can book online, or just call to book the award.

3. Use Avios for flights within Southern Africa. If you reach South Africa with a Star Alliance carrier, you should be able to book some of the plentiful short-haul space on South African Airlines to reach cities beyond Johannesburg. But if you arrive with a SkyTeam or Oneworld carrier, you’ll want to book regional award flights at the lowest levels. Consider using the British Airways Avios program, which offers distance-based awards and is partnered with the South African regional carrier Comair Limited (not to be confused with the old Delta regional carrier of the same name). Avios award flights under 650 miles (which describes most of Comair’s route network) are just 4,500 points each way. British Airways is a partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and the Starwood Preferred Guest program, and you can earn 50,000 Avios with the British Airways Visa Signature card (after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months, with a $95 annual fee), so Avios are easy to come by.

You can use British Airways Avios points for awards on Comair in South Africa.
You can use British Airways Avios points for awards on Comair in South Africa.

Brazil
South America is another underappreciated family destination. I love Brazil for summer travel because there isn’t much of a winter in most of the country, and our dollars go quite far there. Also, there’s little (if any) jet lag to worry about. My favorite destinations in Brazil include Rio De Janeiro, Salvador, Manaus, and the island of Fernando de Noronha. Rio needs no introduction, although Salvador is actually considered to be the cultural capital of Brazil, with its own unique food, music, and dance. Manaus is the gateway to the Amazon jungle, while Fernando de Noronha (pronounced nar-own-ya) lies several hundred miles off of the northeast coast of South America. It’s a magical place that is considered to be the Galapagos of the Atlantic due to the abundance and diversity of its wildlife. Read about TPG’s visit to the best beach in the world there and the seafood buffet at the Ze Maria hotel, which I ate once and still consider to be the best meal of my life.

Our summer is winter in Brazil, which is still quite warm. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Our summer is winter in Brazil, which is still quite warm. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

The problem is that Brazil is underserved by airlines, and award space is especially scarce during our summer. Nevertheless, I was able to find many dates for next summer with four American Airlines award seats available in economy class.

 I was able to find many dates for next summer with four American Airlines Award seats available in economy class.
American Airlines currently has good award availability to Brazil for next summer.

I even found flights on a few dates with four sAAver award seats on American’s international first class, but very little in business class.

Here is a day when there are 4 seats available in first class, from Miami to Sao Paulo, on the saver level, on each of their three daily flights!
Here is a day when there are 4 seats available in first class, from Miami to Sao Paulo, at the sAAver level, on each of American Airlines’ three daily flights between Miami and Sao Paulo!

Other tips to get you to Brazil:

1. The Copa question. On one hand, Panamanian carrier Copa offers service to Brazil and other destinations in South America via its Panama City hub, and I found their award space to be quite plentiful. On the other hand, they fly narrow-body 737 aircraft, and their international seats are roughly the equivalent of domestic first class seats in the United States. Consider that before using your miles for “business class” when you know you could be spending two 6-hour flights in what amounts to just a slightly wider seat that doesn’t turn into a bed.

2. Finding award space. United should show awards on its partners Copa and Avianca/Taca, but it’s unreliable, so you should double check ANA’s search engine for these Star Alliance carriers. American will not show any space on fellow Oneworld carriers LAN and TAM, which have extensive networks in Brazil and the rest of South America, so check award availability on the sites of other Oneworld carriers like British Airways. Finally, those looking to use miles with a SkyTeam carrier should check out TPG Contributor Eric Rosen’s guide to booking awards on Aerolineas Argentina with Delta SkyMiles, and consider award flights on AeroMexico, which can even be found on the Alaska Airlines app.

3. Getting around Brazil. Brazil is roughly the size of the continental United States, and many parts are unreachable by roads, so you’ll likely need to fly if you plan to visit multiple destinations. Those traveling with United should consider the low-cost Brazilian carrier Azul, which is a non-alliance partner of United run by the founder of JetBlue. GOL is another Brazilian low-cost carrier, and its mileage program is an SPG transfer partner and a redemption partner of Delta Airlines SkyMiles. If no award flights are available, you might find the prices for these discount carriers surprisingly affordable.

Europe is a tough award ticket to book for families, so it is vital to book next summer early. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Europe is a tough award ticket for families to get, so booking early is vital. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Europe
Europe will always be a favorite summer destination since it suffers from relatively poor weather the rest of the year, and summer is one of the few times that families can get away for more than a week. Thankfully, there are still flights available to Europe for next summer with four or more award seats. Below are the results of a search for awards on Flying Blue (the frequent flyer program of Air France, KLM and others) for four people between Los Angeles and Paris for next July. Remember, Flying Blue is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, the Starwood Preferred Guest program, and Citi ThankYou Rewards.

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The results of a search for awards for four people between Los Angeles and Paris for next July:

Business class awards for four passengers are a lot less common, but they are out there:

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An example of business class availability between LA and Paris for four people next summer.

Other tips for booking family awards to Europe:

1. Be exhaustive. There’s so much transatlantic capacity between so many cities, it can take a long time to search it all. For instance, the Star Alliance has no fewer than 12 carriers that offer service between Europe and North America. Also look for service from non-hub airports, such as Delta’s flights to Paris from Boston, Philadelphia, and Newark. If you come up empty searching online for availability on your airline of choice, focus on non-alliance and other partners that offer service that might only appear on another carrier’s website.

2. Just cross the pond. Regardless of where you’re traveling to in Europe, the hardest award space to find will be the the transatlantic leg. Once you reach Europe, however, finding award space is easy. For example, here’s what I found when searching for four award seats between Frankfurt and Istanbul on United.com:

Award space within Europe can be virtually wide open, even for four people.
Award space within Europe is wide open, even for four people.

3. Accept additional stops and other imperfect routes. It can be disappointing to only find awards to Europe that make two or more stops, especially if there is a non-stop service from your home town. My recommendation is to accept these bookings for travel far in the future, with the strong likelihood that that there will be schedule changes before you fly. These changes offer you the opportunity to request that low mileage level award space be opened up on a more direct routing to accommodate your party, although airlines typically can only open up award seats on flights they operate.

There’s also the chance that weather will disrupt the schedule, again allowing you to switch to a better flight. For example, I had booked a flight from Denver to Rome via Dallas and Madrid, but I never flew it. When our first flight from Denver to Dallas was delayed, our itinerary was quickly changed to a single stop in Chicago, and I was even entitled to a refund of taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges I paid. Finally, always keep in mind that a low-cost award flight is worth making an extra stop or two compared to paying the expensive summer fares to Europe, especially if you’re fortunate enough to enjoy business or first class.

What are your favorite summer destinations (for family or otherwise)? How far in advance do you book award travel to make sure you get the seats you want? Please share your strategies and thoughts in the comments below.
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