Large Family & Group Travel Tips, Tricks, and Strategies
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With a family of four, I sometimes envy the ease of travel enjoyed by singles and couples. One or two award seats aren't too hard to find, you can fit into virtually any car or hotel room, and you can travel very light.
On the other hand, I know other families that routinely travel as a party of six or more, and my wife and I occasionally invite our parents to join us on vacations. We've discovered that planning travel with a large family or group becomes an entirely different kind of challenge.
If you have a large family or travel with a group, here are some of considerations and suggestions to make planning and taking your trip much easier:
Finding airline awards
Many traditional frequent flyer programs simply don't release more then two or four award seats (at the saver level) in a single cabin on a single flight. So if you prefer to use your points or miles instead of paying cash, you'll have to consider splitting the team (where you split the group between different cabins or different flights). If you book these award reservations far enough in advance and from the same program, you might be able to consolidate them in the event of a schedule change. You can also split the reservation between awards and revenue tickets. This can work well, as flights that have award space are typically the ones with less expensive fares anyways.
Yet even that option becomes challenging when you're looking for award space on two similar itineraries for three or more people each. This is when revenue based award programs can really shine. Programs like Southwest, Virgin America, and JetBlue allow travelers to redeem their points for any unsold seat at a rate that corresponds with the current ticket price. Southwest offers 1.4 cents per point (for their lowest 'Wanna Get Away' fare class), Virgin America offers about two cents per point, and JetBlue offers about 1.1 cents per point. However, those using the Southwest Airlines Companion Pass can receive double the value, or about 2.8 cents per point. Of course, you won't be able to travel too far outside of North America with these programs.
The next option for award travel is to look at fixed value credit card reward programs such as Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard. These cards offer 2x mile on purchases, and each mile is worth one cent as statement credits towards many travel expenses. So if you aren't receiving more than two points per dollar, and you don't have a Southwest Companion Pass, you can actually get better value from your credit card spending with one of these two cards than you would with a Southwest, JetBlue, or Virgin America card.
Another important technique for booking larger groups is to try pricing out the reservation for a single traveler. Both award and revenue seats are allocated in fare groups often referred to as "buckets." Conveniently, airlines will quote all seats in the highest bucket, even when some seats are available in the lower bucket. So travelers might see six seats at $500 each, rather than two at $250, three at $450, and one at $500. The same principle holds true for airlines that offer multiple mileage tiers for their awards, as airlines will show prices in the higher mileage tier for all travelers, even when some qualify for the lower tier.
I recently explored some techniques to rent cars for family travel, but the short story is that renting becomes more difficult when you have a party of six or more and you can't fit in a standard car. Mini-vans and larger SUVs typically seat seven, and larger groups will usually find two standard cars to be far less expensive than trying to rent a full size van.
Furthermore, the collision damage waiver policies on most standard credit cards will not even cover a full size van, so insurance costs can make this option even less affordable. The exception is the Premium Rental Car Insurance option from American Express, which does cover full sized vans. If you do decide to rent multiple cars when overseas, make sure you still have an easy way to communicate between vehicles, or you'll have trouble when you accidentally get separated.
Most hotels in the United States have rooms that sleep four, either on two beds, or on a standard bed and a sofa bed. Even if hotel rules would allow you to sleep more than four in a room, you probably wouldn't want to. Adjoining rooms, where available, are a great option, but many large families prefer to rent spaces from private parties using AirBNB or other services. This may be your only way to go in some countries where hardly any hotels offer rooms that sleep more than two or three people, except their most expensive suites.
Thankfully, this is one area where large families and groups can leverage their size to earn a better deal. My favorite strategy is to contact the hotel directly and ask them for their best deal on multiple rooms. For example, my parents will be traveling with us to a wedding later this month, and I was able to reserve two suites that sleep four people each at a discounted rate when I agreed to pay in advance.
It's hard to find a taxi that will seat more than four passengers, but its not impossible. Airport taxi stands can call mini-vans up to you, but you might have to call a dispatcher to request one at other locations. Another option is uberXL, which features mini-vans and SUVs that accommodate six passengers, but cost about 40-50% more than the standard uberX service.
Shuttle services may not seem like an attractive option, since they charge by the person instead of by the ride. Nevertheless, it;s worth calling and asking for a quote on a ride in a shuttle van, especially if you're a party of seven or more.
Finally, don't rule out public transportation options. This can be very hard with small kids and luggage, but not so bad with older children, teenagers, and adults.
Don't discount the opportunity to travel by train if you're with a large group, especially when it comes to award travel. For example, the Amtrak Guest Rewards program is a transfer partner of both Chase Ultimate Rewards and the Starwood Preferred Guest program. Furthermore, it offers any unsold seat as an award, so there are few concerns about availability. And as I learned, it's very easy to receive 3-4 cents in value per point when redeeming Amtrak Guest Rewards points.
In Europe and Asia, trains are ultra-high speed and frequently offer discounts for children. Finally, it's an indisputable fact that kids love trains!
Advice from a large family that travels frequently:
On our recent trip to Italy, we met Gaetan Draper of Sweden, along his wife and four children who were on vacation with him. As a frequent traveler, I found his experiences insightful and wanted to share it with TPG readers. Here's what Gaetan had to say.
Tell me a little about your family and the traveling you do.
We're a family of six including myself, my wife Hilary, and our four children, Chloe age 7, Julie age 6, Alexander age 2, and Francès who is just 7 weeks old. We live in Stockholm, Sweden, and have been traveling around Europe since our first child was born. We mainly travel around France, Italy, Ireland, the UK , Denmark, and Norway. We had our first long distance travel experience to Sydney and continuing onto New Zealand with our first three children. At that time Chloe was six, Julie was five, and Alexander was just 6 months old.
For flights within Europe, we use a lot of the cheaper airlines such as Ryan Air. To get the best deals, we have to book well in advance and use the alternative airports that they serve. Sometimes SAS releases cheap flights as well.
How do you manage airport and rail transfers to and from your hotels when you can't fit in a single taxi or car rental?
We often take a bus from the airport, or use shuttles that are even cheaper (they cost around 5 to 10 Euros). It demands a bit of focus and research before landing, so I spend a lot of time researching the tube or metro system at our destination, the hotel's address, and the orientation of the city.
In some countries you can find larger vans, like in Sydney where it cost us about 50 Australian dollars to get to our hotel. If we don't arrive too late, then we do taxi transfers from the main train station like in Milan, although this is not a good idea late at night, especially with children.
Car rentals worked well when we had just three kids, but it's not an option now that we have four. Trains work well now that the older children can walk around more easily.
What travel tips and tricks have you learned as your family has grown?
If traveling long distance with children under 1 year, we always book a travel cot. In fact, you actually get better seats on the plane when you book it well in advance. Besides, our 1 year old usually sleeps through most flights.
Another tip is to invest in a good hotel, such as a suite with double bedrooms. We try to stay in one place and avoid over traveling with children. In the future we plan to try using a House Swapping exchange where you trade houses and cars, so you don't have to rent either.
Can you describe a difficult travel experience and how you resolved it?
On our trip from Stockholm to Sydney, the children were so jet-lagged they would fall asleep standing up and they couldn't take another step in the middle of busy Sydney! We planned too many activities during the first days, and should have just taken it easy the first three days after we arrived.
How do you keep your kids happy while allowing you and your wife to also enjoy the vacation?
We usually travel to a place where we have a connection to family and friends, so the children do interact with local friends . But my wife and I still have to adapt ourselves to what the children are interested in, while trying to bring them face to face with the culture of the country we're visiting. We still visit art galleries and cultural events like the Maori villages in New Zealand. At the same time, we always try to find a swimming pool or beach that we can all enjoy. Food is an important aspect of our travels [Gaetan is a chef and restauranteur], and I need to get the kids into it also so that they can also enjoy the local cuisine. I believe traveling with your children is a way to enrich them, but also yourself.
In summary, traveling with a large group requires more of everything, but especially planning. Travel maneuvers that are routine with 1 or 2 people can become an intricate production with 5 or more, but if you think ahead, you'll be able to focus on having fun rather than sorting out logistics on the fly.
Do you travel with a large family or group? Please share your experiences and strategies in the comments below!