One of the top concerns for families who love to travel is how to minimize costs. When once upon a time it was just the two of you flying to a destination, sharing a room and dining out, now there are additional seats to purchase, bigger rooms to secure and more mouths to feed. But one of the easiest ways to save money is through your loyalty and reward travel.
Airline, hotel, and car rental loyalty programs are everywhere these days., and even your bank, credit card companies and other partners can secure extra points in the loyalty programs of your choice, from frequent flyer miles through your favorite airlines to points toward free nights at your favorite hotels. These programs require nothing more than signing up, so why not cut costs at no additional cost to you? Here are the best ways to earn rewards and save money on your next family vacation.
Book a Flight
Taking a flight is the most obvious way to earn miles and is the basis of all frequent flyer programs, but it’s not the only way to earn miles. You should always be on the lookout for special promotions and bonuses (see below). Before booking any air travel, always search the airline’s web site. Bonus miles are often offered for flying certain city pairs, but you’ll need to register before purchasing your ticket.
Enroll Your Kids
Every one of your children — even infants — should be enrolled in the same loyalty programs you are. The first step is easy. Simply decide which programs your children will participate in and enroll them. Before you hit “submit” on those online applications though, troll the Internet for sign-up bonuses. For example, Frontier Airlines recently offered 1,500 bonus miles to new members of their EarlyReturns frequent flyer program. Check the airline or hotel’s own web site and FlyerTalk.com’s message boards for news about similar promotions.
Enroll in Branded Credit Cards
Each frequent flyer and hotel loyalty program offers a branded credit card. First-time card members often net a large bonus when signing up. Bonuses of 20,000 to 30,000 miles are the norm, but United recently offered a 50,000-mile sign-up bonus and British Airways gave away an unprecedented 100,000 miles. Sign-up bonus rules vary, but you may need to make a minimum purchase within a certain timeframe before the miles post to your account.
The beauty of branded credit cards is that you’ll earn miles for each dollar spent. Use these cards for day-to-day purchases and you’ll rack in the miles. Just be sure to pay off your credit card balance each month since reward cards usually carry a higher interest rate than other cards.
You won’t want to get your children on the credit-card bandwagon too early but if you’ve got teens, you may want to make them an authorized user on your account. Reward cards often offer a bonus if you add additional users to your primary account. American Express has offered this sort of deal often to members of its Delta- and Starwood-branded cards.
Earn Miles on Everyday Purchases
Airlines may also provide points for enrolling your non-branded credit card numbers into dining and shopping programs so points are accrued whenever you dine or shop at participating partners. You can visit their web sites for a full list and specifically target those partners, or be pleasantly surprised when you use your card and it is automatically connected to a partner.
Another easy way to earn miles or points is to make all your necessary purchases through your program’s affiliate shopping mall. Hilton and Delta both have particularly extensive malls with stores like The Children’s Place, Target, Gap, Kodak Gallery, Home Depot, and Drugstore.com as participants. Just go to the mall’s homepage, type in your membership number, and then link to the store and go shopping. For each dollar you spend, you’ll earn a certain number of miles.
Use this method to top off the miles in your kids’ accounts or to keep miles from expiring. It doesn’t matter whose credit card is used for the purchase as long as you log in under your child’s account.
Visit Web sites
You’ve heard the adage, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” That’s true in a lot of ways and in order to successfully earn frequent flyer miles or loyalty program points without actually flying or staying in a hotel, you’ll need to devote some time to the hunt.
Commit at least 20 minutes per week to visit the web sites of your loyalty programs. Surf to the “what’s new” or “news” section and read about any current promotions.
There are even ways to earn miles for reading online ads. Visit e-Miles.com and sign up each member of your family. You’ll receive e-mails that encourage you to revisit the site to click on ads and earn points. Those points are transferable to the following loyalty programs: Delta, US Airways, AirTrain, Frontier or Hilton HHonors.
A terrific resource for learning about no-flying-required promotions is Gary Leff’s View from the Wing blog. He parses current offers and explains which promos are worth your effort. Another blog worth bookmarking is Ric Garrido’s Loyalty Traveler, which focuses on hotel programs.
Sign up whenever you find a bonus promo for which you and your kids qualify. Always read promotion rules carefully and follow the instructions to the letter. Missing a step could disqualify you from earning the bonus. Be sure to register each family member for the promotion.
Watch Your Miles
Once you begin playing the loyalty program game, you’ll need to keep track of your miles and points to keep track of those that may be close to expiring or that have reached a level that has earned your family a free flight or room. You can use a simple spreadsheet or consider any of several online tracking programs like AwardWallet.com, MileageManager.com or MileTracker.com.
However, loyalty programs were designed to increase business, not make it easy for you to score free travel. Therefore, the rules and regulations of each program can be a bit aggravating. You’ll need to determine when your points or miles expire (usually after a period of inactivity in your account). If you’re not ready to use your miles, simply make sure there’s activity in the account. Any flight completed, purchase on an airline-branded credit card, purchase at the program’s affiliate shopping mall, or successful participation in a promotion will reset the counter and your miles will be safe for the time being.
Some loyalty schemes allow you to transfer miles from their program to another. Starwood Hotel’s Starwood Preferred Guest program allows you to transfer Starpoints to over two dozens airlines. It’s one of the best deals around because if you transfer 20,000 Starpoints, Starwood will give you a 5,000-point bonus so you’ll actually receive 25,000 airline miles in total.
Starwood also offers a Cash & Points hotel night redemption offer that’s very appealing to families. For just 4,000 Starpoints and $60, as an example, you can spend the night at Walt Disney World’s Swan and Dolphin Resort right outside Epcot.
American Airline’s Redeem AAmiles program also allows you to transfer miles to various hotel and car rental programs, including Alamo, Avis, Budget, National, Hilton HHonors, InterContinental and Priority Club. For example, one AAdvantage mile equals two Hilton HHonors points.
Review your frequent flyer and loyalty guest programs to find out what rewards are available to you.
Use Your Miles
Now that you’ve amassed some miles or points, use them! Depending on your program, you’ll be able to cash in for free flights, hotel rooms, and rental cars. Roundtrip economy award tickets within the continental United States will run you approximately 20,000 to 25,000 miles each. Trips to the Caribbean are usually in the 25,000 to 35,000 range, and it will take 35,000 to 40,000 miles per ticket to get to and from Hawaii.
Most frequent-flyer mile junkies will tell you that it’s a cardinal sin to use miles on anything except first-class or business seats on a long-haul flight. (Those tickets realize the best value for the miles spent.) When it comes to family travel, though, dispatch with that rule of thumb. Use your miles in the way that you see fit. If your kids are clamoring for a trip to Disney World, use the miles for that — even if it’s not the best return on investment. You’ll be creating cherished family memories and you really can’t put a price on those.
This article was updated on January 6, 2014.