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Today’s “keeping it real” post (real points uses for real families) has to do with redeeming miles and points during school holidays. It is easy to recommend that people have flexibility when redeeming miles and points, and that they try to avoid peak seasons when possible, but the reality is that once your kids hit school age your flexibility is largely limited to days when the children are off from school…you know, the same dates when everyone else is trying to travel! This means it can be harder to find the reward seats on the plane and reward nights at hotels, but it is far from impossible with a few simple tips.
Book your airline reward tickets as far in advance as you can:
Some miles and points pros think the best time for booking being 11 months out when the schedules open is a myth. What I think they mean is that is a myth that all reward seats that will ever be available for a flight will be loaded right at that instant. For example, if you are looking for a flight from San Francisco to London in July, it is possible that the instant that flight loads in the schedule (roughly 11 months before the flight) that there are no rewards seats available at all. This doesn’t necessarily mean that someone “beat you to it”, it can mean there were never any to begin with. However, if the airline isn’t selling as many seats as they expected for that flight, then some reward seats may be loaded at any point such as 9 months out, 2 months out, or even a couple of days before the flight. That being said, most families don’t want to leave their summer vacations to chance, so waiting until just before isn’t always a valid strategy.
This means that you should start looking at options the moment when the flights become available. It is possible there won’t initially be anything that works for you, but it is also possible that there will be a few reward seats available on many routes as soon as they are loaded into the airline’s systems. If they are there, grab them. Even if they aren’t your exact perfect routing or carrier, at least you have secured something that will work for your family. It is likely when you book that far out that the airline will experience a schedule change that may give you some flexibility at improving your booked flights later on. Don’t count on this, but it is fairly common when you book so far in advance.
Here is an example of this theory – now, in late August 2013, the booking schedule for many airlines is open through late July 2014. I searched our example trip from San Francisco to London for 4 people in June and July 2014. June has now been open for booking for at least a month, and as you can see, there are many days with no saver availability (the white days) and a handful of days that have only coach options (the yellow days). Most of the dates that have coach are in very early June before school even gets out, so that wouldn’t help most families. However, look at early July through the 21st, where the booking window just opened, and you will see more days that are yellow (coach) and green (coach and first). This is especially true for the week or two where the schedule has been open for the shortest period of time.
I picked this route 100% at random before I conducted the search, but the theory held true. I’m sure it won’t for all routes, but the best advice is to start your search the day the schedule opens and keep searching until you find something that will work for you. Tools like ExpertFlyer.com can be helpful since you can be emailed when availability on a certain route appears.
Like I mentioned, last minute spontaneity won’t work much of the time for family vacations, but it can still work sometimes. If your family has the personality to go where the wind takes you, then you can take advantage of availability that sometimes does pop open within the last few days before departure. Here is another real life example: Premium cabin awards to Australia can be notoriously hard to get, especially when you need several seats for a family. However, if I wanted to leave this Thursday (the day this post launches) with my family of three and fly from Houston to Sydney, I could fly in first class on United’s 747 and come back roughly a week later on the same plane at the saver award level. We aren’t going to book that this time (rats!), but the point is that if you do sometimes have the ability to be spontaneous (like over the summer), then even if you need multiple seats sometimes the airline award gods will smile on you with some great last-minute availability.
Lock in hotel award nights far in advance:
I mentioned yesterday that you can use Club Carlson points literally years in advance, so that can be a way to lock in your room for a date/city that you know will end up being in high demand. You can typically cancel penalty-free until much closer to the reservation. Other chains like Hyatt and Starwood don’t open their schedules quite as far out as Club Carlson, but they are open at least a year out so I recommend locking in your rooms on points the day they come open as well. Both of those chains have a policy where if a standard room is available for sale you can book it on points, so grab one before the standard rooms are all gone. I know many people like to use their points to stay at popular hotels such as the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome, but I hear complaints that it is hard to use points there. That can be true if you wait until the last minute, or are trying to book during a big event in Paris, but if you are booking well in advance you will rarely have a problem. Always check the cancellation policy, but just like with Club Carlson, you can typically cancel without a penalty until much closer to the reservation dates.
Consider non-standard rooms for additional points:
Even if the hotel is out of standard rooms when you get around to making your award reservation, sometimes they will sell you a non-standard for some additional points and/or a cash supplement. This can work to your advantage if you need some extra space, but typically these sort of deals need to be done with the hotel directly so pick up the phone and give them a call even if the website says rooms are not available on points.
Use fixed value points:
In some cases, it may be easier for families to use some fixed value points for certain types of trips. Some fixed value points can be used for all sorts of travel and some can be used just with a specific airline, like with Southwest Rapid Reward points. Fixed value points are not good for very expensive tickets because the number of points required is directly tied to the price of the ticket, but they can typically be used without any blackout dates, so they are very good for families looking to travel when saver availability just isn’t there. For example, if your family lives in the NYC area and you want to fly down to Tampa to spend the December holidays with your family in Florida, you are out of luck with saver availability on American Airlines after December 13th, so a coach seat would cost you 25,000 miles each way around the Christmas holidays.
However, if you used a fixed value point to fly Southwest then the cost is reduced to about 17,000 points one-way if you want to fly on the very peak travel day of Saturday December 21st. With Southwest you can also get a points refund if you notice the price has dropped and re-book. Of, you could opt to use FlexPerks points or Capital One Venture points to just “buy” any ticket with any airline and with those fixed value points and then you even earn miles on your trip.
Call in the experts:
If all else fails, call in an expert to help. There are many people out there who book award tickets for a fee. This may sound crazy to pay someone to help you use your miles, but if it is the difference between you going on the trip or not going it can be worth it. While you can do virtually everything these booking pros can do at home, they often know about routes with consistent availability, non-obvious routing that the computer doesn’t display, or using miles with airline partners that you haven’t thought of. There are so many of these services out there right now but a few of them are Book Your Award, Points Pros, Award Booking Service, and many, many more. Typically you do not pay anything until the service finds something that will work for you, so it is usually risk-free. The prices vary from some new guys occasionally taking on clients for free, to the established sites, which usually charge between $100 – $150 per person.
First hand experience:
My own daughter has been on a school schedule for over a year now via her pre-school. I know this isn’t quite the same as once she starts “real school” in kindergarten, but we have already transitioned to taking many of our family trips during spring break, summer break, and winter break since she is out of school anyway. We also make good use of some long weekends (especially around teacher workdays when school is closed) to do some quick getaways during less busy seasons. Because of this transition, I know first-hand that traveling on miles and points during school holidays in entirely possible, but it does take some advance planning and sometimes a little flexibility.
What strategies does your family use when planning trips using miles and points during peak season travel and school holidays?
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