It’s the time of the year to start planning our summer travels. Actually, you could say it’s even a little late for that, depending on your definition of summer. We usually travel in July so we’re a bit behind. Remember, most airlines open their schedules up 330 days in advance, so I can book travel up through August 11th right now on most programs. This post will outline my thought process for booking travel and hopefully give you some ideas for how you want to use your hard earned miles next summer! If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’re likely not ready to book yet…get crackin!
Question 0: Cash or Miles?
If the answer to Question 0 is cash, you can pretty much skip the rest of this post. Right now is NOT the best time to buy cash tickets – prices will definitely drop some time in the next eleven months. If you don’t have enough miles to book that summer trip right now, you can build up those balances – chances are more than decent that space will open up closer in.
Question 1: When can you travel?
I find for most people this is the biggest determinant. Summer is usually a little better because people are more free to leave on Tuesdays and random things like that. Obviously, the more flexible you can be the better. Since award space is a function of airlines trying to fill every last seat, you’ll see the most availability on low travel days – Tuesdays and Saturdays for example.
If you don’t have the flexibility and need to leave on weekends, it’s imperative that you make decisions sooner rather than later (or wait until the last minute next year, but then this article isn’t for you). Airlines are releasing less and less award space 330 days out, so you should try to be ready to go once your desired dates hit the 330 mark.
For us, we’re pretty flexible, if we can find anything for a 2 week trip in July we should be good to go. It’s Question 2 that is a bigger source of stress for us.
Question 2: How many in your party?
Oh, to return to the days when we were only looking for two seats. Little M will be two next year so she’ll no longer be flying on our laps in first. The added mileage cost plus the relative difficulty of finding three seats in first means we’ll probably be flying business next year – that’s if we’re lucky. It isn’t too hard to find 3 coach seats this far out, but a lot of airlines will only release two business class seats.
Another option we (and your family) could consider is splitting up the family by cabin. For example, a family of four could snag two seats in business and two in coach relatively easily and just switch off on the outbound and return (or however they like). Or if you’re particularly brave, one in business and three in coach. Of course that depends on the age of the children.
A third option for families with older children is splitting up the itinerary altogether – parent + child 1 on Flight 1 and parent + child 2 on Flight 2. I don’t really prefer this option because it’s a lot of moving parts (and we’re not there yet size/age wise), but it definitely makes finding award space a lot easier!
Question 3: What programs do you have miles in?
Obviously this question is going to go a long way to dictate where you will be going. If you have a ton of SPG points, the world is pretty much your oyster since you can transfer to programs in every major alliance. If you are rich in Ultimate Rewards, you are likely flying Southwest or United, etc. etc.
If you have a ton of miles in a specific program, then you’re locked into booking flights with that airline and its partners. Hopefully you have a large portfolio with decent balances spread across different programs, this will maximize the options available to you.
In our case, we have a ton of AA/US miles and a bunch of Membership Rewards and Delta Skymiles, so we are pretty limited. All our other balances are in recovery – we are slowly working to build them back to levels where we can use them to book for everyone. I find that it goes in cycles – you burn all your points in one program and then rely on other programs while you slowly rebuild your balance in the first. It’s like leaving a field fallow for a year so you can grow better crops the next year…or something.
Question 4: Where do you want to go – domestic or international?
In my thinking, where to go is the fourth thing I ask myself. The benefit of miles is you can get places in comfort while saving a lot of money – the drawback is if you’re dead set on a certain location you might find yourself out of luck. Miles are best used when you are flexible.
I always start by considering whether I want the family to go domestic or international. This is a question I am personally struggling with right now. In a lot of ways, going domestic is easier – shorter flights, less miles, etc., but going international is what I love to do. Depending on your answer to this question, you’ll start zeroing in more on what miles you should be using.
If you want to go domestic, the best value can be found in distance based sweet spots. KennyBSAT has an amazing primer (with routes) on these sweet spots, so check them out and see if you fall into any of them. If I can’t find a distance based sweet spot, I personally would rather pay cash and fly coach and save my miles for an international trip in a premium cabin.
The reason why I’m struggling this year is because the cost of international travel (in business) is a lot more now that we have to pay for our daughter – and who knows what she’ll be like as a 2.5 year old. I’m still leaning international though…
Question 5: What continent/state do you want to visit?
Once you’ve decided international or domestic, you kind of need to zero in on a certain region. With domestic it’s a little easier, you can just start your search by looking for award space on sweet spot routes from your hometown.
For international, the continents you can travel to are going to be limited by your miles balances and the cost of travel. Since we have so many US/AA miles, our family can technically travel to any continent next year. Still, if we go abroad, we’ll probably stick to Europe due to the shorter flights (and the extreme heat in Asia). We’re not going to take Little M on a safari while she’s still prey sized and we’d want to do that if we went to Africa so we eliminated that.
Question 6: Where’s the availability?
Searching for availability is a post in and of itself, so I’ll hit on that next time. In the meanwhile, you might get lucky with the AA space KennyBSAT pointed out last week – I know I have a flight on hold!
If you want to travel on miles, start booking now! Hopefully seeing my thought process helps you crystallize yours – burn those miles and enjoy!