Family Travel Tips
Travelling can be expensive. Travelling with a family can be very expensive. Since Emily has grandparents on two different continents, international travel has become a regular occurrence for our family. In order to be able to afford this, we rely heavily on airline miles and credit card points to get us back and forth. We created this site to share our family travel tips to help make travelling with loved ones easier and more affordable. Let’s go!
The first thing anyone interested in travelling should do is sign up for every airline, hotel, and car rental loyalty program you can find. These programs are designed to keep you coming back to the same company by offering you discounts and points to use on future trips. A quick rundown of the basics:
When you fly with an airline and give them your loyalty number, you accrue miles or points based on either how far you flew or how much you paid for your ticket. You can then use those miles (after you have gathered enough) for a free future flight! These miles tend to accrue faster if you fly business or first class, and tend to be cheaper to redeem if you were to fly economy. You can also earn miles easily through various credit card sign-up bonuses, and shopping portals, which we will get into later.
Besides the miles you earn for being part of the awards program, airlines nowadays don’t offer much in terms of extra benefits for new members. Most upgrades, etc., will go to high-level members who fly many miles per year. However, that rule is slightly different when it comes to hotels….
Similar to flying, when you stay overnight at a hotel you earn points that you can redeem for future nights. However, if you were to book your stay through an online travel agency (OTA) such as Expedia or Orbitz, the hotel will not give you credit for that stay. In order to guarantee an eligible night, it is always best to book directly through the hotel itself. That doesn’t mean you should never book on Expedia (we do frequently), but only do so if there is a good reason like a special promotion, coupon code, or the hotel you chose doesn’t have its own loyalty program. There are also many co-branded hotel credit cards that can help accelerate your points balance and get you to a free night sooner.
Unlike airlines, being part of the hotel’s loyalty program can pay immediate dividends. For example, many chains offer free wifi to members who book directly with the hotel. Also, front desk agents and managers (both Caline and I can confirm this) will give preference on room assignments to members!
Car Rental Points
Like hotel rewards programs, signing up for a car rental rewards program can pay immediate dividends. There is nothing worse than finally arriving at your destination and then having to wait in a never-ending line of tourists just to get your rental car. Nowadays companies like Hertz and National let members walk right up to their desired car and drive off, no waiting in line. Depending on the company you choose, you will earn points based on how much you spent or how many days you had the rental for.
We start planning our trips an average of 10 months in advance. This not only gives us a good picture of our travel year but also gives us time to top off any points programs that we may want to use to redeem for our trip.
The first thing we do is check the actual price of the flight for where we are going. Sometimes if the flight is cheap, we prefer to not use our miles and instead pay and accumulate those miles for a future trip that may get us more value per mile. Google Flights is a great tool for quickly researching multiple dates and destinations.
Once we have an idea of what the flight will cost, the next step is to compare it with how many miles it would take to get us there. The key here is to be flexible. If you are thinking about going to Orlando and there is no award availability, check flying into Miami and then drive. If there is no economy availability, check business class. I know that sounds crazy, but we flew business class from New York to Rio de Janeiro for only 50k American Airlines miles, economy was 55k….
After you have some dates in mind and flights on hold, check out hotel options. You would hate to book a flight to Chicago only to find out that there is a huge convention in town and all of the hotels are priced outrageously.
We like to start our hotel searches on Expedia or Booking.com because that gives us an idea of average hotel prices and we can start to identify good values. Once we have narrowed it down to a handful of options we go and check out each hotel’s individual site as well as TripAdvisor, by doing this you can probably eliminate some based off of reviews.
When on the hotel website, look for special deals like “free breakfast” or “stay 3 nights 4th night is free” that wouldn’t be available to you if you were to book on a 3rd party site. Once you find a good deal, and you are confident with your choice, book it. If you think you found a good deal, but want to keep looking, try to a find a rate that will allow you to cancel so you can continue your search.
Rental Car Search
Depending on where you are staying, you may or may not need a car. We always like to reserve a car just in case. We have yet to find a rental company that doesn’t let you cancel your reservation up to the last minute. We will normally book a car and then continually check the price leading up to your trip. It is not uncommon for us to make and cancel 6 reservations leading up to a trip based on rate fluctuation.
-A quick Google search can bring up promo codes for most rental car companies, many airlines run promotions if you decide to credit your rental points to their airline instead.
-Compare airport and off-airport rates. Sometimes it will be cheaper to take a cab to a different rental location and pick up your rental car!
Planning a trip for a family can be confusing. Lots of dates, companies, confirmation numbers, it can get anyone flustered. We are not very organized people by nature, you will not see us at the airport with a folder full of printouts of everyone’s tickets! We keep everything on our phones and emails, and so far everything we have needed has been there!
Smartphones have certainly helped ease the stress of travel. With just the tap of an app you can bring up boarding passes, flight times, hotel reservations, and more without lugging around a briefcase full of your home printer paper (and it is green!)s. One of our favorite tools is Award Wallet. You simply create a profile, enter in all of your travel accounts (airline, hotel, car rental loyalty numbers) and it will gather all of your travel plans and point balances for you to see. And it’s free!
Credit cards are the lifeblood for people who like to travel on points. A simple sign-up with the right travel card can almost immediately earn you enough points for a vacation. However, the credit card “game” is not for everyone, it takes a lot of organization and discipline. Avoiding unnecessary (not all!) annual fees and interest charges are a must.
Before signing up for a new credit card it is wise to check your credit score (we like to use Quizzle.com) and make sure you are in a good position for a new card. If you have a pretty low credit score, you don’t want to risk a hard pull on your credit only to be declined. It would be best to try to improve your score before moving forward. (Disclaimer: We are not financial advisors! We are just passing along information that we have gathered!).
Travel credit cards nowadays are generally all pretty similar. After you apply and are approved, you receive your new card and if you spend a pre-determined amount before a pre-determined date (usually something like $3,000 in 3 months) you received a pre-determined amount of bonus points/miles. This is great for someone who is already going to spend that money, because they don’t have to do anything differently financially and they receive a nice chunk of points. If done properly you can easily receive multiple bonuses per year while improving your credit score.
These signup bonuses can range anywhere from a free hotel night to 100,000 airline miles or more. It is wise to search around for offers that make sense to you and your upcoming trip, and of course it is very important to pay off that credit card immediately. Leaving a balance on your card will not only negatively affect your credit, it will devalue the bonus that you just received because you are paying interest!
Flying with Family
Travelling with family can be a lot of fun and a great memory. It can also turn into a nightmare if just a few things go wrong. Here are some family travel tips to help avoid any issues.
First, if possible, when flying with a group, try to book everyone on the same itinerary. This may not always be possible depending on the size of your group, but try calling the airline if you can’t do it online. By booking everyone on the same itinerary, you can accomplish a few important things:
- Extend benefits! If the person booking has a high status with an airline, their perks will be granted to other passengers on the same itinerary. For example, extra checked bags, priority boarding, and upgrades!
- Smoother check-in process. For me, one of the most stressful times is checking in a bunch of people with a bunch of checked bags. If you are all booked on the same itinerary, this will save some time.
- Schedule change. In the event of a schedule change due to weather, mechanical issues, etc., and you need to be rescheduled, it will be more likely that everyone will be kept together if you originally booked together. Otherwise, agents will just start re-booking people wherever they fit.
- Organization & Peace of Mind! Perhaps the most important! If you are organizing a trip for 6 people, with 6 different reservation numbers, anything that can go wrong will go wrong x 6! Book together, keep it simple.
Flying with A Baby
While some people would never want to fly with a baby, we have to, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. You may get some dirty looks if your little one starts crying, but more often than not you will find most passengers to be friendly and understanding. Your most important job is to try and keep your baby happy and safe, here are some of our tips on how to do so!
Depending on the age of your child, the time of day that you fly can make a big difference. For us, most flights from Brazil to the US are overnight, so that tends to help with getting Emily to sleep during the trip. We try to keep her eating and sleeping schedule as close to normal as possible, even if it is off by a couple of hours. For example: After we board, we change her into her pajamas, give her a bottle, put her in her car seat (will get to that next!), and put on some calming music for her. This is the closest we could do to replicate sleeping routine at home (obviously substituting her crib for a car seat!). Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t…and that’s ok, just be ready with some entertainment!
Choosing a Seat for Your Baby
On most airlines children under two years old can fly for free on an adult’s lap, if it is an international flight it will be a 10% charge. On American Airlines, if you book the two seats and leave the middle one empty, they will block that seat for the infant assuming the flight isn’t full. However, if you really need to guarantee a seat, you will have to pay a full fare. Tip: Infants do not earn frequent flyer miles when they are flying as a “lap-child”, if you pay full fare for their ticket they will earn miles. Also, check the location of your seat using SeatGuru.com, which is a site those offers user reviews of specific airline seats.
Ok, you have a seat for your child, now what? Now you can choose whether or not you want to use an approved car seat or have your child lay on the seat. We have done both and have had mixed experiences with both.
If your child is used to sleeping in car seat on long car rides, I would recommend trying the car seat first. Not only is it safer because they are strapped in, but the parents will be able to relax more knowing their child isn’t going to roll off the seat in the middle of the night. If it is a day flight the car seat is still a good option if your child can be occupied with toys, books, iPad, etc.
If you don’t go with the car seat idea, your child will have to sit on your lap during takeoff and landing. Not a big deal, but could interrupt a potential nap. However, this does free up a lot of space for playing and laying down. On one successful overnight flight, Emily laid across the seat with her head on my lap and we created a little tent over her with the airline blankets. She seemed comfortable and we got to eat dinner in peace, however, I couldn’t really move much and we were still concerned about her falling even though she had a seatbelt on.
Bottom line is that you have some options, and anyone with a small child knows that is very important!
Using a Bassinet
Most airlines offer bassinets on long flights for babies up to 20lbs. On American Airlines, you cannot reserve one, you can only reserve a seat that can accommodate one and hope there is one available on your flight (I know…). The seats that can accommodate a bassinet are usually the first row behind business class and economy extra assuming there is a divider wall.
The bassinet attaches to the wall in front of your seat and your baby can lay flat and strapped in for the entire flight except for takeoff, landing, and extreme turbulence. Emily used the bassinet many times up until she was 9 months old could and no longer comfortably fit in it. If you have the opportunity, it is a great option.
Flying with a child can usually earn you some extra luggage allowance. In most cases you can check a stroller and car seat in addition to your luggage for no extra cost. You also have the option to gate-check your stroller and car seat if you prefer, which is what we do to avoid any extra damage.
We first started using the Britax B-Safe Travel System. This is a great, light, stroller and car seat combo. It was convenient because when all folded up it would pass through the x-ray machine at security and then we could roll Emily (and all of her supplies) easily through the airport. Once we get to the gate, we remove the car seat and bring it on the plane, then leave the stroller (in a bag to keep it clean) to be checked. After we land, the stroller is usually waiting for us as we walk off the plane.
Now that Emily has moved to a convertible car seat, we attach it to a travel folding luggage cart so we can roll it through the airport. We still gate-check the stroller with hopes that it will suffer less damage than checking it at the ticket counter.
If your travel party has booked together, you probably selected your seats to be near each other. If you didn’t, try to do so before you arrive at the airport. You can easily access a reservation on the airlines website with the record locator and last name. By booking seats near each other, you can minimize any chance of disturbing your neighbors with your kids! Don’t forget to check Seat Guru!
Bring Your Own Entertainment
Most planes are equipped with video on demand and games to keep passengers occupied, but it is wise to bring backup. Depending on your children’s age, your packing list will be different, but here are some essentials:
Flying should be fun, especially for kids!
This is an ever-growing list, so check back often! Have a question you would like answered or a tip for the list? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Never miss our family travel tips. Follow us on Facebook!