How card benefits can make family holiday travel less stressful

Monkeybusinessimages_iStock_Getty Images

Monkeybusinessimages_iStock_Getty Images

Toting your young kids through a busy airport, taking them on a long, crowded flight and then staying in a hotel room without all the comforts of home may be something you avoid most of the year. But, if you live far from family, “home for the holidays” may require all those things.

Luckily some credit cards can make the journey a bit less stressful – and may even reduce the cost.

Free checked bags

Handing off the big suitcases at check-in means fewer bags to cart around their airport and maneuver on and off the plane (while you’re concentrating on maneuvering your kids on and off the plane). But, with airlines charging $25 or more for the privilege of checking a bag, the cost can be prohibitive for families.

If you have a credit card affiliated with the airline, though, the baggage-checking fees will be waived for at least some of those traveling on your itinerary. The Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select card (co-branded with American) makes the first checked bag free for you and four others on your itinerary. The United MileagePlus Explorer offers the same for you and one other travelling companion. Perhaps the most generous, Delta’s co-branded SkyMiles cards (from American Express, a CreditCardForum advertising partner) extend the free-first-checked-bag courtesy to you and up to eight others passengers on your itinerary.

While airline cards nearly always come with annual fees, checking bags for a single round trip with family can cancel out that cost.

If you don’t fly a particular airline often enough to justify getting its card, some cards offer travel credits, which you can use to reimburse yourself for the cost of checking bags. View a list of those cards here. Here’s one example:

Early (well, earlier) boarding

Another common perk among airline cards is guaranteed access to the first group of general boarding for the cardholder and those traveling on the same reservation. Sure, your family won’t be the very first on the plane (that privilege is reserved for those with airline status). But making sure you get overhead space saves you the hassle of gate-checking your bags, and having a little extra time and space to get everyone buckled in can be a little less overwhelming for all involved.

Lounge access

You’ll usually hear this perk mentioned in the same breath as “business travel.” But Dan Miller, father of six and founder of the travel blog Points with a Crew, has found lounges to also be family friendly.

Instead of roaming noisy, crowded airports hunting for food and seating for cranky kids, you’ll find lots of great perks for families in the lounge, Miller says, including comfortable seats, free Wi-Fi and free snacks and drinks. Some even have separate areas for children.

“Lounges are great for airport layovers,” he says. “Or even the time after you clear security but before your flight boards, which could be an hour or two depending on how much buffer time you leave when traveling to the airport.”

However, the cost of lounge day passes can add up if you’re bringing the whole family. That’s where credit cards with lounge perks can help. Miller has gotten lounge access for his family through the American Express Platinum card, which grants access to Centurion Lounges, the Delta SkyClubs, Airspace lounges and Priority Pass lounges. These lounges have varying rules for bringing guests in, but the Centurion lounges are notable in that they let you bring in children under 18 for free.

“So being able to access those lounges as a credit card benefit can have huge savings,” he says.

Companion tickets

Holiday travel can be pricey – and cards that give you a free ticket (for which you pay only taxes and fees) might ease some of the burden. The Delta SkyMiles Platinum card, Delta Reserve card and American Express Platinum card are just some of the credit cards that offer companion ticket benefits (see more here).

Southwest, meanwhile, has a generous companion pass program – any Rapid Rewards member that earns 110,000 qualifying points in a calendar year gets a companion pass for the year in which it was earned and for the following calendar year. Points earned with the co-branded Southwest Rapid Rewards cards count toward that total.

So say you have a family of four and both parents earn companion-pass status. That means the kids can fly free. Because airfares tend to shoot up around the holidays, this benefit has the potential to save you a lot.

Complimentary hotel status

If the relatives you’re visiting don’t have room for you, or if too much time under the same roof doesn’t exactly bring you comfort and joy, you might end up seeking a hotel room for your family unit.

Some co-branded hotel cards give you automatic elite status at the partner properties – or accelerate your path to elite status. That’s compelling for families because many elite perks make hotel stays more tranquil and, sometimes, less cramped. Depending on the program, elite status might get you room upgrades, free in-room Internet, free breakfast (for up to a certain number of guests booked with you) and free bottled water.

Miller has gotten some value out of Hilton Gold status (which comes with the American Express Platinum card as well the Hilton HHonors Surpass card from American Express) when his family travels, as Gold status gives you a room upgrade (when available) at certain properties.

“We’ve used that to book a one-bedroom suite at a Homewood Suites and then get a free upgrade to a two-bedroom suite, which fits our family of eight much better,” he says.

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