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How to Create a Points & Miles Strategy for Family Travel

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Now that you’re sold on traveling for free or for very little cost, where do you invest your time, energy and spending to earn points? TPG Contributor Jessica Lawler suggests considering these factors to devise a points and miles strategy for family travel.

Keeping up on the points game can be a little intimidating at times, and especially when you’re trying to travel often with a family. I think that asking yourself a few key questions can help guide your strategy for earning points and miles.

airplanes in line on runway full shutterstock 198700100
Do you live near an airline hub? If so, this should help shape your strategy. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

How can we take advantage of our location?

Consider which airlines fly to and from your city. Is the airport closest to you a hub for a specific airline? For instance, my husband and I currently live in San Francisco, which is a hub for United. Although we wouldn’t pick United as our favorite airline (in fact, I’m really hoping someone at United has read Zach Honig’s recent post), its MileagePlus miles can be redeemed on a wide variety of Star Alliance partners that fly from SFO to destinations we want to visit. Therefore, we choose to accrue miles with United, enough so that my husband has elite status with the airline.

Once you have a destination in mind, ask yourselves these five key questions that will help you earn and use points efficiently:

Which airlines fly to that destination?

Accruing Southwest Airlines points won’t help you fly to Rio de Janeiro during your kids’ summer vacation next year, so do your homework and know which airlines will get you where you want to go. On that note, try to plan ahead and check award availability in advance.

Which credit card points transfer to one of those airlines? 

Don’t be lured by a huge sign-up bonus for a credit card if those points won’t even be usable for where you want to go. Once you know which credit card points transfer to your desired airline(s), check out TPG’s advice on credit card application strategies.

Do those same credit card points also transfer to a hotel brand that has properties at your destination?

Or maybe the credit card points can transfer to multiple brands at your destination. We’ve had great luck redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards points for hotel stays, especially when we found a deal for our most memorable hotel stay yet at the Four Seasons Istanbul at Sultanahmet.

If not, which credit card makes the most sense for that hotel brand?

If you’re heading to Myanmar, where Western hotels were scarce when we visited a few years ago, it probably doesn’t make sense to base your credit card choices on hotel brands. However, with a bit of research, you can reap the benefits of staying in hotels for free or for a discount using credit card points.

Taking advantage of a stopover allowed us to explore Tokyo for a few days.

With these questions answered, you can hone-in and ask:

What kind of travel experience do you want?

We often choose quantity over quality, meaning we’d rather take more trips in a year than one amazing first-class experience in the same time frame. We like to keep a running list of places we want to visit (Vietnam is currently on top), and more importantly, we consistently check to see how many points and miles we need to get to our top destinations.

How many points and miles will it take to make that happen?

When trying to plan a trip for four people (in our case) using mostly points and miles, accruing any points at all is a good thing. However, once you’ve zeroed in on your airline options, your chosen destination(s), your ideal credit card(s) and hotel program, you can focus your earning to reach your goal faster and read up about how to transfer points between family members to further maximize your earning.

How does your work travel strategy line up with your family strategy?

For example, my husband travels domestically for his job, but while his co-workers rave about flying Virgin America, he chooses to fly United for now to keep his status and to give us more flexibility to redeem those points.

Can status matches and challenges help?

Another thing to look out for are status matches and challenges from airlines or from your employer. Thanks to a company-wide status challenge from Virgin America, my husband may be able to earn gold status on United while also earning silver or gold on Virgin.

Whether my daughter will remember this pristine Thai beach or not, we like traveling with our kids — and even more when their plane tickets are practically free.

What else do you consider before choosing credit card and hotel/airline programs? 

For us, it’s overwhelming to do the “churn and burn” constantly, so we stick with a few solid credit cards and programs that make sense, while still keeping an eye on sign-up bonuses to boost our loyalty account balances.

Credit Cards/programs that work for us:

Chase Sapphire Preferred is still our go-to card and a TPG favorite – it’s maximal earning potential and transferrable Ultimate Rewards points go far. Thanks to a combination of United MileagePlus miles and Ultimate Rewards points, we could prioritize travel while my husband earned his MBA, a period of our life where we had extra time but not a lot of extra money.

Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card from American Express makes sense for my husband’s work spending, especially since he travels only one-to-two days per week, so the stays add up quickly to achieve platinum status. Having hotel status can mean the difference between a cramped room or a spacious suite for our family to spread out, so it’s important to us. With a $200 stay (200 points off the bat), he gets five SPG points (three from gold status and two from using his SPG Amex), 250 point bonus for the welcome gift and on his last trip, an additional 350 points thanks to SPG’s partnership with Uber. 1,600 SPG points, based on TPG’s recent valuation, amounts to close to $40, all for a one-night stay.

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier card and its business version are both on our radar to apply for soon. Earning a companion pass for almost two years is invaluable for a family. If both my husband and I apply for cards, our daughters will travel free for two years. As long as you can spend the minimum amount within the allotted time frame to earn companion passes, these cards seem like a no-brainer.

Chase Freedom card is also on our list. Because we formerly lived in Asia and accrued many Ultimate Rewards points through travel and everyday spending, we haven’t felt the need to complete the “Chase trifecta,” with the Freedom and Ink Plus Business cards. However, with our points supply getting low, we’ll likely apply for one or both of these Chase cards to build up our balance again. I think the trio of Chase cards – Sapphire Preferred, Freedom and Ink Plus Business – is a great overall option to maximize spending, especially since Ultimate Rewards points offer so many redemption options.

With United MileagePlus Gold, Marriott Rewards Gold and SPG Platinum under our belt, we’ll likely target a third hotel program for more flexible options in the future, but we’re keeping it simple for now.

Seeing the catch of the day in Istanbul wouldn’t have been possible without building our stash of Ultimate Rewards points.

Credit Cards/programs we’re skipping:

Hotel credit cards. Accruing points with SPG makes the most sense for us with my husband’s business travel; the road to platinum status is expedited and we like SPG hotels in general. With United gold status, we’ve automatically got Marriott gold status, making a specific Marriott card unnecessary. Although other hotel cards like the Marriott Premier Rewards Visa, Chase Hyatt card and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card often have great bonuses attached, people who travel far more regularly for business could rack up points quickly and would be better served by these cards.

Airline cards. We haven’t found specific airline cards like Citi AAdvantage necessary, but this particular card is a great option if you fly American Airlines often. The United MileagePlus Club Card is tempting with free club access for one year, and we may try it for a year before the hefty annual fee kicks in. For the amount of international travel we have planned this year, it doesn’t seem vital.

Citi Prestige and Citi Thank You Premier cards. I think if you’re just getting into the points game with family travel, these cards are excellent options. Because we are entrenched in Star Alliance miles and Ultimate Rewards points and we don’t travel quite enough to earn status quickly, we haven’t added these cards to our wallet. It obviously takes a solid chunk of points to travel with four family members, and we’d rather be sure we can maximize each card than apply for a plethora of cards that may be helpful. If my husband decided to start flying Virgin America for his work travel, either of these cards would naturally be a smart choice, but again, it’s easiest for us to keep flying United.

This list is our version of what works right now as we try to explore the world (while never paying full price) with our children. What cards or programs work for your family travel? Which ones are not worth the investment? Please share your own tips in the comments below!

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