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5 money-saving credit card tips for savvy family travelers

Stephanie Zito

Credit card rewards are a great way for families to earn points and miles to help offset the cost of summer vacations, spring break trips, and family getaways with the kids.

While I don’t travel with kids myself, every week I talk to families who are making it work to travel the globe with a crew of four or more.

“My family of five regularly travels, and although it can take a bit longer than saving for single trips, it isn’t impossible to use credit card miles, points and special deals to save for a vacation with a large family,” says Katie Bodell, editor at Trekaroo, an online community of family travel experts.

“Although cards often carry an annual fee, they also tend to offer a slew of travel perks that can add additional savings for large trips,” she says. “It takes some work, and sometimes a bit of time, but you can successfully take your family on vacation for a fraction of the cost, especially when it comes to airfare.” 

Beyond simply earning points to cover ticket costs, here are five nontraditional ways savvy traveling families can use credit cards rewards and benefits to save money on that next trip.

1. Take advantage of airlines that offer family mileage pooling.
While most airlines charge you a fee to “share” some of your miles with another mileage account, a handful of airlines offer family mileage pooling, a benefit that allows you to group the miles earned by all of your family members together in one account.

If your family of five, for example, travels from New York to Los Angeles for summer holidays, each family member will earn that airline’s equivalent of the flight distance of approximately 2,482 miles each way.

That’s 4,964 miles per person – just enough miles in a single account to get you nowhere! But if you pool all of these points into one family account, together your flight would earn you 19,856 miles — enough to fly one family member for free the next time you travel together.

JetBlue and British Airways are the most useful family pooling accounts for U.S.-based travelers using rewards credit cards. A handful of other international carriers and U.S. budget carriers also offer family pooling and the rules of who can be in your ”family” vary from airline to airline.

2. Use airline cards that cover baggage fees.
There are a few things you give up forever when you travel with kids, and one of these is packing light. With airlines charging in the ballpark of $25-$35 per checked bag, families can count on adding an extra $200-$400 to their round-trip travel budget just to bring their things – even if you’re flying on free tickets!

Having a credit card with the airline that you fly most often is the best way for your family to save money on baggage fees. Note, though, that credit card baggage fee waivers vary from airline to airline.

Delta, for example, allows you to check your first bag free for you and up to eight companions on your itinerary if you pay for your reservation with your Gold Delta SkyMiles American Express card. If you’ve got seven kids, that’s certainly a money-saving benefit!

Yet even if your family is smaller and your credit card covers baggage fees for two passengers, there is still money to be saved.

Sure, you’re likely paying an annual fee on an airline credit card, but you could still come out on top even if your family only travels once a year.

3. Use credit cards with no booking fee benefits.
Some credit cards have benefits that cover portions of the fees that the airlines charge when you book your ticket using your miles.

When Lisa Macan, a travel-savvy mom in Philadelphia was planning a last-minute spring break trip to Costa Rica for her family of five, she hit an unexpected and expensive roadblock.

While she had earned more than enough United miles by spending on her United MileagePlus Explorer card ($95 annual fee) to get her whole crew to San Jose and back, the tickets she was booking fell within United’s 21-day close-in booking window. The cost for the close-in booking fee, an additional $75 fee for each “free” ticket, tallied up to $375 for the whole family.

Since she couldn’t change her kids’ spring break dates, she did some math and upgraded her Explorer card to the United MileagePlus Club Card, which waives the close-in fee as a cardholder benefit.

“I’d never considered getting the higher card before because of the $450 annual fee, but that is just $75 more than I would have been throwing away on this one trip,” Macan says. “The fee I’d already paid on my Explorer card more than covered the difference, and now my family has access to the United Club and I don’t have to worry about booking in advance ever again.”

Lesson learned: Don’t write off a card with a higher annual fee. Paying more could actually help your family save more money.

4. Fly a family member free with the Southwest Companion Pass.
For families who like to fly Southwest Airlines, one crazy awesome benefit offered by the team in khakis is their annual Companion Pass. Flyers who earn 110,000 Rapid Reward points in any calendar year earn a Companion Pass.

This Companion Pass isn’t just for one flight – it’s for every flight you take for the rest of the year in which you qualify and the next full calendar year. Your companion flies free – only paying taxes and fees.

If one member of your family earns 110,000 points, then another family member can fly free! If two family members earn 110,000 points each, then you can designate two family members to fly free!

How do credit card rewards play into this? Points that you earn on your Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card count toward your mileage earning. Why not pay for your teenager’s braces and private school tuition with your Southwest card and earn a year’s worth of free family travel!

5. Get around airline blackout dates with flexible award program bookings.
One of the struggles I hear most often from families is that it can be challenging to find four or five available seats on the same flight when paying with airline miles.

The easiest way to get around this obstacle as a family is to concentrate earning your credit card points with a card that earns a flexible currency like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards and booking your award tickets directly through the program’s travel portal.

Kathrin Spaccarelli, a family travel advocate and mom in Portland, Oregon, perfected the art of booking award tickets for her husband and two sons when she organized a year-long, around-the-world adventure paid for with rewards points. See their adventures at TakingTheBigBreak.

“We earned most of our points through our Chase credit cards, and we learned quickly that booking our flights directly through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal rather than through the airlines made it much easier to find four available seats on the same flight,” Spaccarelli says.

“Plus, one of my favorite parts about booking this way is that you earn more airline miles since the bank is paying for the flight – so  effectively you’re gaining miles for even more family travel!”

Savvy credit card travel certainly isn’t limited to singles. Which one of these tips will you put into practice for planning your family’s summer vacation?

See related: 5 dream vacations funded with rewards, Tony Mecia’s “Cashing In” columns

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