Tips for Using Frequent Flyer Miles for Family Travel

Dec 5, 2012

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It can be hard enough finding one let alone four award tickets on the same flight, adding another layer of difficulty to families looking to cash in frequent flyer miles for award tickets this holiday season. We asked TPG contributor Jason Steele to put together some strategies on how you and your loved ones can be sure you’ll be traveling together this season.

Singles and couples are the ideal reward travel participants. Having just one or two accounts per frequent flyer program is easy to manage and makes it a much less difficult task when it comes to finding scarce award seats. But for families who want to earn and spend loyalty points together, the complexities increase exponentially with the number of travelers.

Account management

While it may be possible for singles and couples to get by with a simple spreadsheet, families will want to organize and manage their accounts with an online management tool such as Award Wallet, Mileage Manager, or MilePort. Sadly, several major travel providers such as American, Delta, and Southwest Airlines have denied these tools, and their own program members, convenient access to their systems. However, having your accounts all in one place is the best way to ensure you can make the most of your miles when it comes time to use them.

Award travel strategies

Although most travelers are lucky to find one or two award seats along the same itinerary, it can be incredibly difficult to find three or more. Here are a few tips for when it comes time to book travel for families of three or more:

  1. Book awards 11 months ahead. Yes, I know many carriers no longer release all of their award inventory at 11 months out, but it is the only predictable time that they will release some. In July, I scored three first class seats to Hawaii on United for next June when there seemed to be few if any flights with very many award seats offered before then. This works much better with programs that allow one-way bookings so that each leg can be booked the day it is available. And since families know their children’s school schedules long in advance they can leverage their inflexibility for awards that work for them.
  2. Shop 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 a fare or award class. And 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. So instead, search for the minimum number of award seats that you must have, and then narrow that down by increasing the number on subsequent searches. 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 in order to earn status. In fact, this is a useful trick to lower your total costs even when all travelers are purchasing revenue seats.
  3. Consider splitting itineraries. When traveling with children, the vacation is about the destination, not the journey. Consider having each parent travel with some of the children when there just are not enough award seats along the same itinerary. That way you have a better chance of scoring low-level award seats for at least some of your travel plans.
  4. Use schedule changes to optimize flights. Some, but not all, airlines will open up low-mileage award seats when a schedule change impacts travelers on award tickets so that they can rebook award tickets on the new itineraries. So consider booking your family on separate itineraries, or on a less-than-ideal one. With just a little luck, you can consolidate your reservations when the airlines change their schedules, which happens more frequently thank you think. For instance, I have already rebooked my Hawaii trip as a result of a schedule change by United shortly after it was ticketed. Delta is notorious for frequent schedule changes but they will open up low-mileage award inventory when travelers are affected. On the other hand, Southwest never makes any changes once they release their schedules so if you book on them, be sure you’re getting the flights you want.
  5. Look at fixed value programs. Unlike most legacy airlines, Southwest, jetBlue, and Virgin America operate loyalty programs that offer a fixed value per point or mile. The downside is that you don’t have a shot at redeeming for outstanding value from these programs as you might from last-minute or premium class international awards on legacy carriers. However, the upside for families is that they can use their points for any unsold seat, just like if you were paying for a ticket with cash, so if you have enough points to pay the fare, you get those seats. In addition, these programs can be a better use of points for short-haul trips or less expensive itineraries that many families take to visit relatives.
  6. Obtain multiple Southwest Airlines companion passes. For families, it can be possible for each adult to earn a companion pass, thereby doubling the value of Southwest points to 3.6 cents each. For example, my wife and I are working to each have a companion pass by the time our second child turns two and is no longer a lap child. That way, we’ll only have to buy two tickets, and then we can use our companion passes to fly our two children with us for free. See: How to Earn and Maximize the Southwest Companion Pass.
  7. Leverage lap child privileges.  I have had good results traveling with small infants on shorter trips in coach, and with 1-2 year olds on longer trips in domestic first or international business class. I do not recommend traveling with older 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 my previous post on to How to Plan Award Travel With An Infant Or Lap Child.

Programs that allow pooling of points or miles between family members

Most loyalty programs offer some sort of mileage transfer option, but they charge far more than the service is worth. Occasionally, airlines such as US Airways offer mileage transfer promotions with bonuses (most recently 100% with US Airways) that can make sense. However, there are a few loyalty travel programs that thankfully allow families to leverage their points and miles within a household by transferring them for free.

British Airways.  The Avios program has a household accounts feature that allows members to pool miles between up to 7 residents at the same address. Interestingly, points are also redeemed across members of the household, so be sure to calculate your mileage usage before any redemptions. Read more about these features in this post on Maximizing British Airways Avios Series: Household Accounts.

Etihad. The Etihad Guest Programme allows family members to pool miles in one account. Families nominate a Family Head and up to eight Family Guests. Have a look at this post for the other basics of the Etihad Guest Programme.

Hawaiian. The Hawaiian Miles program offers the Share Miles feature, but only to holders of their credit or check cards.

Japan. The JAL Family Club allows members to share miles between relatives at different households. There is a $30 fee per family that is charge to the account of the designated “Primary Member”.

Korean. Immediate family members can combine SkyPass miles to issue awards.

Qantas. Travelers can combine miles between eligible members of their extended family once every 12 months with a maximum of 100,000 miles per transfer.

Starwood. Members of the same household can transfer points between themselves. Read more about the particulars of this program feature in this post.

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