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.

You can't always leave a summer vacation to chance

You can’t always leave a summer vacation to chance

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.

School Availability London Mommy Points

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.

Be spontaneous:

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.

Australia Availability Mommy Points

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, like those from the Barclaycard Arrival(TM) World MasterCard® – Earn 2x on All Purchases, 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.

American Availability Mommy Points

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.

Southwest Availability Mommy Points

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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Posted by mommypoints | 25 Comments

25 Responses to “Using Miles and Points During School Holidays”

  1. Tana says:

    I was just thinking about this! We are going to Disneyworld again for Spring Break courtesy of Starwood and Ultimate Rewards points. Free hotel and air – 5 people, 7 days. Southwest opens booking for the rest of March on Monday so I am all over that since the Wanna Get Away fares for the weekend go quickly. Also will call Starwood on Sept 14 exactly 6 months out to book my 25% off hotel redemption with the Starwood Gold gift. And school has not even started! Thanks for these posts.

  2. DaninSTL says:

    It can be tough. Our youngest just started his senior year in high school. We promised him a post graduation trip (most likely Ireland) so we are looking at next Summer. One trick we use is as soon as the school calendar comes out we look for the odd holiday or days off. For example our school district takes off a few days in November each year for teacher meetings. It usually turns that into a four or five day weekend. We jump on those as much as possible. Cruises are often very cheap during those odd days as well so we like to book those with staging flights to and from the cruise ports.

  3. AlohaDaveKennedy says:

    Look to teacher training days and holidays not celebrated everywhere for opportunities to craft reasonable priced trips over long weekends.

  4. Laura R says:

    My son has just started kindergarten, so we have become slaves to the school schedule. Oh how I will miss off-season travel!!!

    I am prepared to start booking things a year in advance to make sure I get what I want. I am a SAHM, so fortunately I have the time to sit here and search and search and search. :)

    On the other hand, I am also not opposed to taking him out of school for a couple days for a trip. For example, next Oct we are going to Turks and Caicos. I planned it over Columbus Day weekend where they have Monday off and a Teacher Training day the Friday before. So I will take him out Wed/thur and then Tue/Wed the following week. They are allowed 10 unexcused absences (meaning without a Dr note) per year, so using 4 of them isn’t that bad. And it’s only first grade. I know I won’t be able to do that as easily in later grades without risking him falling way behind. But I am going to take advantage of it as long as I can! I have always believed that not all learning occurs in the classroom! Travel is a wonderful way to broaden the mind!

  5. Ken says:

    My wife just started work at a public school (Pre-K) so we’ll be limited to spring break and summer since I’m super busy the last few months of the year.

    We were looking at Aer Lingus BOS-DUB in July, but flights from DEN-BOS are expensive and/or not available. Any advice fror positioning flights?

  6. Jeremy says:

    I’m only 27 and don’t have kids, however I feel your pain as my girlfriend is starting her second year working in a school. While the benefits and vacation are great, the fact that we need to follow this travel schedule is a bummer for sure. I’d love to be able to travel in May or September but that just won’t happen now!

  7. Jennifer C says:

    I’m with Laura in that I am not opposed to taking my son out of school for travel. We are going to Churchill, Manitoba in October to see polar bears. He has a one week fall break in early October but it is too early in polar bear season to go so he will miss a full week of school at the end of October.

    Between all of the teacher workdays, fall break, rodeo days, winter break and spring break we can squeeze in a number of trips during the school year, though most being only three or four day trips. Now if only I could more vacation time from work so we could take advantage of all of his days off of school.

  8. Scott says:

    My wife is a public school teacher so we are always taking our big trips over the summer. Now that we have two kids, we have four reward seats that need to be booked plus living in Fort Wayne we always try to book as soon as the dates are listed. I know what the “experts” say, but if you are trying to book exact peak dates, want flights to specific cities, from a non chicago/la/nyc airport, want to fly out as late as possible so the kids sleep 90% of the way, with four seats booking anything after a month or two after they are release just isn’t a reliable option.

    If you are willing to be flexible with dates or more specifically airports with United for example, you can book after the new year pretty easily if you are willing to fly out of places like Brussels and Zurich but that wastes valuable time getting there and yet another stop to make with the family. The return flight seems to always be the problem. The few times we haven’t been able to plan that far out or didn’t have the miles we had to be a lot more flexible, but I couldn’t agree more…book as early as you can and worry about the rest later. :)

  9. 3kids says:

    I am newish to points, but we have vacationed off season and saved a ton of $$. Now that my oldest is going to middle school, I will try to stop. Hopefully my new points hobby will offset the challenge of peak season prices.

  10. UAPhil says:

    Combining “flexibility with certainty” – one strategy is to book whatever is available early (for example a sub-optimal routing, or economy when you really want to travel premium cabin), then “optimize” the booking as seats open up closer to departure time. This works especially well with United (which considers changing from coach to premium cabin to be a change, not a cancellation/redeposit/new booking. Depending on your status there may be change fees, but they are typically lower than cancellation/new booking fees.)

  11. rob says:

    I have been watching July fairly closely for a trip to Paris & Stockholm to burn up my stash of USAir points. It seems pretty clear that we’re just too far out to see seats on my preferred airlines (Lufthansa, SAS, etc.) but there are business seats available today on Air Canada (not my first choise) outbound. If I look back to March/April there is lots of Lufthansa availability.

    I wonder if part of the lack of saver awards you’re seeing is just a reflection of award seats not yet being released.

    I’m sure hoping so. I may well book my less-preferred flights with United miles and then if the flights I want open up book with USAir miles and cancel the United flights.

    I wonder if anyone out there knows definitively how long in advance Lufthansa opens up its award seats?

  12. mommypoints says:

    -I’m sure my daughter will never win the perfect attendance award as I agree not all learning happens in the class, but some school districts are a little more gracious with missed days than others. Also, as they get older it does get harder.
    -Personally I would not sit on booking Paris in July, but that’s just me. I would rather have something certain than hope availability on other carriers opens up.
    -I’m with UAPhil, combine flexibility with certainty. :)

  13. rob says:

    I was just on the phone to a friend in Ottawa to find out what Air Canada business TATL looks like and apparently the lie-flat pods are pretty good. It’s only a 7 hour flight at that point anyway. Almost not worth business class.

    I think I’ll book the flights with United and then monitor the situation closely and change if I find something more appealing. Gotta love that fee-free award change or redeposit. :)

  14. Kelly says:

    I’m currently trying to get my family of 4 to Hawaii next summer, and its nearly impossible. My husband and myself have 280k Aadvantage miles between us and had high hopes of using a booking service to get stopovers and free one ways. No luck! They have presented us with few if any viable options and we are VERY flexible. So much for the 20th anniversary trip. Any other suggestions!

  15. Ken says:

    @Kelly – Where are you coming from?

  16. Kelly says:

    Boston

  17. Ken says:

    @Kelly – If you were on the west coast Avios would be a cheap way to get to HI. But since you’re not you’ll have to get to SFO/LAX separate from the Avios points.

  18. Kelly says:

    Thanks Ken! Appreciate your input.

  19. Grover's Bathtub says:

    Just booked Christmas travel for our family. Another option is to use a companion pass if you have one with a credit card. I booked one RIC-ABQ ticket for $600 (ouch) on Delta, got another for $99 plus taxes, and used 40K skymiles for the third (seemed like a pretty decent return for skypesos). If US Airways could have gotten us there in less than three segments, I would have tried using the 2x$99 companion pass with the Barclay’s card.

  20. Mark says:

    The problem with re-booking on Southwest with a family is that they give each person on a reward reservation a separate reservation number. So you have to cancel and re-book each ticket individually. This can sometimes work ok. But it also presents some risk. Who knows what will be available on that flight by the time you get to the 3rd or 4th, or in our case, the 5th ticket. This always keeps me from re-booking to a different flight. If the same exact flight has a lower mile ticket available, not a problem — but that rarely happens. The lower miles are usually on another flight the same day.

  21. […] Points is in a zone or what? “Using Miles and Points during School Holidays“. A topic of great interest for many families including mine! If I only had the time to book […]

  22. UAPhil says:

    Mark, when re-booking on Southwest, you can set the number of passengers to “4 adults” (or as high as “8 adults”). If the fare (or number of points) displayed is the same as for “1 adult”, then they have at least 4 or 8 seats available at the same price. (Not an absolute guarantee, since someone else can book seats, and yield management can dynamically change the number of seats, but a good indication.) (From some screens, you need to select “additional search options” to change the # pax.)

  23. Lisa K says:

    Hyatt Regency Chicago

  24. SFMom says:

    I’m a couple days late but couldn’t help chiming in.

    Your sample itinerary SFO-LHR is the exact route I have been stalking from the second the calendar opened, and I can tell you the availability in June has been really miserable from day one. I somehow booked four r/t tickets in economy on a not-great route as insurance, and am planning to use a service as soon as I get the miles for business, which should be in the next six weeks or so. I suspect I will be paying through the nose in fees, assuming something opens up, but what can you do? Still a lot cheaper than buying, even in economy.

    Kelly, I am from Hawaii and was hoping to build my family’s annual trip home with a free one way plus Avios to West Coast, but your experience is discouraging. I recently booked my mom on a flight from HNL to EWR and used two round trip tickets on different carriers – HNL to SFO on Hawaiian, SFO to EWR on United. Hawaiian had the option to use miles on the outbound leg, and doing so cut her total fare by $250. Maybe paying for one ticket and using miles for another might help. Also Southwest will be starting flights to Honolulu soon, and I think that could be a game changer. I suspect I will have to buy my tickets again for next year. Good luck!

  25. Scottrick says:

    To clarify, Award Booking Service is not my own service. I partner with them and refer readers to their website, receiving a fairly small referral fee. I do not operate my own booking service, but I do get a fair number of requests and set this up as a solution.

    Anyone can contact Award Booking Service directly to make their own booking without going through me:

    http://www.awardbookingservice.com/

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