Travel reward card strategies for families with kids

Perhaps the traditional cross-country camping trip doesn’t appeal to your family. But the airfares and hotel stays necessary for more far-flung destinations may be more than you can afford.

We asked two travel bloggers with kids how they use rewards for free (or almost free) family vacations to everywhere from Disney World to Bali – and how they overcome the challenges families face in the rewards game.

barrett family travel rewardsBrad Barrett, with his wife, Laura, runs Richmond Savers, a site that provides free coaching for those new to credit card and travel rewards.

The couple has two daughters and, in 2013, managed to take the family unit (along with all four grandparents) to Disney World for five nights for only $200 out of pocket.

“It was all eight of us, a three-generation family trip to Disney,” Barrett says. “It was really phenomenal.”

Burrows family travel rewardsKenny Burrows documents his family’s travels on their site Miles4More. He, his wife and two sons have visited Barbados, Europe and Alaska with points and miles – and have reward trips planned for Bali, Australia and New Zealand later this year.

“We’ve done way more than I would have ever guessed,” Burrows says. “The trip to Europe was what got us into the game, and that was a family trip we couldn’t have afforded otherwise.”

The challenge: Fixed school vacations

If you don’t want to pull your kids out of school, then winter break, spring break and summer vacation are your travel windows. Unfortunately, these are also peak travel times, when reward space on flights is scarce.

“The biggest challenge with travel rewards is that people need flexibility,” Barrett says. “There is a finite number of reward seats on every flight.”

Yet you can also use the school calendar to your advantage, Burrows points out, because schools generally announce their schedules well in advance. That enabled Burrows and his family to book their reward seats to Australia and New Zealand the moment the flights appeared on the airline’s schedule.

“We booked them 335 days out because we knew exactly when we could travel,” he says.

When scheduling trips that far in advance, note your airline’s cancellation and change policies, Burrows recommends. You may need to pay a fee to change your itinerary or have your miles re-deposited if you cancel.

To increase your flexibility, you might consider cards that let you transfer your rewards to a variety of partner airlines. These include the Chase Sapphire Preferred and cards in the Membership Rewards Program from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner). Instead of putting all your hope in a single airline, you can monitor several of your card’s transfer partners and pounce when you find the best deal on reward seats.

“I love the transferable rewards,” Barrett says. “I try to stockpile those.”

The challenge: The family unit can’t split up

Families often aren’t as nimble as single travelers.

“If you have four people, it’s exponentially more difficult to find four reward seats than it is to find two on the same flight,” Barrett says. “Most families don’t want to split up and put two on one flight and two on another.”

Barrett suggests families focus on the “low-hanging fruit” of the travel rewards world – rewards you can harvest without much effort. Southwest, he says, “is the cure-all for a lot of the frustrations families encounter.”

Unlike legacy carriers (such as Delta, American and United), Southwest doesn’t restrict reward space. Because the number of points needed fluctuates with the cash value of the ticket, you may need a lot of points for several reward tickets – but if you have enough, you’ll get on the plane together, assuming the flight isn’t full.

“That’s a huge thing for families and, frankly, just for regular people,” Barrett says. “We’re not travel bloggers flying first class around the world. We’re looking to travel once or twice a year for free if we can.”

For long-haul international itineraries, Burrows suggests this trick: Use programs that allow one-way reward redemptions. If reward space for a good value is open on one airline going one way, and on another going back, mix and match.

“We try to have enough miles for all four of us to do one way on maybe three different airlines,” Burrows says. “So we’re ready to jump on whichever one opens up space. …I can’t remember the last time I booked a round trip on a single airline.”

The challenge: You need a family-friendly place to stay

The lone nomad may be able to couch-surf or crash at whatever hostel has space. Families with children might not want to do that.

Fortunately, hotel rewards can be family friendly, especially for domestic trips, Barrett says. Most chain hotel rewards programs don’t restrict reward space, meaning, if there’s a standard room available for cash, you can book it with points.

“You can fit four people in most of those rooms,” Barrett says. “It’s worked great for us.”

If you’re traveling to a major U.S. city, you also have a lot of options, Barrett says. Families visiting Orlando for a Disney trip, for example, will find most chains well represented, sometimes with multiple budget and luxury properties within the same chain. For families who want to stay on site at Disney, the Swan and Dolphin hotels (luxury hotels at Epcot) are Starwood properties – and where Barrett’s family cashed in their Starwood rewards for their trip.

Families traveling abroad, however, might need a different strategy. “Standard” rooms tend to be smaller (meaning the whole family may not fit), and U.S. chains may be neither plentiful, nor the best deal for families like the Burrowses, who tend to go off the beaten path.

“We like to go to where people are not,” Burrows says.

That’s where cards with generic, flexible travel points come in handy. Cards like the Capital One Venture and Barclaycard Arrival let you earn “miles” that you later use for statement credits against nearly any travel expense (usually at a value of 1 cent each). Booking a non-chain hotel for $100 a night? Use 10,000 generic miles to cancel it out. You might also be able to use your generic points on vacation rentals. Burrows has had success using his points for Airbnb purchases, for example, and for some vacation rentals by owner.

“We’re big fans of Airbnb and vacation-rental-by-owner-type properties,” Burrows says. “You can get a house instead of a hotel room for the same price.”

However, keep in mind the merchant code tied to the purchase must meet the card’s definition of travel – and, if the owner requires you to pay by PayPal, that can put a wrinkle in your redemption plans.

The best part about generic points? You can use them for other travel expenses, too, including cruises, train tickets, taxis — and even attraction tickets. Barrett, for example, bought his family’s Disney World tickets via an authorized re-seller and then used generic travel points to cancel out the cost.

The challenge: Parents + kids = more points needed

If a single person needs a sizeable pile of miles to fly and stay for free, a family of four needs a mountain.

One of the simplest ways to accrue that many rewards is via credit card sign-up bonuses, Barrett says. If both spouses open up each card, those miles will multiply.

“By having the two adults open each card, you really double that whole universe of cards,” he says.

The other part of point accumulation is planning far in advance. There’s some tricky timing required in opening new cards without incurring credit damage. Plus, stockpiling lots of points over time keeps your family agile if a program changes its terms.

“You can’t just start on April 1 and think you’re going to travel to Hawaii in June,” Barrett says. “… You need to be smart about it, you need to be systematic about it. You can’t get four times the points doing it off the cuff.”

In addition to finding ways to get more miles, it’s important to make the most of the miles you have. Burrows got his family to Europe thanks to sign-up bonuses from American Airlines’ co-branded credit cards, but also thanks to off-peak itineraries that required fewer miles to begin with.

Another mile-stretching technique is what Burrows calls “sweet-spot approach” – finding an airline that offers reward seats for a discounted number of miles from your departure city to certain destinations.

“Wherever you live, the sweet spots are going to be different, and every family needs to learn what their sweet spots are” Burrows says.

Utilizing sweet spots sometimes means driving to other cities for departure. It might also mean creative routing – flying from Barbados to Houston via Montreal, for example, in Burrows’s experience.

The fact that routing matters so much causes families to commonly make a mistake, Burrows says – and that’s applying for a credit card without considering the trip destination.

“Families may ask, ‘What’s the best credit card?’ when they should be asking, ‘What’s the best credit card for this specific trip?’ ” Burrows says.

So find your sweet spots and then plan out a “dummy trip” complete with mileage calculations to make sure the cards you’re considering will actually get you there, Burrows recommends.

The challenge: Avoiding credit damage

Don’t get so caught up with your dream family vacation that you destroy what makes all credit card reward strategies possible: your good credit.

“A mistake a lot of people make is that they think they’re OK as long as they pay on time,” Burrows says. Paying on time is important, but just as important is making sure your credit utilization (the amount of credit you’re using compared to the amount of credit you have) stays low. Low credit utilization is vital for an excellent FICO score, and large travel purchases combined with sign-up bonus spending requirements can easily push you into the danger zone.

Barrett, who is a CPA, emphasizes the importance of staying within the parameters of your regular spending and making sure a card’s sign-up bonus won’t require you to stray. While some mega sign-up bonuses may require upwards of $10,000 in spending, there are plenty that offer a substantial number of extra miles for $3,000 in spending or less.

“You can use your normal spending to get thousands of dollars worth of travel,” Barrett says. “Just be responsible.”

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