This is no longer a vacation. It's a quest. It's a quest for fun. You're gonna have fun, and I'm gonna have fun.
There are several travel hacking blogs on the internet for jet-setting singles, but most of their tips aren't realistic for family travel. That's because scoring travel rewards for a family requires a lot more effort than it does for one or two people.
Take family man, Dan Miller. When his family was invited to a reunion in Lake Tahoe, California, he knew they couldn't afford the trip without thinking creatively. You see, the 40-year-old Cincinnati resident and his wife, Carolyn, have six kids.
“I knew that 8 roundtrip tickets to Lake Tahoe would not be cheap." Miller said. He's right. Miller was looking at nearly ten thousand dollars just to pay for flights. And prices weren't going to get any cheaper. According to FareCompare.com, an airfare tracking website, airlines raised fares 14 times in 2016 alone.
To make the Lake Tahoe trip and subsequent family vacations, Miller, who now blogs about travel hacking at Points With a Crew, knew he needed some cost-saving strategies for big families like his. Here are some he's learned along the way.
1. You gotta take advantage of credit card sign-up bonuses
Many travel cards offer big sign-up bonuses that can help you cover a nice chunk of your trip expenses. With a big family, you'll likely need more than one to cover the full cost of the trip. Couples should partner up. You and your spouse could sign up for the same card separately and each earn the bonus. An example of a card worth pursuing this way is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which promises a sign-up bonus worth $625 in travel.
There are a few things to keep in mind before using credit cards to fund your family travel.
First, travel cards generally require good or excellent credit. Second, applying for multiple credit cards in a short period of time can damage your credit if it's not otherwise solid. And third, it takes time to be eligible for reward points. For instance, many of these credit card deals require you to first spend $3,000 to $4,000 to earn the offered bonus. Get the cards in spring if you're planning a Christmas trip.
Don't be too intimidated by the spending requirement to qualify for travel points.
One trick is to put every recurring expense you can on the credit card. Some utility companies and landlords may charge a small fee to pay with credit, but compared with the sign-up bonus you're getting, it's worth it. If you're coming up on the spending deadline, you can use the card to send money to your spouse via PayPal or Venmo. Again, there is a small fee. But it's better than losing hundreds of dollar worth of travel rewards.
2. Choose hotel accommodation that has a refrigerator and microwave
Meals can be just as expensive for a family as the hotel or airfare. Even if you go with fast food for every meal, for a family like the Miller's, we're talking around $100 a day spent on eating out. Instead of eating out, eat in. Most hotel rooms have a mini-fridge and a microwave. Don't see these as a convenience, but rather as a lifeline. Go grocery shopping as soon as you get to your destination and stock up on inexpensive meals you can easily make for the whole family without a lot of fuss. Sandwiches, milk and cereal, and frozen meals are a few. You may have to make more than one grocery trip during your stay but you'll save big by doing so.
3. Stay at hotels that offer free "dinner"
Free breakfast is a staple at many hotel chains. According to Miller, there are some large hotel brands that offer free dinner too. Most Homewood Suites, Residence Inn, Staybridge Suites, and Drury Inn properties offer dinner in some form or another. The trick is that it's not typically called “dinner." Instead, they opt for terms like “manager's reception" or “evening social hour." This meal service is a godsend for large families, especially because you can't redeem travel credit card rewards to cover your restaurant or grocery bill while on vacation. While the Miller's didn't do this on their Lake Tahoe trip, he admits they've taken advantage of these offerings several times since.
4. Drive baby, drive
Instead of flying for each trip, drive when possible. Use the GasBuddy app to find the cheapest gas along the way, and check to see if any of your credit cards let you redeem your rewards for gift cards for certain gas stations. Pack a cooler with prepared food so you don't have to eat out every meal on the road. Stick with water for drinking and refill your bottles instead of buying a new one every time you run out. Also, if your road trip spans more than a day, you can score deep discounts on hotels on rooms that have last-minute cancellations through websites like Roomer or Cancelon.
5. Pack light
If you're traveling by plane, avoid over packing to save on checked baggage fees. Roll your clothes instead of folding them to save space and try to keep each family member to a carry-on bag. Also, checking a stroller or car seat is free, so pack it in a large duffel bag and add some extra stuff that's bulky yet lightweight to conserve space in your luggage (e.g. diapers, pillows, etc.). Just know that some airlines may not allow you to do this if it's too obvious or there's too much stuff in the bag.
A simpler option may be to just fly Southwest - but with reward travel like the Miller's did for their Lake Tahoe trip. The airline allows two free bags per passenger. The Miller family ended up checking in nine bags for free, saving approximately $450 in baggage fees.
Traveling before kids is convenient, relaxing and relatively inexpensive. In short, it's glorious. As your entourage grows bigger, however, travel can feel like it's out of financial reach. Don't let it. The Millers embraced easy ways to make their Lake Tahoe trip more affordable. Sure, it wasn't free, but the trip was especially wonderful because they ended up maxing out their credit card reward bonuses instead of their balances. That's glorious, too.