family on a beach at sunset

The Beginner’s Guide to Family Travel with Points and Miles

You don’t have to be a hacker. 

Maybe you’ve never heard of points hackers or travel hackers. But you’ve probably noticed—or know—some. They’re the people who are always taking off on luxurious vacations that, they say, don’t cost a dime. 

“Points!” they say, leaving envy and endless questions in their wake. 

It’s true: points and miles can be very powerful. They can get you free first-class tickets across the ocean, a week in an over-water bungalow in the Maldives, a suite at a five-star hotel in Paris. 

But points and miles can also be confusing and time consuming. Dedicated points hackers spend hours researching credit cards, opening accounts, figuring out loopholes, comparing prices and tracking loyalty programs. At the grocery store, you may notice them flipping through their wallet, silently triangulating which credit card will earn them the most points that day. They scour the internet for tips and deals.

You don’t have to become an expert to take advantage of points and miles. To save on travel, you don’t have to sign up for a half-dozen credit cards or spend hours digging around in blogs and discussion boards. 

In fact, it’s easier than ever to get into the points game—without a bunch of time or stress. You may not be headed to the Maldives anytime soon, but a free long weekend away? It’s probably within reach. Here’s how to get started. 

Choose the Right Credit Card

If you want to earn free travel for your family, this is probably the single most important move you can make. It can also be a tricky one. 

With a rewards credit card, you can earn travel points without leaving your living room—and in some cases, perks like airport lounge access and free companion tickets. Travel hackers know how powerful credit cards can be, so they’re always chasing the best new offers, and will carry multiple cards to maximize the points they earn for different kinds of spending. 

But you don’t have to go card-crazy to rack up valuable points. You just need one card that earns great rewards for your spending. Which one is that? I don’t know. Chances are, neither does that blog you’ve been eyeing, because it depends largely on your personal spending habits.

I’m a fan of a new site called GigaPoints, which simplifies the process of choosing a credit card. Full disclosure: The founder of GigaPoints is a friend, and I’ve advised him on content. But I also think it’s a brilliant site. GigaPoints analyzes your spending to pinpoint the cards will earn you the most rewards, taking all the guesswork out of the process. I’m a savvy credit card user, and GigaPoints recently convinced me that I’ve been using the wrong card for most of my spending. Oops!

Always Sign Up 

If you’re staying in a hotel you’ve never checked out before, and don’t know if you ever will again, you should sign up for the loyalty program. Flying an unfamiliar airline in another country? Sign up for the loyalty program. 

Here’s why: Even hotel brands that seem to be completely unrelated may be owned by the same company—and part of the same loyalty program. You can earn Marriott points whether you stay in a Ritz-Carlton or a Residence Inn. Miraval destination resorts and the Chinese chain UrCove are both part of Hyatt. Sign up the first time so you don’t miss out on collecting points. 

Airlines are a little different. Air Canada and Singapore Airlines may not be owned by the same company, but they are part of an airline network called the Star Alliance. There’s also Oneworld and SkyTeam. Alliances mean you may be able to earn points on your usual airline by flying with a partner, or use points from an international carrier to book a flight closer to home. And even 1,000 miles at a time can add up. 

Use Programs that Pool 

Several years ago, a friend asked me if there was anything she could do with the airline miles her family had accumulated. The problem: She, her husband, and her three kids had earned enough miles that, if combined, could buy a couple of free flights. But the miles were all in separate accounts and the airline didn’t allow for sharing. 

You can avoid this problem by flying with airlines that let families pool their points for free. How feasible that is depends on where you live and where you travel. But in the U.S., Hawaiian, Frontier and (our family’s favorite) JetBlue have family pooling programs. British Airways, Air Canada, Emirates and Qantas are some of the international options. 

Track Your Points 

Make it easy to keep tabs on the currencies you’re accumulating by signing up for a platform that shows all your balances on one dashboard. I personally use AwardWallet ($30/year), which can track more than 700 different loyalty programs, including credit card and dining rewards. TripIt Pro ($49/year) is another popular option and also lets you easily share and track your trips. 

Both platforms will alert you when points are about to expire, so you don’t accidentally miss out on any of the rewards you’ve earned. 

Don’t Worry (Yet) About Maximizing 

Points hackers can get pretty obsessive about making the most of their miles. They know what their different rewards points “should” be worth and often spend a lot of time trying to double or triple their value. They’ll check prices for multiple airlines, routes, and hotel brands. They’ll move points around to different loyalty programs, compare dates and availability, call customer service lines, and more. 

You don’t have to do any of that. Is there a hotel room you want to stay in that costs 20,000 points a night? Do you have 20,000 points in your account? Go for it. Don’t worry that it’s not the “ultimate” use of your points.

There’s a thrill that comes from booking a blockbuster trip with a minimum of points, but that can come later. For now, focus on saving some money without adding unnecessary stress to your life.

The point of vacation, after all, is for it not to seem like work. 

Sara Clemence is a freelance journalist, formerly travel editor for The Wall Street Journal and news director for Travel + Leisure. She's the author of Away & Aware, a guide to mindful travel.