How to travel for free
Kids are expensive, and never more so than when you are traveling. Sure you used to travel on a shoestring budget with just a backpack and a pillow, but once you add kids to the mix, you're probably not doing much backpacking or sleeping al fresco. Airfare, hotels, meals – it all adds up quickly. In order to make your travel dollars go their farthest, sometimes you need to work the system.
Points, miles, rewards – they all mean free or cheaper travel to the person willing to put in a little time. It takes forever to save up for four free flights, but what if someone offered you $500 off of your next vacation. Would you do it? Using points can drastically reduce the cost of your next family adventure, perhaps making the difference between a sweet vacation and a mediocre staycation.
Here are a few tips on how to make points work for you.
Yes, sign up for the frequent flyer account
It's your first time on the airline, and you're not sure if it's worth it. Let me answer that for you: Yes, it is. That two minutes filling out a form on the plane or when you buy your ticket could be the start of a beautiful relationship between yourself and free stuff. You never know what the future holds. Your next three flights could be on this airline. Start planning your next trip while on your current one!
Credit cards are wonderful things. Besides freeing your pockets from jingling change, they allow you to buy the things you need while chipping away at a free flight to your dream destination.
Choosing the right card for you is important. Do you travel a lot overseas? Then be sure to get a card that does not charge foreign transaction fees. Are you dreaming of a specific destination at a luxury hotel? Perhaps a Marriott card will get you that penthouse suite. Do you travel lots of different airlines and need flexibility? A card like Chase Sapphire will accrue points that you can dump in different hotel or airline accounts in order to earn free stuff or purchase car rentals, flights and hotels directly from their website.
These cards are not free, but if you use the points you earn, the $90 per year fee is dwarfed by the $500 free ticket to L.A. for the Oscars. And of course, remember to pay your balance off in full each month. No need for the banks to make more money off of you than they already do.
Get creative in your credit card use. Here are some ways to rack up miles besides just using your card a lot:
- Tuition. Does your college accept credit cards? Get a free flight to visit your college kids.
- Mortgage companies will sometimes accept credit card payments.
- Car payments
- Your contractors
- Groceries. You will be surprised how much this adds up
- Work-related travel. Put it on your personal card then get reimbursed – if it's the same airline then it's double the miles.
If you're serious, forgo the 2% cash back and think of your beach vacation. Put everything on just one or two cards that are travel-oriented. Remember, so long as you pay off your balance every month, these are free miles for things that you had to pay for anyway. What did you use that cash back reward for – a few lattes? Yippee.
Put your kids to work
So many parents who fly with their children will say, "You know, Johnny really should have his own account." Well, duh! Of course, he should. Every time you pay for a ticket and don't accumulate miles, you are leaving money behind on the plane.
Say Johnny only flies to Grandma's house once a year, plus a family vacation every summer. If you happen to fly on the same airline, in a few years, Johnny can pay for his own ticket to see grandma, saving you hundreds of dollars. Even if you don't make the magic 25,000- or 35,000-mile threshold for a free ticket, you can put these miles to use in other ways.
- You can have Johnny pay for the car. Car rentals can be purchased for as little as 4,000 miles depending on your destination
- You can top up Johnny's paltry account from a credit card that allows these transfers, such as Chase Sapphire. Then, voila – free ticket. They usually only let you import miles to one or two accounts, so choose your accounts wisely.
- Sometimes you can combine your kids' accounts to purchase one ticket, then pay for a second. One free ticket still saves you hundreds of dollars that you can use for your hotel room, poolside drinks and other vacation perks.
- It costs fewer miles to upgrade. Leave Johnny with grandma and use his miles to fly first class someplace romantic with your spouse!
Think beyond the flight
Many people don't play the mileage game because they only travel about once a year, or they always fly on different airlines. Miles can be redeemed for many things beyond flights. Hotel rooms are a great way to stretch your vacation dollar using your miles. What sounds like a better vacation, staying in a free hotel room or your cousin's basement?
Sites like United have a separate page where you can use miles for hotel rooms. These reservations can be made separately from your flight, so you can fly American to your hotel room paid with United points. Sometimes when planning your vacation the flights are so cheap that it isn't worth it to use your miles. Buy that $190 coach fare to your destination and splurge on three nights in a five-star hotel instead! You will spend a lot more time at your hotel than you will on your flight.
Look for bonuses
Some airlines offer double miles when you use your card to buy tickets on their airline. Purchase your business trip fare with this card and you get free miles for personal travel. Others have bonuses for dining, purchases at certain retailers, etc. Others offer 50,000 miles just for opening the card – that's a ticket right there!
Know when to hold 'em
Which brings me to my next point (no pun intended): Use your miles strategically. If you are a family of four flying to Florida, you can usually get a pretty good deal if you time it correctly. It would cost you at least 100,000 points for four mileage tickets. What if you could splurge and use your points on a fancy hotel that costs $300 per night, right on the beach? You could savor every minute in the hotel knowing that it cost you zero. Instead of saving $800 on four $200 flights, you save $1,200 on hotel. That's $400 more bucks for dinner and a nanny!
Every airline is different and programs are constantly changing, but that doesn't mean you should give up. Travel is a privilege and it is expensive, but with some luck and some patience, you may be able to afford a lot more than you thought. Your kids won't remember what you bought them for Christmas last year, but they will always remember a special vacation. Dream big! Sometimes all it takes is going the extra mile to put that bucket list trip within reach.
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