Point Me to First Class with Devon Gimbel MD | Award-Travel Tips for Big Families with Dr. Susan Zink

54. Award-Travel Tips for Big Families with Dr. Susan Zink

Mar 11, 2024

Snapping up great award flights or hotel stays on points when you’re a solo traveler with tons of flexibility and an international airport nearby is one thing. This is the dream scenario. But what if you’re a family of five living nowhere near a travel hub? There are very real constraints that most people have to take into consideration, but does that mean points travel is out of reach?


You might need to get a little more creative, but points travel is possible for everyone, even a family of five or more. To discuss the ways families can maximize their points, I’m joined by Dr. Susan Zink. Susan is a psychiatrist with three children who has managed to get some amazing deals that meet her family’s travel needs, and she’s here to share her tips for family travel using points.


Tune in this week to discover some of the challenges related to reward travel for larger families and learn how to overcome these challenges. Dr. Susan Zink is sharing her strategy for earning enough points to travel with her husband and three children, and she’s sharing her top tips for landing the kind of accommodation deals that suit your family’s needs.


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What You’ll Learn from this Episode: 

  • Why family travelers especially need to be aware of the most high-yield approach to award travel.

  •  What getting creative with your points and miles looks like.

  • Susan’s strategy to optimize her family travel and earn millions of points.

  • Why families of 5 or more need massive amounts of points to get the best deals.

  • How difficult access to major international transport hubs limits your award-travel options.

  • Some examples of when it’s best to use points and when it could be a good idea to use cash.

  •  Susan’s recommendations for anyone booking award travel for their family.


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Full Episode Transcript:

Welcome to Point Me to First Class, the only show for employed professionals, entrepreneurs, and business owners who are looking to optimize their higher-than-average expenses to travel the world. I'm your host, Devon Gimbel, and I believe that your expenses are your greatest untapped asset if how to leverage them. Ready to dive into the world of credit card points and miles so you can travel more, travel better, and travel often? Let's get started.

Devon: Welcome back to the podcast everybody. Now, when it comes to snagging great award flights or hotel stays on points, it's one thing if you're a solo traveler with tons of scheduling flexibility and access to a huge international airport as your local airport. I think that's kind of the dream scenario when it comes to points travel. 

But let's be honest, the reality for a lot of us in this hobby is that we have very real constraints that we need to take into consideration that can limit our options when it comes to using points for travel or getting the best points deals. One of the biggest constraints that I get asked about all the time is how can you make points travel work when you're traveling with a family, especially if that family is larger than three or four people. 

The truth is as a family of five, six, or more people, you will have fewer options for great points, flights or hotel stays and standard type rooms. But that doesn't mean that points travel is out of reach for you. Rather, saving tons of money on family travel using points comes down to knowing the most high yield approaches to award travel for multiple people and getting creative with the points in the miles that you do have. 

To dive deeper into some of those approaches and how to maximize points for family travel, I'm so excited to be joined today by a special guest, Dr. Susan Zink. Welcome to the podcast, Susan, I'm so happy to have you here today to talk about this podcast.

Susan: Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here too.

Devon: Wonderful. Well, why don't you kick us off by just telling us a little bit about yourself, like where you're from, what you do, and how long you've been in the points game for travel.

Susan: Great. So I grew up in the northeast, and that's where I live now. Although I've moved around a lot in between. I'm a psychiatrist. I'm married. I have three children. They're six, eight, and 10, all girls. I really got into the points game probably about a year and a half ago, a little less than a year and a half ago. 

Actually it started, I got an Amex Platinum mailer, I think it was the summer of 2022. I was like oh, good. I guess I'll sign up for this. I'm ready to travel. So that was my first card before I joined your Point Me to First Class group and knew any better. But then I joined your group after I heard you on a podcast and went down the rabbit hole and learned a lot more and really got into kind of the hobby, I would say probably around October of 2022.

Devon: So now at the time of recording, we're in January of 2024. So like you said, it's been a little over a year, but not quite a year and a half since you've really gone down the rabbit hole, as you say that I think a lot of us can relate to. We'll get into some of the details of these incredible things that you have booked or that you do have booked with points. 

But can you just give us a really broad overview in that about a year and a half, just in general about how many different credit cards do you think you've opened? About how many credit cards do you think that you've earned and started to use towards booking travel?

Susan: I actually looked this up before we started talking. I have a player two, my husband. So we have opened between us 25 credit cards in the last year and a half.

Devon: That's pretty impressive because I've been in this game for a little bit longer than you have. I'm have about 25 cards-ish myself now, but I've accumulated those over time. So I am always really impressed when I hear that people they dive in, like not just feet first but they dive in like full body like let me get all of these cards. So with all of those cards, do you have an idea about how many points that you'll have earned from between the welcome bonuses and then just putting spend on the cards, ballpark figure?

Susan: Mostly with welcome bonuses, I think with all of the cards, it will have been about three and a half million points, and that doesn't count the spend. Although the welcome bonuses certainly are bigger percentages. We haven't finished the spends on some of the more recent cards, but between three and four million right now between Amex, Chase, and a few American Airlines, Marriott, and Hilton. 

Devon: Yeah, and that sounds like an enormous number of points. It is. I think a lot of us would love to have three to four million points at any one time. But one of the things that I think people also need to take into consideration is that when you are earning points and you're planning to use points for, again, more than just one or two people traveling, that it really does require having really large points balances to be able to work with. 

Because a trip for one person in terms of airline and hotel, of course, depending on your preferences and where you're going, it's not unreasonable to be able to do that for like 100,000 points or less. But, again, when you're looking at five people, especially depending on if you have a preference for the cabin of airfare that you want to book, if you are traveling more than domestically so if you're traveling longer distance, which almost always requires more points. Especially you're factoring into account having hotel stays or accommodations for five people. 

That is not something that I think you can just sort of accidentally wing with a couple hundred thousand points. I think it requires a little bit more intentionality in terms of points earning and then how to actually go ahead and finding the options for points travel with the number of points for the people that you need. 

You had mentioned that you have a family of five. You guys travel, when you do travel as a family, with your three kids. I have a feeling that you have probably already come up against some of the obstacles that larger groups of people or families face when it does come to booking airfare or hotel stays using travel. I'm wondering if you could just speak to that a little bit. What do you think is different now that you've actually had the chance to start trying to book travel with five people all staying together? 

Susan: Absolutely. I think I learned one of the things I learned pretty early on is that even though you can get amazing value from points and from a signup bonus, that when you are multiplying that by five people, you really need a lot of points if you want to do some of the more comfortable and luxurious travel, which was one of my goals. Even if you can get a business class trip across the Atlantic for 50,000 points, when you're multiplying that by five people, that's 250,000 points one way, usually. So I learned pretty early on that I would need a lot of points if I wanted to do some of these trips. 

So that's when I started to strategize about which cards to open and kind of looking at the budget and seeing where I could meet minimum spends and when it would be good strategically to open cards and which ones to open before tax time when the spend would be higher. One of the trips I had learned about was the Emirates business class flights that went to and from JFK in Milan and then also the Newark to Athens flight. 

Originally I had wanted to do both of those trips. I was kind of calculating how many points I would need. It was like almost a million to do it round trip. I was like well, I better get on this. So I started opening up cards with the idea of hopefully accumulating that many points in a year. But I learned also that once you open an American Express Business card then they start sending you lots of offers for more American Express business cards. So I've jumped on a lot of those no lifetime limit cards. So when I get those offers, if I can meet the spend, I’ll usually sign up for those to get more points. 

Devon: Yeah, and I think that's a great strategy. One of the things that you mentioned specifically with that Emirates flight. So Emirates runs two what are called Fifth Freedom flights, which are essentially flights that go in between two cities that don't include the actual hub of that particular airline. So Emirates is based in Dubai, and they actually have a number of Fifth Freedom flights, that's a little bit of a mouthful, that go throughout the world. 

But in the US, their two sort of most well-known ones or the two that they offer are the ones that you mentioned in between JFK in New York and Milan, which is a direct flight, and then also the direct flight that goes from Newark to Athens and vice versa. 

I think one of the biggest obstacles that I've encountered in terms of family travel, especially family business class flights. I have a family of four, which actually do think is significantly different than trying to book for a family of five. But I think the thing that is in common when you are trying to book basically anytime more than two business class seats, but certainly once you get up to five is that there's just a difference in award availability. Not every single international airline is going to release five business class seats to book using points on every single one of their flights, or maybe on any of their flights. 

So I think one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to family travel in terms of the award flight portion of it is just understanding the reality and the challenge that you're not going to have as many options for just airlines in general or routes in general that are going to have enough seats that you want to book, especially if you're specifically trying to book everyone on the same flight. Which I think most of us who are traveling with younger kids, it's not really realistic for a lot of us to break up the family like two and two or two and three.

Maybe I'm just speaking for myself. Maybe when my kids are a little bit older, they're like teenagers, I'll feel more comfortable with that. But for right now, like I desperately need my husband to handle the children on basically anything we do travel life. So for my own sanity, I'm like no, he's not allowed to go to a different flight than me. Even if he took both kids. I still, I don't know. I feel like staying intact as a family is really important. 

Yeah. Because of that, again, getting more familiar with which are the airlines that are actually going to have a higher probability of releasing multiple business class award seats and even economy, right, if that's your preference. It is easier to find economy award seats in multiples than business class. But it's still not the same as only needing one or two economy seats. 

So just to highlight two of the airlines that I think are really, really great for this purpose. So finding multiple business class seats or, again, multiple economy seats for family travel. You mentioned Emirates, which is fantastic for those two Fifth Freedom flights. Other than that Emirates, does service other airports and other routes from the US, predominantly through their hub in Dubai. But, or at least right now, hopefully, they'll change this again. Emirates right now is still charging really outrageous taxes and fees on their award tickets when you are flying through Dubai. So I almost don't even ever look right now at Emirates Airlines if it's not going to be one of those Fifth Freedom routes. 

But that's a great option for people who are they're located on the east coast or willing to position to the east coast. Using that Emirates flight to get yourself from Athens to Greece or from JFK to Milan and then either visiting those areas or branching out into Europe from there, that is such a fantastic deal. They often do have a lot of really great award availability for families. So I'm really excited to hear that you were able to snag those one way business class seats for your family.

But beyond the airline and just getting yourselves to a location. I think most people who have ever tried to book for a family, book travel for family, know that accommodations are a second really big piece of this. I know especially when it comes to travel in Europe, there's a lot of hotels that really limit room occupancy to sometimes two or three people. I do not know of basically any major European hotel chain that will allow you to bring four or five people into a single hotel room. 

So can you talk a little bit about how do you think about booking accommodations for your family? Is this something that when it comes to travel, you're just willing to pay cash for? Have you found some strategies to be able to still use points towards your hotel stays when you are traveling with five people?

Susan: Yeah, that's a great question. Initially, when I started in the points world, I was focusing really only on the flights because those can get pricey for five people. Then the first trip we took, so we actually, I booked a pretty inexpensive economy flight from JFK to Frankfurt on Singapore Airlines, which was actually just, it's probably the nicest economy experience I've ever had. It was so nice. 

On that trip, we flew into Frankfurt and then we traveled to Strasbourg, France and spent most of our time in Switzerland and then flew out of Milan. On that trip, we stayed I think all in Marriotts because my husband has elite status with Marriott through his work travel. I used some points to book our hotel in Frankfurt, but it was also really inexpensive hotel. 

Because he has status, he was upgraded to, it was kind of a suite where it was like connecting and had kind of a connecting hallway. So in that sense, it was kind of a connecting room, which is really I think one of the best options in Europe is to try to get connecting rooms. Although that's not even always available. That was a pretty inexpensive option. Because he had status, he was upgraded. We had a nice situation there. 

Then the rest of the hotels we actually paid cash for. I think we did that trip before there was this huge just boom of travel in 2023. It was early April. I think after that everything kind of exploded because we got some really good cash deals. I realized that it's very expensive to pay for the hotels also. I realized oh gosh, I'm going to have to learn about how to use points for hotels now too because you can pay some cash for some of the hotels, but that can get very expensive too. 

So really, what we did is we always booked two rooms, especially in Europe. Sometimes they were connecting, but usually they're not connecting. So that can be a little bit hard because you have to split up. You have to one parent in one room, one parent in the other room. Usually you can have three people in a room. So it was one of us with two of our kids in one room and the other one with one kid in the other room. We're usually right next door, but it's not connecting. We didn't feel comfortable kind of on the other side of a locked door leaving our little kids alone in a room. So that's kind of one of the downsides of Europe. 

But I think if you have status and they have suites, that's one of the best ways to try to get upgrades. I think Hyatt is probably easier to get upgrades with status than Marriott. Marriott doesn't always, you're never really guaranteed ahead of time to get upgrades with Marriott I've learned. 

So after that trip, I tried to find hotels that might accommodate more people. We did a trip in August and stayed in London. The St. Ermin’s hotel was one of the only hotels where we actually had a five person suite. They allowed all of us to stay in that hotel, but we did pay cash for that. That's pretty pricey, but it was just one night. So we were able to do that. 

I've used the Fine Hotels and Resort credit. I think that was in Norway when we did that trip in August. Then lately in the last several months, I've been looking a lot more into Hyatt and even Hilton. I think Hilton even has some suites that are bookable with points, although I think I've only done one of those redemptions so far. But I'm trying to get a little bit more into Hyatt because I think it's a lot more points friendly. I booked a few shorter like staycations here and there. We were in New York City over the winter holiday and stayed at the Park Hyatt on points, mostly because I just wanted to see what it was all about. 

So that's something that I'm learning and working on. But definitely, if you can figure out how to use points to book hotels, that's a huge cost saver too. Either having status or using a credit card to get a signup bonus can be very helpful to get free night certificates or more points so that you can book what you need to. 

My husband did sign up for a Marriott, I think it’s the Boundless. All the names are confusing to me. But it there was a good signup bonus. I think he got three 50,000 free nights certificates. So I was able to use that for one of our stays. I signed up for a Hilton business card, which gave me like 150,000 points or something like that plus a free night certificate. So I think thinking about signing up for cards that will give you points towards hotels can be very helpful when you have a big family, especially when you need to book two rooms or a suite that usually costs a lot more money or points can be very helpful. 

Devon: Yeah, absolutely. I just want to highlight here. I think one of the most useful things about having these types of conversations. I was actually mentioning this, Susan, before we hit the record button that I almost feel like I need to make a whole series of interviews just called like real travel from real people. 

Because I think the best use of points isn't some of these like really flashy things that you might see posted online. Or honestly even, I think, sometimes the way that I use points isn't going to be the most relatable or the most applicable to the vast majority of people who are not spending quite as much time in the points world as I am just researching all these different routes and really trying to book some of the more like extreme types of flights that you can do on points. 

The reality is that the vast majority of people who use, who earn and use points, that is not their full time job. This is something that really is just supposed to be a value add to their life. I think it can be so useful to have examples of just how are real people earning their points, what are the types of trips that they're booking using them, not spending 27 hours of research just to nail down the single most amazing reward flight, highest redemption value thing they can ever find. 

I think one of the things that you point out that is so useful to keep in mind is that when it comes to points, obviously, I'm a huge proponent of how can we use our points to get the most value possible or to defray the cost of travel as much as possible, but that doesn't mean that the only way to do points is to pay $0 out of pocket for travel. 

I think if you're in a position where you do already have some of your budget allocated towards travel where there's a certain amount of money per year or per trip that you're comfortable just paying out of pocket for then I think I can really expand your options where then it doesn't become the job of points to cover the entire cost of airfare for an entire family and every single hotel stay and a rental car and whatever else, right? 

So I think hearing your experience where it's like there's a little bit of a mix, right? If you are able to find one way economy flights at a really, really reasonable price, great, and that still fits into your cash budget, then allocate the cash there and then save the points, again, for something that otherwise would cost a lot more money out of pocket. Then you can use the points for the return business class flights.

So I think that just letting people hear, again, more stories and just to hear more reassurance that there's no right way to do points. There's just the way that works the best for you, and that there's so many different combinations of things that you can put together to make a points trip possible. 

One of the things that is honestly a big question of mine that I'm so curious to hear kind of how other people approach this is that you've already told us about this trip that your family took in April of 2023 when you all went over to Europe. You also mentioned this August of 2023 trip where you hit up London and Norway. 

I'm really curious, for you, when it comes to actually planning a trip, especially because you have five different people to work with. You probably have somewhat differing schedules in between your work, your partner's work, your kids. When that you do want to use points for some aspect of your trip, where do you just personally start doing your travel planning?

Susan: I have to look pretty far ahead of time. So actually, last year, I think I had booked our April 2023 trip, actually was pretty last minute. I think I booked it in January of 2023, which sometimes I've learned is also kind of a sweet spot to book it short notice rather than a year in advance. Also, like I said, I think things just weren't quite as busy travel wise yet at that point. I booked our August 2023 trip probably in February, although I booked economy tickets on points for that trip because there were some Sabre fares, and there was just nothing business class available in August. 

But then for this year's trip in April of 2024, I think I booked that probably 11 or 11 and a half months out. Got a really great points deal for business class flights both ways on KLM through Flying Blue. I also have found that the farther out I look for hotels, the better deals I can find.

So hotels are pretty easy to book because usually you have to check the cancellation policy, it’s not true for everywhere. But usually you can cancel a hotel reservation a few days before the stay. So if you're comfortable giving up some points or just reserving your hotels far in advance then I found I can find better deals and more availability that way.

I tend to know my kids' school schedule pretty far in advance. I mean, obviously we have summers off. Spring break is usually around the same time every year so that's helpful. Then I also look at the cancellation policy of the airline or the hotel, and I figure for KLM or for Flying Blue, I think it's like a 50 Euro cancellation fee. 

So I figured well, that's a gamble I'm willing to take if I have to cancel it. Chances are we'll be able to do it. It did turn out that that's when spring break was. But you do have to look out pretty far in advance. Or sometimes you get lucky, and you can book very short notice. But that's pretty hard to do with two working parents and kids in school. 

Devon: Yeah, I agree with you. I think this just comes back to the idea for me that nobody has what I would consider to be like the perfect scenario. Nobody tends to have billions and billions of points at their disposal, a completely open schedule where they can either book very last minute and like 13 months in advance, 20 minute drive from JFK Airport is their home airport. Every single one of us is dealing with some or more than one constraint when it comes to travel. 

I think one of the things that makes it easier to do this as a hobby and to actually still have fun with it because it does require work, right? It requires work to plan. It requires work to actually search for some of these flight award availability and to book hotels and, like you were saying, to review what are the cancellation policies. So I'm not saying everybody should love every single second of that. 

But I do think one of the things that can make going through that level of work that is required really fun is just being really, really clear about what are the constraints that you're working with? Understand that every single person is dealing with some constraint of their own. At the same time, also understanding what are your resources? What are the things that you have working in your advantage when it does come to booking award travel because just like everyone's going to have some constraint. I also believe everybody's going to have some unique resources. 

I think a lot of people would agree that trying to travel plan for five people is harder than trying to travel plan for one or two. But as we heard you say in the very beginning of the episode, one of the amazing resources that you all have at your disposal is that you were willing and able to apply for 25 cards over the span of a year and a half and have the benefit of having really, really great points balances to work with. So there are people who have all of the time flexibility in the world to jump on a plane, and they might just not have access or ability to get 25 credit cards and get three and a half million points in a year. 

So one of the things that I just always like to emphasize whenever I'm talking with a guess just in terms of our audience is understanding that your story may not look exactly like somebody else's story, but I think it's so helpful to hear how did they navigate sort of the constraints that were specific to them? How did they really take advantage of the resources that were available to them so that we can take what applies to us and learn from that? 

One of the things that I'm curious to hear from you. You've already mentioned about these trips that you've booked and are already completed and taken with your family. Did you have any favorite airline products or any favorite just hotels that you thought worked particularly well given the fact that you were traveling with a family of five, and that you have three young kids? Is there anything that you can recommend for those of us who are also traveling with a couple of people that we should go out of our way to check out?

Susan: Well, like I said, the Singapore Airlines, even the economy experience was so nice. Their customer service is just so good. Even before we boarded the plane, we were just kind of with the throngs of people. One of the agents thought that we were with three kids, and he said here, you come here. You can get on the plane. He kind of ushered us to the front of the line. They have children's meals, and it's just a very nice looking interior. It was comfortable. There's plenty of legroom, and I think there were TVs on the backs of the seats, which my kids love. So that was very nice. 

Then the only business class like we have done so far as a family was the Emirates Milan to JFK, which was amazing compared to any other trip we've ever taken. The one thing that I really liked about that, not one thing. There were so many things I liked. But what was really, really great was that it has its own lounge. Emirates has their own lounge in Milan. It's not overcrowded. There's this huge buffet. There was an open bar, all kinds of coffees.

Even more than that, though, is you can board the plane from that lounge. That might be true for all business class lounges. I don't know. But it was so nice to be able to do that when you have little kids. You don't have to worry oh my gosh, when do we have to leave the lounge? Is someone going to have to go to the bathroom on the way? Are we going to miss the flight? You just get your stuff and get right on the plane right from the lounge. it just takes a lot of the stress out of travel, I think, in general, but especially when you have little kids. 

So that was amazing. The service itself on the flight was amazing. They come around with, they're just kind of constantly walking around offering food and drinks. They were so nice to our kids. They gave us these really nice amenity kits, which my daughters just loved. They thought that was so cool. There's a lie flat seat, of course. They make your bed for you. 

I found it actually kind of hard to sleep. I think because I was so excited, and I didn't want to sleep. I just wanted to enjoy it. it is actually a little bit loud, like when people are walking by. So that makes it a little bit hard to sleep. It was partially a daytime flight, but it was just amazing. 

Actually I think that trip sort of clinched my husband as my player two. He was sort of reluctant initially. Now this morning he went to Staples and bought me an Amazon gift card with his own Chase Ink Cash card. So that was a good introduction to what points could do for you. 

Then we flew United economy to and from Europe over the summer. Gosh, that was hard after that business class. The way back, especially, was about nine hours. I don't know if the seat pitch is a lot smaller, but it was very uncomfortable for nine hours to be sitting like that. So that I think also motivated me to really work and strategize to get more points so if we're going to make long trips, we can do it more comfortably.

Devon: Yeah, I agree with you completely. I think one of the interesting things that I hear from people who maybe haven't yet had a lot of travel experience is I think so many people, of course, if you're based in North America, in the US, you're obviously very familiar with our domestic airlines. United, American Airlines, Delta, sort of those large ones that obviously do run international flights. 

It's always shocking to me when I hear people say that they're planning international travel, and they only want to fly one of the domestic airlines. I'm like why? I do not think that the quality of our domestic airlines, certainly in economy, but honestly even in the premium cabins. I think once you have the opportunity to fly an international airline, especially some of the ones that you've mentioned, Singapore Airlines, Emirates. 

I think, across the board, someone's probably going to flame me for this, but I honestly think international airlines do travel so much better than domestic, our US domestic airlines do. So, if anybody is still kind of in the newer experience of international travel, I understand being very comfortable with the names that you recognize. 

But I hope to allay some of those concerns or fears and really recommend if you have the opportunity to fly internationally on an international airline, I think that you're probably going to have an equal, if not better, experience than sticking with one of the US based airlines. So do not be afraid to go like outside your comfort zone and book the flight, like you said, on Singapore Airlines, on Emirates, or on another international carrier.

Because chances are you're going to have a really, really lovely experience. That has definitely been my experience traveling over the years. I really do think especially, maybe not recently, but especially in the last 10 years, I feel like in economy our domestic airlines have just drastically shrunk the amount of space. I think it is that pitch space, like the amount of space you have between your knees and the seat in front of you. Yeah, I think it's just horribly uncomfortable, especially when you're talking about an eight or nine hour flight. 

So for those of you who do have points, and you have the opportunity, again, even booking economy long haul, go with one or the other airlines. I think you’d be very, very happy.

Susan: I agree. I agree. 

Devon: So one of the other trips that I heard you mentioned, I'd love to hear a little bit more about how you decided to take this trip, how you went about finding the flights and booking the flights is the trip that you have not yet taken, the one that's upcoming and around March or April of 2024. Tell me more about that trip, how you decided to take it, how you decided to book it.

Susan: right. So we had gone to Europe and around the same time of year in 2023. It was an amazing trip, but it was kind of cold. so I thought well, maybe for next year we'll go somewhere a little bit warmer. So I was interested in going to Spain. I also kind of knew that Spain would be a popular place to go around the time of year because the weather is so nice. It's not too hot. It's not too cold. I probably started looking even before we had gone on the trip of 2023 just to kind of get an idea, doing practice searches to see what I could find. 

So I sort of learned some of the patterns. I knew that there were some ways to get to Spain. Like you can do Iberia. But I learned that really, it looks like Iberia only releases two seats in business class. So that wasn't going to work for our family. I'm sure I checked other programs. I probably checked United because we live close to United, or at least drivable to Newark. I probably checked American because we live near an American hub. It just seemed really hard to find availability in general, but certainly not for five people. 

Of course, I had learned from reading that Flying Blue was one of the best programs to get a family to and from Europe. Often when you do practice searches in Flying Blue, you can see that it says like eight seats available in business class. So I figured that that would be a good option. I wanted to go to Spain, although I was also keeping an open mind because I think that's another thing that you have to be sort of flexible either in terms of your dates or your location or your airline if you want to make this happen for a big group of people.

I was searching. I kind of figured out the pattern. I think there was sort of like a sweet spot in terms of good points deals, maybe between like 11 and a half, like between 11 and 12 months. It might have even been less than 11 months, but it was around 11 months out that I noticed more reasonable points prices for the business class tickets. 

I found a good deal where there were five business class flights available on KLM to go to Madrid via Amsterdam, and I booked the way there. I actually, we're taking our kids out of school a couple of days early. So we were actually flexible in terms of dates. Even though it's during their spring break, they are going to miss a couple of days in school, which is okay with me when they're in elementary school. 

I had wanted to book a stop-over in Amsterdam, and I had heard that you could call. That they would add a stopover for like 5,000 points or something like that. So I called. I booked the flight because I knew also that if you see a good deal and you want it, just book it. So I booked it. I transferred my points. I think I transferred all American Express points. So there was a transfer bonus from American Express to Flying Blue. So I calculated the amount of points that we would need, and I transferred them to Flying Blue, and I booked the flights for all of us. 

Then the next day, I called to see if we could book the stopover. Somehow when I talked to the agent, he told me that he could book the stopover. Also it was fewer points then what I had booked it for. So I actually got some points back somehow booking a stopover in Amsterdam. Oh, and he was able to cancel my original booking for free because it was less than 24 hours later. So he booked that stopover. We have a one night stopover in Amsterdam and then we're flying from Amsterdam to Madrid. 

Then while I was on the phone with him, I asked him to look for return flights because I hadn't found any good deals for return flights, and he found some amazing to return from Barcelona via Amsterdam to JFK. So a little less than 75,000 points per person round trip in business class with that stopover in Amsterdam. It was just an amazing find. For some reason on the phone, he was able to access some better deal than what I could see online. So I really hope it all works out because I'm excited for that experience.

Devon: Yeah. Kind of talking, again, about this point that families or larger groups of people are not going to have as many options for booking flights as solo travelers or smaller groups of people, we mentioned how Emirates can be a really great option for trying to find multiple award tickets, especially in that premium cabin and business class. I have to say that, in my experience, another just superstar airline booking program in terms of finding multiple, especially business class award tickets on the same flight, is Air France Flying Blue. 

I think that it is such a fantastic program for so many reasons. It's a transfer partner of a bunch of different points currencies. You can fly Air France or KLM from multiple different cities in the US. So unlike those specific Fifth Freedom flights on Emirates, you're not limited to departing from just one or two cities in the US. You have access to Air France or KLM flights from the west coast, from the Midwest, from the east coast. So there's a lot more availability. 

There's just so many fantastic things about their program. Not only do they very, very frequently have like you mentioned five up to eight business class award tickets available on certain flights, they have some of the best most competitive pricing for business class flights. So baseline if you can find a one way business class flight around 50,000 points per person one way to get from the US to Europe or vice versa, I think that's a screaming deal. Like I would book that every day of the week.

But what Air France does even better, like I mean, I sort of feel like I'm on one of those like game shows. It’s like you want to open up the next one. Behind door number four, you know the Air France, there's more. But I think Air France is really that good of a booking program. 

So aside from the fact that they have amazing award availability for larger groups of people at oftentimes very, very reasonable points prices. Two other aspects of their program that I think are also incredibly appealing is that, as you mentioned, you were able to take advantage of a transfer bonus.

Air France is one of the airlines that I think more frequently than other airlines we do tend to see transfer bonuses being offered from various transferable points currencies. So American Express will sometimes offer a transfer bonus to Air France. Chase will sometimes offer a transfer bonus to Air France. 

Sort of around the circle we go because you have so many different options of transferable points currencies that do have access to Air France Flying Blue’s program. That if you are able to sort of time it, if the timing works out that you are looking for flights on Air France and it’s also when the transfer bonus is being offered.

You mentioned to be able to get a round trip business class flight from the US to Europe for 75,000 points is, in my mind, just ridiculous in terms of what a deal that is, and this the last time I'm going to be like and there's more. And the last thing about Air France that I think is so incredible is that they are an airline where the points price for kids is actually lower than the points price for flight for adults. 

So if you're traveling with a child who's, I think for Air France it’s between two and 11 years old at the time of travel, their ticket points price is actually going to be less than an adult's ticket. So, again, for those of us who when we are traveling if we're bringing along one or more children, this doesn't take a math expert to understand like more people cost more points. But I think one of the things that is so helpful is finding some of these programs that actually offer a discounted points surprise for children because that's one of the things that can really, really help defray that travel cost. 

I do love your point earlier about making sure that you have some willingness to keep an open mind and be flexible. I know that some people, maybe you have your heart set on flying to Switzerland, right, and maybe there is a direct flight from your home airport to Zurich but that flight might cost a ton of points. So if you're open minded and flexible, and you're willing to look at some of these other programs. 

Like are you willing to take advantage of flying on Air France and flying from your home airport through Paris or Amsterdam on KLM and then ending up in Zurich. If you can still get what you're looking for at a great price, are you willing to be open minded or flexible in that way, I think, can be so incredibly important. 

But hearing your ability to book that trip five people business class to and from Europe over spring break, which again, can be a very popular time for travel. I think honestly,  most of 2024, Europe is in huge demand. So being able to book great flights during a really high demand time of travel at an amazing points price. I think that just goes to show some of the really incredible opportunities that are out there for booking flights with points. 

But back to one of my earlier questions who I'm so curious how you navigated this is it's one thing to get your family from point A to point B. Then you’ve got to stay somewhere. So I'm curious about your approach for booking hotels for that specific trip that you have coming up to Barcelona and Madrid. If that was a part of the trip that you were just willing and able to pay for out of pocket cash, or if you did utilize some different credit card benefits or points strategies to get you guys your actual accommodations for that Europe trip coming up.

Susan: That's a great point. This time, since I had more time and more know-how, I did strategize a little bit more about the hotel stays, I'm using a lot more points to stay in the hotels this time. So I had over the summer, there was a good Hilton business card offer. So first, what I did is I googled the best place to stay with kids in Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona. Then also, I think I even use ChatGPT for like give me an itinerary for three days in Madrid to kind of get an idea of where we would want to stay and some of the family friendly hotels. 

So I opened to Hilton business card, and I opened the business card to preserve one of my Chase 5/24 spots.  There was a pretty good signup bonus. So I used a free night certificate and whatever the signup bonus was because Hilton points are not quite as valuable as Chase or Hyatt points to book two rooms in a Hilton in Amsterdam. The points for like a suite, I think. So it's like two people in one room. You can fit four people in the other room. Then I always request connecting rooms, although they're not able to accommodate that. But that's just one night. 

Then in Madrid, we are staying in a Hyatt. I think it's Hyatt Centric Gran Via Madrid. For that I used points. I think it was for three nights like 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points for a suite that probably could fit five people, but they won't allow it. Then I booked another just sort of standard room just with cash because it was very affordable. I used my Chase Sapphire, which gives me a $300 travel credit which I hadn't used in my anniversary year yet. So that turned out to be very inexpensive. 

Addition, there was something else that I tried to do, which is the Hyatt, as I'm sure you know, has an offer in some hotels where if you book one room, you can try to call for a family rate for half off the other room. I had been emailing with the hotel and asked about it, although they didn't really answer that question at that particular hotel. But it was okay because I got that $300 travel credit anyway. 

Then in Barcelona, my husband had signed up for the extra Marriott card, which gave him the three free nights certificate. So I use those, I think, for one room and then I used just Marriott points for the other room. I'm hoping that either they'll upgrade us because of his status, or we'll get some connecting rooms there. 

But I think for, in general, in Europe, it is hard to find a suite big enough for a family of five or even connecting rooms. That's just kind of, at least so far for us, just a reality that we have to accept unless you want to pay like $10,000 for one of these presidential suites that we're not going to do. So. That’s what we did for this trip. 

Devon: Yeah, I'm not going to do that either. But I think that this is a really great reminder about kind of picking your priorities and going with that. The reason I say that is because I love having this conversation with someone who, at least right now, I know that your husband has Marriott status from his business related travel. But otherwise, it doesn't sound like you guys have a lot, a lot of hotel loyalty.

I think that that can be a really good thing. Like I compare that to my situation where I am very, very unabashed about how biased I am towards Hyatt and what a great value I get from their program. But I think honestly, one of the big downsides of loyalty is that you really do need to make a huge effort to only stay at those properties. 

I think that your example in your story is really great because it really highlights that when you are not constrained by hotel loyalty and really making a huge effort to only stay at one type of hotel, you can bring in all of these other additional avenues and strategies for using points or kind of points adjacent perks and benefits to defray the cost of travel. 

To be able to leverage hotel specific co-branded credit cards, oftentimes the signup bonuses for co-branded hotel cards do include not only points but they can include, like you mentioned with some of your Marriott cards, free night certificates, right. I think that especially if you are in the actual process of planning a trip where you are going to be able to find a very definite use for those hotel nights certificates, that can be an amazing benefit to take advantage of. 

So being willing to sort of mix and match some of these avenues of free night certificates or using different points currencies for different types of hotel stays or even, as you mentioned earlier in our conversation, if you have a card like the American Express Platinum card that gives you access to the Fine Hotels and Resorts program. Being able to leverage that for some perks or benefits on a given stay. I think that ability to kind of mix and match different programs, different benefits, different points currencies can really open up a lot of possibilities.

Especially when it does come to your situation of family travel where you're going to have to be looking for multiple properties in different cities to accommodate five of you. So I think that that's a great reminder for all of us. It's like the grass is not always greener, right? It's not always preferable to be super loyal to one specific hotel chain, even with some of the benefits that come with that. 

So thank you so much for sharing with us all like not only you kind of what you've done with your points, but how you've navigated some of the challenges that do come along with trying to travel plan for five people. 

Now, one of the last things that I just wanted to cover before we wrap up our conversation today. You've offered already so many great insights, so many great tips for other people to use if they are also trying to do family or larger group points travel planning. But I was curious if you could just tell us maybe your top three tips that you have for people who are trying to travel with four or five or six family members. What are your top three tips for people to keep in mind in terms of being able to get some really good value from their points when they are navigating family travel?

Susan: Well, I think probably the most important thing is to be flexible. You have to be flexible somewhere, right? You can't say I want to travel on June 15 from A to B, and there's no other way. You have to be pretty open somewhere right? You have to be able to flex your days a little bit or flex your locations a little bit. Even, like you said, flex your airline or your hotel to make it work, right. So the other thing is plan ahead time wise and also strategize with your credit card signups. Keep an open mind, I think, about which programs you apply for. 

It's maybe by the time we did the hotel co-branded cards, we had been through a lot of the more transferable point currencies. I think maybe that's my third tip is that you start with the transferable points currencies, but you also don't have to be such a stickler that you're only getting Amex or you're only getting Chase. Because I think that there are some airlines or some hotels that are just better in certain locations or to get from point A to point B. The more currencies that you have, the easier it is to make your trip work. I think the easier it is to get really good value out of what you're looking for.

Devon: Thank you so much. I think those are really, really fantastic tips, clearly for people who are trying to travel plan for larger families. But honestly, solo travelers can take a lot from those tips as well. The only last thing that I really want to add to that that I think can be helpful is that I think one of the ways that points travel can differ from the way that people might be used to booking travel in cash is that I actually feel like there's a lot more ability to be flexible with your travel plans in the sense that you can very easily mix and match. 

Like I think that your first trip that you talked about was a great example of this. You mixed booking economy flights one way in cash for your family on the way over to Europe. Then on your return, you booked business class flights one way using points. I think that that's something that people who are used to only booking in cash don't realize is a possibility. That for many, many airlines, the cost of a one way flight in points is going to be half the cost of a roundtrip flight in points. So you are not beholden to always finding and booking complete round trip itineraries in terms of flights using points. 

I think that when you realize that, oh wow, you actually have a lot more freedom than that, it can be so helpful, especially when you are looking to book for larger families. Because it means then that you can fly out of a return from different cities. So, like you said, when your family is going to Europe in the spring, you are first flying into Madrid or Barcelona, but then you're coming back from the other one, right? That's only possible when you're willing to book one way flights. 

I think that being able to kind of mix and match either booking two one way flights all in points or all in cash, but because you're coming to or departing from different cities, that's going to expand so much the possibilities of what's available for you to book. 

So I just want to give everybody that little boost of encouragement that it is okay to book what might look like a weird itinerary. Your booking one way in economy and cash and your booking return business on points. If that's what's going to allow you to maximize the value that you're getting from your points, it allows you to maximize the budget that you've allocated for your travel anyway, and lets you do what you want to do and go where you want to go using your points. 

So, Susan, thank you so much for joining me today. I've been really looking forward to this conversation. I know this is a topic that so many people have wanted to hear about and probably want to hear even more about. So thank you for sharing your experience, again, from just a real person earning and using points the real life way with a family. Thank you so much for joining me here today.

Susan: Thank you so much for having me. It was so fun.

Thank you for joining me for this week's episode of Point Me to First Class. If you want more tips on turning your expenses into travel, visit pointmetofirstclass.com to learn more. See you next week.

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