7 Tips for Making Award Travel a Multi-Player Game

Apr 17, 2018

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Award travel has helped me explore the world in ways I couldn’t have otherwise, but perhaps my favorite part of this hobby is that it allows me to share those experiences with others. I’ve introduced a lot of people to points and miles over the years, and I’ve found that planning and booking awards together demands a more nuanced approach than when I’m setting off on my own. Here are seven strategies I use that can help you get the most out of your award travels with friends, family and other companions.

1. Diversify Your Rewards Together

Diversifying is a good strategy for award travelers in general, but you should try to avoid spreading your rewards too thin. If you end up with only a modest balance in a variety of loyalty programs, you might not have enough in any one of them to cover more expensive awards. Working as a team makes diversifying easier, since you can do it collectively instead of individually. Each person can focus on earning in just a few programs, but as a group you’ll have access to more.

Your travel preferences may dictate which programs you choose to focus on, but earning transferable points should be a priority. Those rewards give you access to a variety of travel providers, so if you and your companion(s) each build a balance in one of the major transferable points programs, you’ll have plenty of redemption options.

Pick whichever ones pair best with your airline and hotel of choice — if you’re an Alaska Airlines devotee, for example, then Starwood Preferred Guest is a natural fit. However, keep in mind that your best award options might be with a partner airline instead of the one that actually operates your flight.

2. Pool Your Resources

Even if you diversify your rewards as a group, you’ll likely end up with some overlap (like when you each earn rewards for paid travel or target a lucrative credit card sign-up bonus). The ability to move points between member accounts will help you avoid stranding small balances and improve your collective purchasing power. Fortunately, many loyalty programs allow you to do this at no cost.

Most hotel programs offer pooling to a degree, but some policies are strict while others are flexible. For example, Hyatt lets you combine points just once every 30 days, and only in conjunction with a specific award that’s already on hold. You also have to fill out a request form online and wait for approval before the transfer goes through. By comparison, Hilton’s pooling feature lets you instantly share up to 500,000 points per year with any 10 members of your choosing. Pooling options seem to be trending more user-friendly among hotel programs, but there are still a few holdouts (like Wyndham Rewards and Choice Privileges).

Airlines are a different story, as most carriers charge you to share miles with other members. JetBlue is the only large domestic airline that lets you pool rewards for free, along with several major international carriers (like British Airways and Asiana). On the bright side, all the major transferable points programs allow you to share points (with various limitations), so if you focus your earnings there, you can effectively transfer your points into someone else’s frequent flyer program.

(Photo courtesy Hilton)
Hilton’s points pooling feature can make it easier to book at high-end properties like the Conrad Maldives. (Photo courtesy Hilton)

3. Figure Out How to Spend Rewards Equitably

Splitting award travel costs evenly isn’t always practical, especially when you diversify your rewards as described above. You and your travel companions will often make unequal contributions toward a given trip, so it’s important to make sure everyone feels like they’re getting a fair deal. Reaching an agreement ahead of time will help smooth out any imbalance and make the booking process more enjoyable.

I don’t think there’s any one right way to do this. I know some couples who view their points and miles as joint assets, so every award redemption is a shared purchase regardless of whose name is on the account. That’s fine if it works, but you’ll probably need a more nuanced solution if you don’t always travel together or if your relationship with your travel companion(s) is of a different nature. I recommend establishing a fair valuation of each person’s rewards to see whether anyone contributed more than their share. If so, look for opportunities to even things out (like asking those who underpaid to cover a few meals or other miscellaneous expenses).

As an example, consider the trip my wife and I recently booked to Kauai. We paid for our hotel stay with 160,000 Hilton Honors points (135,000 from her account and the remaining 25,000 from mine). Meanwhile, I covered our flights with 50,000 British Airways Avios. Setting aside our like expenses, she effectively paid 110,000 Hilton points versus my 50,000 Avios; that’s not a perfect split based on TPG’s latest valuations, but it was close enough for us. You might rather be more (or less) precise, and that’s fine. Use whatever system works for you and your team.

4. Avoid Redundancies

To maximize your award travel potential as a team, don’t put effort into earning status or perks you may already have. Your elite benefits often apply to others traveling with you, so any similar status your companions have may be superfluous. One obvious example is hotel status: if you’re an elite member and your name is on the folio, anyone sharing your room will also benefit from upgrades, late check-out and other perks. In that scenario, the other guest’s status will scarcely matter.

The same goes for many credit card perks. For example, a single Priority Pass membership will generally provide access for multiple guests, and many co-branded airline cards extend free checked bags and other benefits to passengers on the cardholder’s reservation. When one card is sufficient, there’s little advantage to having a second. Instead, look for cards that offer complementary benefits like annual free night certificates or travel credits.

The Club DFW: a rather small lounge, but available with Priority Pass membership.
If your travel companion has a Priority Pass membership, you might not need one of your own.

5. Claim Referral and Authorized User Bonuses

Credit card sign-up bonuses can give you a rapid influx of points or miles, but there are other ways to boost your loyalty accounts quickly. Many cards provide a referral bonus to help attract new customers, such as the 20,000 Ultimate Rewards points you’ll get for each successful referral of the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card (up to a total of 100,000 points per year). Referral bonuses are offered in addition to sign-up bonuses, so referring your friends is a win for both of you. Just make sure the offer you send is the best one available to them.

You can also earn referrals from loyalty programs and travel providers more generally. For example, Marriott Rewards offers both you and your referral 2,000 bonus points for each stay by the new member (up to five stays), and IHG has offered a targeted bonus of 5,000 points after the new member completes their first stay. Companies like Airbnb, Lyft and Uber routinely offer referral bonuses that benefit both new and existing members, so check your account to see what’s available.

Finally, some credit cards offer a bonus for adding authorized users to your account. These bonuses tend to be modest compared to sign-ups and referrals, but there are other benefits that make adding an authorized user worthwhile (like the ability to transfer points between accounts). Adding someone to your account also involves some risk (both to the primary cardholder and to the authorized user), so don’t do it haphazardly.

6. Take Advantage of Shared Finances

Your income doesn’t affect your credit score directly, but it’s an important factor in how card issuers assess your creditworthiness. Other things being equal, a higher income makes you more attractive to creditors, so it’s to your advantage to report all income at your disposal. If you’re over 21 years old and you can reasonably expect to use someone else’s income to meet your financial obligations, then you may be able to include that income on your own credit application.

Listing a combined income can help you get approved for premium travel cards that offer lucrative sign-up bonuses and ongoing benefits. However, note that while federal regulations allow card issuers to count shared income, they aren’t compelled to do so. Pay attention to the language used in your application: if it requests your “total income” or “available income,” then you should feel free to include qualifying income from a third party. If the application asks for your “individual income,” then you should only report what you earn personally.

You can also lean on shared finances to help you earn credit card sign-up or spending bonuses. Two people will spend more than one on average, so by working together you can meet spending requirements more easily. Shift joint expenses onto the card in question, or consider making your travel companion an authorized user so all their purchases count toward your total.

A happy young couple relaxing together and making some online purchases. (Photo by Georgijevic/Getty Images)
If you share finances, you may be able to report a higher income on credit applications. Photo by Tetra Images / Getty.. (Photo by Georgijevic/Getty Images)

7. Book Early and Be Flexible

There’s no universal answer to the question of when you should book award flights, but in general you’re more likely to find availability the sooner you start looking for it. That holds especially true when you’re trying to book more than one ticket — premium awards are limited, and finding multiple seats even in economy can be challenging around holidays and other peak travel dates. As a result, you can’t afford to delay your search like you might when booking a solo trip.

An ExpertFlyer account is a prudent investment for any frequent award traveler, but it’s increasingly useful for larger groups. You can set alerts for multiple seats so you know when the requisite award or upgrade space opens on a given flight. Letting the computer do the dirty work is much easier then repeatedly hunting for availability on your own, and the cost of a membership is negligible if you share it among several people.

Of course, while ExpertFlyer can find existing award space, it can’t create space where there is none. To get where you want to go, you may have to consider splitting your team into separate cabins or onto different flights entirely, and like the discussion about how to spend rewards equitably, you should try to agree on a strategy in advance. Whether you’re set on sitting together or happy to arrive at different times, just be decisive. The only losing play is to get caught debating what to do while the awards you want get yanked out from under you.

Featured photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

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