Many traveling families are probably familiar with frequent flyer miles and other travel loyalty points programs. Most businesses in the travel industry (hotels, airlines, rental car companies, etc.) have programs in which customers earn miles or points for taking a flight, staying in a hotel, or renting a car. Once you earn enough points, you can later redeem them for free travel – flights, hotel stays, car rentals, and more.
Easy, right? Well, not quite.
Redeeming frequent flyer miles is harder than ever. Many airlines have blackout dates and limited numbers of seats available. Hotels often have inventory controls and blackout dates as well.
But all is not lost. You simply need to have a strategy for your family to earn and use your miles effectively. Here are some basic tips and information to get you on the right track with frequent flyer programs, even if you are just an occasional traveler:
1) It’s hard to book award tickets for families, but not impossible.
The biggest complaint I hear from traveling families about frequent flyer miles is that they simply can’t find ways to use them. If you are trying to fly a family of five to Hawaii on Christmas break, your chance of success is indeed slim. You are going to have a hard, if not impossible, time finding award inventory for five people on a peak route at a peak time.
Traveling families have to get a bit more creative to use miles. Check alternate airports. Check alternate dates. Save the miles for an anniversary trip that mom and dad want to take alone (spring for business class seats if you have the extra miles for it!). If you are planning something fairly complicated, consider using an award booking service that can find the tickets you can’t find on your own for a reasonable fee.
2) Get your child a frequent flyer account.
So many families leave miles on the table by forgetting to sign kids up for frequent flyer accounts. As soon as your little one has his or her own seat, your child can earn frequent flyer miles on flights on all major United States and Canadian airlines. There are easy ways to keep these miles active even if you don’t fly the airline regularly. Sign up for a program like AwardWallet to track the family’s mileage balances and never miss expiration dates.
3) Pick hotel and airline loyalty programs that fit your travel patterns.
Unless you are going to make acquiring frequent flyer miles a serious hobby (and many of us do), keep it simple. Start with one airline and one hotel chain. Pick programs that make sense for the way you travel now. Live in Atlanta? Delta should probably be your airline of choice since it has a mega-hub there. Travel to small towns in the USA? Marriott or Hilton is going to have more hotel options for you than a more luxury chain like Starwood that only has hotels in big cities.
Once you master the basics of one program, then you can always expand to focus on additional programs.
4) There are lots of ways to earn frequent flyer miles. But BE CAREFUL!
Years ago, the only way that you could earn airline miles was by actually flying the airline. No more. Now, hotels and airlines have many partnerships. You can earn miles and points by signing up for a credit card, using that credit card, participating in affiliated dining programs, doing online shopping through a portal, participating in a hotel bonus point promotion, and much more.
Many of these activities come with risks, so consider carefully before jumping in head first. The biggest risk, of course, comes with credit cards. Don’t buy things you don’t need just to earn miles. And don’t even think about getting a travel rewards credit card if you carry a credit card balance. The interest rates are much, much higher on travel cards than with other cards. Free travel isn’t free if you are paying interest to get it.