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Before having kids, my husband and I loved to travel. When our family grew, we agreed that we wanted to continue to prioritize exploring the world as much as we could. Unlike it may seem on Instagram, no one comes with a magic wand and whisks us away on vacation — we make sacrifices to design these experiences, and we work hard to make them happen.
Now that we’re paying for four, credit cards play a major role in our ability to swing our travel, but perhaps not in the way you might think. We don’t rack up debt, and because we pay our bills in full each month, we don’t pay any interest. Instead, we rely heavily on the points and miles that we largely earn from credit card rewards. And with the national average domestic airline itinerary fare hovering just below $400 in the fourth quarter of last year, according to the Department of Transportation, every bit we can defray helps.
Here are some of the ways that credit cards help make our family’s travel dreams a reality — for a fraction of the out-of-pocket cost.
(Nearly) free flights
The rewards we earn from the many credit cards we hold help fly our family for almost free. Some cards are branded to a particular airline and earn frequent flyer miles that can be used for flights on that airline and its partners. Other credit cards earn rewards that aren’t locked into one brand and offer more flexibility. You can transfer those rewards to several partner airlines, which allows you to shop around to find the best flight options for your family. If you have enough miles to cover the flights, you’ll just pay a nominal charge for taxes and fees out of pocket: They start at $5.60 one way per person if you’re traveling in the U.S.
When I tell inquiring friends how our rewards pay for flights, I’m often met with skeptical stares. “Don’t they charge so many miles? I’ll never earn enough.” Though the cost of award flights in miles can seem outrageous many times, there are still values to be found. We recently booked coast-to-coast flights for our family of four for less than 10,000 miles per person one way. An average bonus for opening a new credit card is around 50,000 miles, sometimes considerably more. That means by opening one new card and paying an annual fee under $100, my whole family can jet from Baltimore to sunny California.
Plus, I have an extra "free flight trick" up my sleeve: a companion pass. Several popular airlines offer the perk for a companion to fly free or at a reduced cost — as an outright perk of holding its branded credit card or by earning enough points in a year.
Our family's favorite airline, Southwest, has the best companion pass around: Once the pass is earned, one companion can fly free with you (you'll just pay taxes and fees) as many times as you fly the rest of that calendar year, plus the entire next calendar year. (More details here.)
Travel ‘insurance’ and flexibility
When you’re beholden to a school calendar that dictates when you can travel, you quickly learn that availability and prices can be sky-high during spring break or the winter holidays, when everyone is taking trips. For example, more than 141 million people flew in March and April this year, compared with 118 million in January and February, according to Transportation Security Administration checkpoint travel numbers. Booking far in advance is helpful to lock in those plans. Often, you’ll find better availability and lower prices than you’ll get when you reserve closer in. And when you pay with miles or points, there’s less at stake: You’re not shelling out a bunch of cash now for a trip you’ll take next year.
Whether you’re booking well in advance or last minute, using rewards earned from credit cards can give greater flexibility should your plans change. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, many airlines ditched the fees to cancel or change a ticket. Some of those fees are creeping back — but the policies are often more generous if you’ve booked with miles. Having a stash of credit card points and miles at the ready helps my family book trips with the peace of mind that we’ll be able to change our plans without paying big fees.
If you pay cash for your ticket, you’ll still be able to cancel — but with more caveats. In many cases, you’ll have to pay a higher fare to have that flexibility to change or cancel your ticket. Often, you’ll be refunded in the form of travel credit with that airline rather than getting your money back. That means you’ll have money tied up with that airline, which isn’t ideal if you find a better deal on a different airline for your next flights or if you need that cash for other expenses. Plus, those credits can expire.
Booking with miles, on the other hand, can allow you to cancel your tickets — even last minute — and get all your rewards back without penalty.
Perks that make it easier
“Gee, I’m so excited to wait in long lines with grumpy kids,” said no one ever. The reality is that long lines at security checkpoints, rental car counters and even hotel check-in queues can really dampen the excitement of travel for kids and grown-ups alike.
But for my family, many of the travel perks that come along with the premium credit cards we hold far outweigh the cost of the annual fees we pay. Thanks to services like TSA Precheck, Global Entry and Clear, we are able to skip out on lots of idle time spent waiting in line. The Platinum Card® from American Express comes with a hefty $695 annual fee, but it offers credits that help cover the cost of these services. We can pop into an airport lounge while we wait to board and enjoy free drinks and snacks. Terms apply. Elite status is another benefit that the right credit cards afford us. We can skip the line at the rental counter and head straight to our car after a long flight. Thanks to the automatic Gold status we get from the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card, we can go to a special queue when we check in to our hotel, and we can take advantage of elite perks like room upgrades, late checkout and daily credit to help cover breakfast. Terms apply.
‘Free money’ helps budgets stretch further
Most major credit card issuers these days offer special merchant-specific discounts when activated on your card. They’re like built-in coupons you can add to your credit card with an easy click, and they can save you very real dollars on purchases you’re already making.
I think of these offers as "free money" I earn back from my credit cards. I load as many of these coupons onto my cards as I can because there’s no penalty if I don’t use them. If I’m ordering pizza for Friday movie night, sending birthday flowers or purchasing new luggage, I’ll check my credit card offers first so I can see whether shopping at any featured merchants makes sense to save money.
Once I make a qualifying purchase, my card gets credited back the amount I saved. I like to keep track of this money in a simple spreadsheet and watch it add up: $5 back from this restaurant, $10 back from this back-to-school shopping trip. Then I put that money aside into a trip fund to help subsidize the extra costs of our travels.
By shaving off extra costs whenever I can, our family can afford to travel together more.