The following is a guest post by our friend Kim at Eyes on the Dollar. Enjoy!
I love to travel, but I hate to spend money. This used to create a huge conundrum every time my family wanted to plan a trip. Thankfully, it’s no longer an issue because we’ve discovered how to take cheap vacations during peak travel times by using the magic of points and miles!
When You Have To Travel During Peak Season
An easy way to save money on travel is to take trips during off-peak seasons, but that doesn’t always work for families with children. For us, having a school age daughter and a husband who works in education restricts our travel dates to spring break, holidays, and summers. If you haven’t checked lately, booking flights and rooms during peak travel dates can be twice as much as booking during off seasons. What’s a budget conscious family to do?
Points And Miles to the Rescue
My husband and I used to take one trip a year if we were lucky, and we still spent a few thousand dollars making it happen. After we had our daughter, I really thought vacations were a thing of the past, but then I learned the secret of using credit cards responsibly to take advantage of huge travel rewards, such as the Discover Miles Card rewards.
We booked our first points vacation to southern California when our daughter was five years old, and we were hooked. I now have an involuntary gag reflex that kicks in if I have to pay retail price for travel.
In the past three years, we’ve leveraged thousands of dollars worth of points and miles for almost free trips, mostly during peak times. We’ve been to the Pacific Northwest, San Diego, Yellowstone National Park, San Francisco, Scottsdale, Las Vegas, and Hawaii. Our most ambitious trip is coming up this summer when my family will spend three weeks in Europe, all for less than we used to spend on a road trip. The best part is that you can do it too.
If you want to take cheap family vacations during peak season, you really need to plan at least a year in advance. Using points and miles works like a charm, but you can’t wait until six weeks before you want to go to start opening up cards.
Right now, you should be thinking summer 2016. Most airline reward charts open up around 330 days in advance, and many hotel chains take reservations up to a year and a half in the future. You should have the necessary points already in the account and be ready to book when your dates come available.
Last December, I booked Thanksgiving week at the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar in the Bahamas, mainly because it looked super fun and the points requirements for free nights was going up. I had no idea if we could get plane tickets or if we’d even want to go at that time, but I booked just in case.
My daughter has a companion pass with Southwest Airlines, which allows her to fly free with me, regardless of whether we pay with cash or points. Since Southwest just opened up a bunch of new international routes to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, I was hoping to use their miles to get us to the Bahamas cheaply.
Southwest only books about six months in advance, so I had to wait until a few weeks ago to see what was available. Unfortunately, there was no way to make the connections work for the dates we had. It would have taken two days to get to the Bahamas from where we live. I had to move on to Plan B.
Reward Bookings Can Usually Be Changed Without Penalty
Another great thing about booking with points and miles is that it’s usually easy to cancel or change without paying a huge penalty. Always check with the program regarding cancellation fees, but it’s generally better to book and change later than to wait until you’re 100 percent sure and discover the place you wanted to book is no longer available.
I was able to cancel the Baha Mar booking with no penalty, but now I needed to figure out where to go. Let me say that my choices were really tough. We had to pick between Belize, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo, or Costa Rica. Oh the agony!
$4250 Family Trip To Mexico for $280!
Ultimately, we chose to book the Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos because it’s all inclusive and the flight gets in just after lunch. Right now, this resort is booking at $426 per night, so this is a great use of points. Midday cocktails on the beach sound fantastic to me. As Holly likes to say, Winning!
Even with Southwest, flying during the week of Thanksgiving is expensive. Normally, flights would have been $849 each, but with points from the Southwest credit cards and our companion pass, we ended up paying only $93.48 per ticket in taxes and fees.
Our Hyatt stay will cost zero thanks to points from Chase Ultimate Rewards and the two free nights that come with the Hyatt credit card. Since it’s all inclusive, we can stuff our faces for free. Points and miles are giving us a vacation that would have cost $4250 for only $280. The only downside to this deal is the five pounds that I’ll have to lose after a week of all you can eat!
Would you like to take your family on a killer trip, but have no idea how to start? You can take advantage of Holly’s free travel coaching. Once you learn how to score cheap family vacations, even during peak times, you’ll never go back to paying retail.
Kim Parr is an optometrist and financial blogger who writes about her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.