Tips for Using Frequent Flyer Miles for Family Travel

Oct 29, 2018

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Singles and couples may be the ideal award travelers. Having one or two accounts per frequent flyer program is easy to manage and it’s not too hard to find just one or two scarce award seats. But for families who want to earn and spend their loyalty points together, the complexities increase exponentially with the number of travelers.

Tips To Find Frequent Flyer Awards For Families

I know from my own experience traveling with a family of five, that it can be incredibly difficult to find three or more award seats, especially when you want to travel in business or first class. Here are some tips for when it comes time to book travel for families of three or more:

1. Try To Book Awards Tickets 11 Months in Advance.

Most airlines begin selling seats on a rolling schedule, about 11 months ahead of each flight, and that is usually the best time to look for awards when you need multiple seats. Yes, I know many carriers no longer release all of their award inventory at 11 months out, but it’s still the most predictable time that most airlines will release most of their award seats, giving you the possibility of finding three or more low-priced awards on one flight.

For example, I’ve used this strategy to book three first class seats to Hawaii on United 11 months out, when there were very few other options. This strategy works much better with programs that allow one-way bookings so that each leg can be booked the day it is available, rather than risk losing the outbound seats by waiting until you can book the return. And, since families will know their children’s school schedules long in advance, they can leverage their inflexibility to find their award seats farther in advance than most single and couples like to plan.

2. Search For Tickets Individually.

Few travelers realize how airlines price multiple award and revenue tickets. Carriers release seats in buckets with a limited number of seats in each fare or award class. When you search for a specific number of tickets, the results will only show the fare or award class that has tickets for all of your party.

For example, if you search for three award tickets in the lowest mileage tier and only two are available, the reservations system will simply indicate that no low-mileage-tier award seats exist, but that three medium- or high-mileage seats can be booked. But if you search for one award seat first, you might find that one or more is available at the lowest mileage level, and others at a higher mileage level.

You can then decide if you want to split your family’s reservations between paid and award seats. When doing so, always have the most frequent (paid) fliers travel on revenue tickets to further their quest to earn elite status. In fact, this is also a useful trick to lower your total costs when purchasing seats.

3. Consider Splitting The Team.

If your goal is to find four or more award tickets at the lowest mileage levels on the same flight, then you’re going to be disappointed most of the time. This is especially true if you are trying to book awards in business or first class. But if your family is willing to split into two groups, you’ll have a lot more options.

Think of it this way: When traveling with children, the vacation is all about the destination, not the journey. Also, travel will always be easier when the group is smaller, and splitting up can allow kids to have valuable time alone with a parent in the absence of their siblings, or at least some of them.

4. Leverage Schedule Changes To Optimize Flights.

So long as your family is booking award flights far in advance, the chances are that there will be a schedule change of some sort before the date of your flight. And when that happens, most airlines will be willing to open up low-mileage award seats when there’s a significant impact on your schedule. This could allow you to reunite your family’s separate itineraries, or select a more optimal routing that wasn’t initially available. Just remember that an airline will usually only be able to open up saver level awards on flights that it operates. It will have little, if any, control over its partner flights, although some carriers can communicate with their partners and try to find alternative flights on your behalf. 

Casually dressed young stylish female traveller checking a departures board at the airport terminal hall in front of check in couters. Flight schedule display blured in the background. Focus on woman.
(Image by Getty Images)

For example, Delta is notorious for frequent schedule changes but it will open up low-mileage award inventory when travelers are affected. On the other hand, Southwest seldom makes any changes once it releases its schedule. So if you book on a flight on Southwest, be sure you’re getting the exact flights you want, though you can always change or cancel without penalty.

Learn how to use airline schedule changes to move to a new flight, get refunds and more.

5. Consider Fixed Value Frequent Flyer Programs.

Unlike most legacy airlines, Southwest and JetBlue have frequent flyer programs that offer pretty much a fixed value per point. The advantage for families is that there aren’t any capacity controls on awards. This means that you can redeem your points in these programs for any unsold seat, just like if you were paying for your tickets with cash. So if you have enough points, you can book as many award seats as you want. In addition, these programs can be a better use of points for cheap, short-haul trips or when fares go on sale. The downside is that you don’t have a shot at redeeming for outstanding value from these programs when booking last-minute flights or seats in business or first class.

6. Obtain Multiple Southwest Airlines Companion Passes.

For families, it can be possible for each adult to earn a Southwest Companion Pass, thereby doubling the value of their Southwest points. For example, my wife and I have each held a Companion Pass for several years, allowing us to add two of our three children for free to each trip, including awards. Learn how to earn the Southwest Companion Pass this year.

7. Leverage Lap Child Privileges.

I have had good results traveling with small infants on shorter trips in coach, and with 1 or almost 2-year-olds on longer trips in domestic first or international business class. However, I don’t recommend traveling with older or larger lap children in coach, especially on longer flights — other parents out there will know what I mean!

To take advantage of the better class of service without having to buy an entire extra ticket, my wife and I always try hard to squeak in one additional business class award trip before our children’s second birthday, when they cease to qualify for lap child status. To learn more about the guidelines on lap child tickets and awards, as well as helpful tips, check out:

(Photo by RyanJLane/Getty Images)
(Photo by RyanJLane/Getty Images)

8. Step Up Your Account Management.

While it may be possible for some people to manage all of the their frequent flyer accounts with a simple spreadsheet, families will want to organize and manage usernames and passwords with a tool such as AwardWallet. Having your accounts all in one place is the best way to ensure you can make the most of your rewards when it comes time to use them.

9. Book Flights With Points From Anyone’s Account.

Most loyalty programs offer some sort of mileage transfer option, but they charge far more than the service is worth. Instead, there’s no reason why you can’t issue awards from one person’s account in another person’s name for no additional charge. For example, I could book myself a one-way flight with my daughter’s miles, and a return flight home with miles from my son’s account.

10. Consider Programs With Family Pooling.

The ideal frequent flyer program for family travelers will allow you to pool your points or miles. This allows you to make use of small balances to book big awards. Here are 21 airlines that allow families to pool miles.

11. Explore Credit Card Rewards With Fixed Value Returns.

When you can’t find enough award seats at the lowest mileage levels, you don’t have to give up and (gasp!) pay for tickets with your hard-earned money. Instead, you can use points or miles from credit card programs that let you redeem your rewards for travel reservations. For example, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard and the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card both offer 2x for each dollar spent, and miles are worth 1 cent as statement credits toward any travel reservations. The Discover it® Miles card has no annual fee and offers 1.5 miles per dollar spent, and miles are also worth 1 cent as statement credits toward any travel reservations. For your first year, all miles earned are matched at the end of the first year, bumping your ultimate total to a total of 3 miles per dollar at the end of that first year.

The Citi Premier Card allows you to redeem your ThankYou Points for 1.25 cents each toward airfare booked through its travel center. Finally, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card lets you redeem Ultimate Rewards points for 1.25 cents each toward travel booked through Chase, and the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers a fantastic 1.5 cents per point toward travel reservations. This was great when our family of five was able to redeem just 20,000 points, and zero dollars, for a short, $60 flight from Prague to Frankfurt. Redeeming points this way meant that we didn’t have to worry about finding award space or paying any taxes or fees out of pocket.

If you don’t yet have a credit card strategy for amassing miles and points, check out The Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards for Families and TPG‘s comparison of the best fixed-value point credit cards.

12. Hold A United MileagePlus Credit Card.

One of the best ways to find multiple saver level award seats on a flight is to tap into the expanded award availability that United offers its MileagePlus credit card holders. When searching United’s website and using Expert Mode, it’s not uncommon to find as many as nine saver award seats in the XN fare class offered to United credit card holders and elites, but zero seats in the X fare class offered to everyone else! Just make sure to log in to your account before searching, in order to see the expanded award saver space. Having a United Explorer Card or similar only helps you access more saver award space in economy class, but if you’re looking to travel in a premium cabin, then you can call and ask to be put on a waitlist for saver award space.

Bottom Line

While we won’t say that booking award tickets for a large family is easy, these simple strategies may help you get the seats you need for your next trip. What are your tips for booking award flights for families?

Featured image by Andrea Bacle Photography

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