Behind the scenes of family travel with Points with a Crew

dayton-fairborn-2-br-suite

A lot of Drew and my travel strategies, I realize, might be hard to replicate for someone who travels with children.  I’m sure there are nuances of this hobby that wouldn’t even occur to me as someone who needs only think of my husband and myself.

So when a few readers recently reached out with questions about traveling with children, I knew exactly the person to reach out to.  Dan of Points With a Crew has been kind enough to dive into a series of questions I sent him about this travel-hacker world from a family perspective.  And of course, we’re approaching this from a “stats” angle as well. 🙂

Dan Miller runs Points With a Crew as a resource to help families (especially larger families) travel for free / cheap.  Dan lives with his wife and 6 (SIX!) kids in the Cincinnati, Ohio area.

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Dan: Generally speaking, one thing that somewhat drives me is that I just hate to pay for something that, with a little bit of effort, I could get for free.  This can sometimes burn me as the definition of a “little bit of effort” sometimes turns into a “lot of effort”, to the point where it would probably just be better to just suck it up and pay.

 

Carrie: Do you know what your average daily expense is when you travel with your family?

Dan: Cmon – you’re talking to an engineer here!  I keep detailed logs!!! 😀

Actually I haven’t kept detailed expenses for EVERY trip that we’ve taken, but I have it from 2 different trips that I’ve taken.  I think my numbers end up being sometimes cheaper than yours, because we are NOT traveling full-time, and that lets us save money on things like a) we know we’ll be back home shortly so can do laundry there, or b) we can use miles and points for just about 100% of our vacation / travel expenses.  Credit card bonuses and manufactured spending generates enough miles and points for us since we only have to use ~10-20 nights instead of ~300 nights a year.

2009 Staycation trip expenses (from my old blog)

 
Gas
Food
Entertainment
Monday$30$13- Wendy's
$8- Pizza and rootbeer
$0
Tuesday$33$0$15 - 3 Cincinnati Reds tickets in the cheap seats
$2 - parking at the Reds game
$1 - Reds program (actually it was 50 cents but I round up)
WednesdayAnd the gas tank on the van is half full, so I’ll give it another $20 there.$2- at Graeter's Ice Cream (I had $6 left on a gift card I won at work)
$4- at McDonalds
$16 for Wendy's
US Air Force Museum and Wright Brothers Memorials (Free)
$1 in parking (Under the Westin Hotel – $1 for the first 2 hours
$6 for Carew Tower observation deck
$2 in parking at Bicentennial Commons
Thursday$0$5 snacks for the car$0
Friday$0$0$3 parking at COSI (we got into the museum free with a reciprocal pass from our museum)
Saturday$0$3 - Watermelon$0

Totals:
Gas: $83
Food: $51
Entertainment: $30

Total: $174
My blog actually said the total was $205 so I must have missed something in the details, but it was 6 years ago so… I can’t remember what it was 🙂

This was for about a week’s worth of activities, but didn’t include any lodging (since it was a staycation and we stayed at our house), and travel was just gas for our van.

 

2nd trip: 2014 Indianapolis / Dayton mini-vacation

 
Lodging
Food
Travel
ThursdayBest Western Suites, Day 1 Room 1 – $70.17 (I paid $70.17 out of pocket and am expecting a $100 Best Western gift card as part of the Best Rate Guarantee)
Best Western Suites, Day 1 Room 2 – 12,000 Best Western points
$16.35- Little Caesars dinner$2.00 – Parking for the downtown parking garage where we met my aunt for lunch on Friday
$51.60- Gas. I figured this as 344 total miles for our route divided by 20 miles / gallon (about what our van gets on the highway) times $3 / gal (more or less the prevailing price for gas here). You can see here why we tend to focus on smaller, shorter trips, since it would be pretty much impossible to transport 8 people this cheaply on an airplane.
FridayHomewood Suites, Day 2 – 30,000 Hilton HHonors points $22.30- Chick-Fil-A lunch
$5.34- Subway lunch
$9.54- Aldi dinner; (at a Homewood Suites, we had a full kitchen so we decided to go buy food to make quesadillas rather than going out to eat. Included in this is also some taco sauce, cheese and such that we ended up taking the majority of home. For purposes of this budget report I’ll ignore that savings)
$4.39- Meijer dinner; (Aldi was out of cheese and taco sauce)
$10.32 McDonalds snack; This was one area that we could have definitely done better. I had it in my mind to get hot fudge sundaes for everyone, but in hindsight, since we were already going out to the store, I should have just bought ice cream and chocolate syrup there, which would have been just as good and cheaper.

Total: Adding that all up, the total cost was $192.01, with a $100 gift card expected to come in the mail within 2-3 weeks.  We also spent 12,000 Best Western points and 30,000 HHonors points, but an “all-inclusive” 3 day 2 night vacation for 8 for under $100 is not bad, if I do say so myself!!

 

Carrie: Do you know which costs contribute most to your travel expenses? Food? Accommodations? Land transit (such as rental cars, etc)?

Dan: You can see a little bit of this in the 2 trip examples that I mentioned earlier, but I think the top 2 cost areas will be 1) Food and 2) Entertainment.  The reason for that is (generally speaking) it’s hard to use miles and points for those things!  Because we’re not traveling full-time like you guys are, regular travel hacking is enough so that with a little effort, we generally don’t need to pay for hotels and most transportation expenses.  Plus, we drive to many places and a minivan that gets 20mpg and transports 8 people is pretty cost-efficient!!

Now, there ARE ways to minimize food and entertainment expenses that we take advantage of.

Minimizing food expenses:

One way to minimize food expenses is to choose your lodging wisely.  Hotels with free breakfast are almost mandatory for us, since with our family, you’re talking about 8(!) free meals!  We also likely to stay at places that have a “Manager’s reception” or “Evening social hour” which is hotel-code for “free dinner” since again, that’s 8(!) free meals.

(SEE ALSO: Which hotels give dinner for free)

Personally, I like to eat as much as I can at the free breakfast so that I don’t have to eat lunch, but my wife is not amused by what she calls my “hungry lion” food strategy 🙂

When we do buy food, pizza is a good option, especially Little Caesar’s if there’s one nearby.  $15 for 3 Hot-N-Ready pizzas to feed the 8 of us is pretty good.  We also will sometimes do fast food burger places though as my kids are getting older, they get more annoyed with me when I try to make them share their chicken nuggets 😛

Minimizing Entertainment expenses:

When we talk entertainment, there’s a huge variety of things that you could do.  Generally we are on the lookout for places that charge by the family or by the car, rather than individual tickets or passes.

One example are some National Parks or Historical Sites that don’t charge for entrance, but instead charge a flat rate to park there.

Another example is that we have a family membership to our local museum center, which costs $130 and is good for a year.  It also gives reciprocal membership to hundreds of museums all across the country.  We’ve used that tons of times as we have vacationed.

Other museums have free days.  The Indianapolis Children’s Museum is considered one of the best Children’s Museums in the country, but it’s not a member of the reciprocal network so we don’t get in for free.  We COULD pay $111.50 for 7 tickets (under 2 is free), but they also have Free Family Thursday from 4-8pm on the first Thursday of each month.  We are flexible on time – it doesn’t really matter when we visit, so instead of paying $111.50, we decided to go on the 1st Thursday of the month, and got in for $0.  Plus they have a free parking garage across the street!

Here is a link to our trip report.

Remember most kids (especially little kids) do not care about the actual activity and will not be impressed how much you paid for something, compared to things that are free or cheap.  We call this the Christmas empty box syndrome!

 

Carrie: What frugal strategy is the most challenging with a group the size of your family? (Airline tickets? etc.)

Dan: Hotels with a large family aren’t necessarily challenging, but you just need to be aware that unless we get a 2BR suite, we WILL need 2 rooms.  So all hotel costs are just about doubled.  Instead of Point Breaks costing 5,000 points a night, it costs 10,000 points a night (still a great deal for lodging for 8!)

Transportation costs can definitely be challenging.  Everyone needs to make the drive vs. fly cost comparison, but for us, that comparison is skewed even more towards driving.  8 one-way plane tickets to Chicago would cost us 36,000 Avios (if we could find 8 award tickets).  We could drive the 300 miles for about $30 in gas.  You’d pay more than that just in the $5.60 TSA fees!)

As we plan a summer family vacation for 2015, we’re actually looking at taking an Amtrak train!  We can go from Cincinnati to Denver in 2 Amtrak family bedrooms (sleeps 8) for only 50,000 Chase / Amtrak points, which is half the cost of one-way standard domestic airline redemptions (8 tickets * 12,500 miles one-way = 100,000).

Plus the cost of the train trip would include 2 nights of lodging and 5 meals for our whole family!!  (Downside is that Amtrak only leaves Cincinnati once a day, at 1:23 a.m. :-/ )

Read: Best Use of Amtrak Points

 

Carrie: Which strategies do you find most helpful for traveling with a family?  For instance, we find IHG PointBreaks very helpful since we travel long term and need to stretch our points.  Are there strategies that have become your favorite because of the challenges they meet well?

Dan: One strategy we use is just the idea that you don’t have to go super far away or spend a lot of money to have a new and fun vacation / trip.  I wrote a post recently about why I didn’t take advantage of the recent ~$200 Etihad mistake fares

It is true that $200 for a trip to the Middle East is a great deal.  But if we’re talking about the 8 of us, after taxes and fees and other miscellaneous expenses, we’re talking close to $2000.  Would we get $2000 of enjoyment out of a trip to say, Lebanon, compared to a trip to, say, Lebanon, OHIO (where, conveniently, my in-laws live so we can drop off the kids!!! :-D).

As far as travel hacking strategies, one of my favorite involves getting a 2BR room at Homewood Suites.  When redeeming HHonors points at a Homewood Suites, the basic rate is for a 1BR suite.  For example at the Homewood Suites Dayton-Fairborn, that’s 30,000 points . For some reason, Hilton’s algorithm to determine how many points it is for a 2BR suite is totally jacked up.  For example, at the Homewood Suites Dayton-Fairborn it is EXACTLY 57,279 points (no, really, it is).

dayton-fairborn-2-br-suite

I’d be willing to pay a premium, but not twice as much.  So what I have done (2/2 success ratio) is just book the 1BR suite, then use my Hilton Gold status to call and get a free upgrade.

Trip report: Homewood Suites Dayton-Fairborn

I hope that this gives an idea of how those of us in larger families CAN still travel for free / cheap.  The main reason I started my blog is that many of the other blogs out there (yours not included) focused so much on extravagant first class and 5-star trips, which is just not the way we travel.

When we made the decision to HAVE a large family, we knew that it would come with trade-offs and we are okay with that.  Taking advantage of things like this is how we live our life anyways, so it’s not much of a stretch to apply some of these dollar-stretching tips to our travel and vacation life as well.

If anyone has any questions, let me know, I would love to talk

 

Thanks Dan for sharing your stats and a behind the scenes look at family travel!  Be sure to check out Dan’s blog Points with a Crew.

10 Comments on “Behind the scenes of family travel with Points with a Crew

    • Thanks so much for adding all these interesting points Dan! Thought the interview was really interesting and I think my readers will too. (Also I remember visiting some of the places you reference! Go Ohio!! 😀 )

  1. Kid-free here, but I appreciate all of the strategies in this collaborative post. Definitely some ideas I can apply to travels with friends or other situations when there’s more than just two of us.

  2. Great post – from a family with 3 kids! We’re squeezing into 1 hotel room on points still – lugging an aero bed. 😉

  3. Off topic comment – I’ve been reading your and Drew’s blogs for awhile, although not religiously.

    Thank you for the many Southwest flights we were able to book this past year using the Southwest deal (although we went for the 2 companion passes instead of 1 to take kids more often as we’re 5). We are coming up on the 1 year anniversary of our first set of credit card “churns”. We did 2 Southwest cards each and 2 Chase Sapphire cards. All these cards are issued by Chase, however we’ve never cashed any non-Southwest points (200K+ accumulated) on travel yet because we’re using Southwest until the companion passes expire at the end of 2015. Plus it takes a lot of points for 5 to fly on the regular airline so 200K isn’t really that many. What would be the best way to downgrade those cards/cancel them before the next annual fee? I think we’re planning to keep 1 Sapphire card and transfer all our other Chase points to it.

    I guess I’m asking for a post – how to limit the number of annual fee cards and downgrade while still getting approved for more cards. I think Drew kind of touched on it last year
    freakinflyers.com/4-things-you-must-know-before-getting-20-credit-cards/#sthash.PUCyl9zw.dpuf.
    We’ve never actually downgraded/cancelled a card before and I don’t want to do it wrong/hurt our credit/keep us from being able to apply for more. We have a few no fee credit cards already that we’ve had for ages (including Chase Freedom). Do you apply for new cards before you cancel the other ones, or do we cancel them and then apply?

    In that post it would be nice to get an update to Drew’s recommendations for the best cards (and links) for the next opening group. I am thinking of IHG so we can book some hotels and start doing IHG promotions, but I don’t see an affiliate link on your site (just on Points with a Crew).

    • You are right- I don’t have affiliate links. Drew and Points with a Crew both do though for the cards you mentioned if I’m not mistaken.

      Great question about canceling/downgrading and I’m glad to see you’ve already come across the “4 things you must know before getting 20 credit cards” post. The Southwest card doesn’t have anything to downgrade to I don’t think, and since you can transfer Chase points to Southwest anyway, you may as well cancel it. (Don’t worry too much about the impact of canceling cards as long as you are keeping any of them that seem worth it and any of them that don’t have annual fees, and downgrading as many as possible. Plus I guarantee there are people canceling more cards than you are and yet maintaining their credit scores, so don’t worry too much about that. worry LOTS about making on-time payments and LITTLE about canceling if the card isn’t worth keeping to you.)

      The Chase Sapphire Preferred can be downgraded into a Chase Sapphire (nonpreferred) but you are right to consider keeping one of them without downgrading because the Chase Sapphire (nonpreferred) does not come with the benefit of transfers to miles while the preferred one does. So good on you for keeping that in mind!

      As for a post about which round of cards a person should apply for next, those posts can be tough to write just because it so varies on what a person wants out of travel as well as what cards they’ve already gotten. But a post on what a brand-new miles-collecter may want to apply for could be interesting, so thanks for that suggestion!

      Here is one more post I’ll point you towards, though it sounds like perhaps you’ve seen it already.

      Thanks so much for your comment and goodluck with your continued travel. So glad to hear you’re getting so much use out of your cards/bonuses! That’s great!

      • Thank you for the amazingly thorough answer! That is what I really appreciate about you and Drew. You are willing to help us newbies learn the ropes. Yes, I’d already read Drew’s credit score post and it was helpful to see the different levels. We’ve never been denied before, so we’re crossing our fingers it works the next time. 🙂

        • No problem! And hey, even if you are denied…that’s often not the end of the line! You can always call and ask for reconsideration, explaining that you’ve never had late payments, etc etc

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