Family travel for free? Yes! Remember—plastic is fantastic! When used properly, credit card mileage points can save you thousands of dollars on plane flights, rental cars, and lodging. Here are some basics on how we’ve flown for free across the globe, anywhere from Europe to New Zealand and back again.
We have had United Plus Chase credit cards for many years. With family on the east coast, I started accumulating miles as soon as I moved to San Francisco. My kids and husband also have Mileage Plus numbers and earn miles each time they fly. Get accounts for everyone flying, even the little ones!
We use the same credit card for EVERYTHING from groceries, to gas, to appliances. Even taxes and college tuition! You’re spending this money anyway so you might as well earn mileage points! (Please know this only works if you pay off your credit card each month. I am not suggesting that you go into debt or pay any interest, just that you don’t use cash or check for daily purchases.) The card awards us points for each dollar spent and additional points for dining and shopping at certain places. It also adds double points when purchasing United plane tickets.
Many airlines do this, so you can acquire several cards and award accounts depending on the airlines you frequently use. We have primarily stuck with United because they travel where we typically want to go and partner with many airlines, so our miles are good on some other airlines as well.
Many credit cards let you accrue points for use on up to 13 different airlines. (For this reason, I’m looking into getting a Chase Sapphire card. I will let you know if I like it.) Many cards have similar annual fees of $95 per year and sign-up bonuses. Make sure you get the first year’s annual fee free, that the card does not charge foreign transaction fees, and that you can use the points for things like car rental and hotels too.
True story: One year we signed up for British Airlines cards, one under my husband’s name and one under mine, and earned thousands of bonus miles for spending a certain amount within the first three months. (This works especially well when you know you have a big expense coming up like a new roof, car, horse, or anything expensive.) We used the miles to fly to London, paid no annual fee, and then cancelled the cards after the trip!
The creative part comes when it is time to book the vacation. It takes a lot of patience and time online, and on the phone, but it is well worth it! This is how you can enjoy family travel for free!
#1 Be strategic. The key to planning big trips is that we pay for flights on shorter, domestic trips, and save up miles for bigger excursions, like Europe.
#2 Decide on dates for your trip. Note that you can book flights for up to 12 months in advance, so planning for next summer is not as crazy as it sounds. I find booking the earlier, the better when grabbing the free frequent flyer seats.
#3 Be flexible. If you can’t find four tickets to London for free but they are available going to Madrid, then change your itinerary! Once in Europe, the flights and trains are not outrageously expensive, so book a shell of the trip first and worry about the detailed itinerary later.
#4 Don’t give up. Check back with the airlines frequently because they are making changes ALL the time, especially post pandemic. If you don’t find what you want today, it may be available tomorrow.
#5 Speak with an agent directly on the phone because they know the system and are usually happy to help with complicated purchases. For instance, several times I have had to move miles from my husband’s or daughters’ accounts into my account to achieve the magic number of miles needed for the fourth ticket. I have had to pay a nominal fee to move the miles, or sometimes purchase a few more miles to make it work. This finagling takes a knowledgeable agent, persistence, and math skills!
#6 Use the stop over! You can add multiple destinations on one free ticket. For instance, we have booked a round trip from San Francisco to Paris, but stopped in Boston on the way home to visit family.
#7 Don’t be shy. Ask for what you want from the airline agent. If you really are a valued customer, then they may be able to give you bags for free or upgrades for a few more miles. Book your seats when you book the tickets to make sure you are sitting together and where you want.
#8 Stay organized. It can be overwhelming and sometimes aggravating to plan a 3 week trip for four people to foreign countries. I prefer paper to electronic, so I keep a travel folder and print out all confirmations regarding flights, rentals, and excursions. That way I can always find it, rather than scrolling through a million emails. There are great phone apps, however, which help you stay organized virtually.