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10 Tips for Booking Family Award Travel

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Award travel is a great way to broaden not only your own horizons, but also those of the people you love. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele offers some of his favorite strategies for traveling with the whole family using points and miles.

Family travel can be challenging for award travel enthusiasts, as you’ll need a larger pool of points, greater award availability and more planning to get everyone to the same place at (more or less) the same time. Over the years I’ve gained a lot of experience using rewards to travel with my family of four, so in this post I’ll share some of the more advanced and creative techniques you can use to plan and redeem for a big family trip.

Gathering the Points and Miles You Need

A family of four will generally need at least 100,000 points or miles to book even the most modest domestic award flights in economy. An overseas trip in business class can easily cost more than a half a million points or miles for the airfare alone. Here are some strategies for accruing travel rewards on this scale:

1. Leverage credit card sign-up bonuses across multiple family members. Aside from big spenders, most families won’t earn enough points and miles from credit cards to afford a big award trip without taking advantage of the best sign-up bonuses. When a particularly good offer comes along, my wife and I will both sign up, and we may even encourage our parents to do so as well.

For example, the Wyndham Rewards Visa is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 45,000 points: 30,000 after your first purchase, and 15,000 more after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days. Those points are equivalent to three free nights at any Wyndham property. That’s a solid offer, but it would make for a rather short family vacation. However, since both my wife and I got this card, we now have six free nights available instead of three.

Use programs like TrueBlue that let you pool points and miles among family members, so you can redeem more efficiently.

2. Pool points across family members. Another way families can come up with the points and miles needed to book travel is to share their rewards with each other, which some programs allow for free:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards allows points to be transferred between spouses and domestic partners.
  • Starwood Preferred Guest lets you move Starpoints between members of a household who have held the same address for at least 30 days.
  • Citi ThankYou Rewards allows you to transfer points to any other ThankYou Rewards member.
  • Hyatt Gold Passport also allows you to transfer points to any other member’s account.
  • JetBlue offers a Family Pooling account for up two adults and up to five children under 21.
  • British Airways offers Household Accounts for up to seven people who share an address.
  • Hawaiian Airlines allows you to transfer miles to anyone who is the primary account holder of a Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard.

For more information, see my post on Transferring Points and Awards to Maximize Family Travel.

3. Book travel from each other’s accounts. If you’re working with a program that doesn’t offer free transfers, you can still maximize your available points and miles by booking awards in someone else’s name. For example, parents can book awards with miles in their children’s accounts, or the other way around. Considering that most frequent flyer programs allow one-way awards, families can scavenge their accounts to come up with the rewards needed to get where they’re going. For example, you could use miles from one person’s account to book an outbound flight for a second person, and then use miles from a third person’s account to book the return flight.

Finally, it’s no big deal to book consecutive nights at hotels using points from different accounts. You won’t have to change rooms when you change reservations, so long as you let the front desk know when you check in that the same party will be staying under different reservations. For more on booking family hotel stays, check out my posts on maximizing family travel with Marriott, Starwood, Hyatt and Hilton.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
When traveling in a larger group, book travel far in advance to improve your odds of finding availability. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Finding Award Space

When it comes to family travel, earning huge numbers of points and miles may actually be the easy part — you still have to find available award seats for everyone. Here are a few tips:

4. Manage expectations. If you’re in charge of your family’s award travel planning, then it helps to get everyone on the same page early. Let them know that you’ll be trying to book an amazing trip to a fantastic destination, but there will typically be some compromises inherent to award travel. For example, you’ll likely have to change planes somewhere, even when there’s an airline that offers nonstop service along your route. Also, everyone might have to adjust their schedules a little in order to fly on award tickets and save thousands of dollars.

5. Leverage your inflexibility. A major issue that affects families trying to use points and miles is the need to accommodate school schedules. This often means trying to find award seats during the holidays and other peak travel periods. Thankfully, most school systems publish their calendars at least one year in advance, so you can plan your vacations much further in advance than most other travelers.

Although many airlines no longer release all of their award seats 330 days in advance, some still do. In addition, you’ll always have more options the further out you’re able to book. Every time my family celebrates a holiday or the kids are out of school, we ask ourselves where we want to be at that time next year, and start trying to book our trip a month later.

6. Look for non-alliance spokes. When searching for multiple award seats on long-haul flights, I’ve found that the best award availability is often on flights between hub cities of mismatched alliances — what I call non-alliance spokes. For example, Star Alliance member Lufthansa flies from Munich to Charlotte, which is a hub of Oneworld member American Airlines/US Airways. On this route, you’ll find four award seats in economy class on most flights, and even four business class awards sometimes.

Lufthansa's flight from Charlotte to Munich is between hubs of different alliances, and usually has great award space.
Lufthansa’s flight from Charlotte to Munich goes between hubs of different alliances, and usually has great award space.

Other examples of non-alliance spokes include British Airways flights from London to Atlanta and Denver, and Air France flights from Paris to Washington Dulles and Miami.

7. Look for new routes. Another way to book several award seats together is to strike as soon as a new route is announced and loaded into the system. For a sample of some new routes, see our post on Exciting New Airline Routes for August 2015 and Beyond. In addition to these new international flights, pay attention to some of the less exciting domestic flights that are added to your local airport. I like to do this by subscribing to my local airport’s email list, which gleefully notifies me whenever any new flights are about to be added (and offers other useful announcements).

8. Mix paid and award bookings. Another creative way to book family award travel is to split your party between award and revenue bookings. This can be a good solution when you’re unable to come up with enough points and miles for everyone, or when you can’t find enough award seats on the same flight.

Unfortunately, this strategy represents a zero-sum game with traditional awards, since less expensive tickets correspond to lower value for your redemptions. However, if you’re using fixed-value points and miles (like those you earn from the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard), the flights that cost the least will also be the best use of your miles.

TPG’s monthly valuations can help you determine whether a given redemption offers a good return, or whether it makes more sense to pay outright for your travel.

9. Split the team. If you’ve tried everything and still can’t find award space for everyone on the same flight, you’ll often have to split the team, taking different flights to the same destination. This can actually be a positive, since family members have the chance to spend more time together and it’s easier to travel in smaller groups. For more information, see my post on When to Split the Team.

10. Use schedule changes to your advantage. Even when we do have to split the team, we can sometimes pull our group back together later when schedule changes arise — provided our flights are booked with the same program or within the same alliance. Airlines will often open award space when they make a significant schedule change, and if you’re booking your flights many months in advance, these schedule changes are all but guaranteed.

So when you’re notified of a schedule change, you can request different flights that work better for your itinerary (like whichever one the rest of your family is on, or perhaps one with a better routing or schedule than what you had originally). You might need to call several times until your pleas reach a sympathetic ear. Finally, it never hurts to ask nicely to be placed on different flights on the day of travel, especially if there are delays or cancellations along your route.

What other strategies do you use to plan and book family travel?

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