For families who fly to their vacation destinations, one thing is certain: It ain't cheap.
Free or nearly free airfare is the Holy Grail of travel, and Lyn Mettler has discovered how to attain it for her family of four.
By strategically utilizing Southwest Airlines' Rapid Rewards points system, the freelance travel writer and blogger was able travel with her family from their home in Indiana to six different destinations, including Denver, Fort Myers, and San Diego, in a single year. They used around 175,000 miles and paid less than $100 for her family to fly each round-trip flight.
Lyn accomplished this by signing up for credit cards that offered point bonuses on Southwest Airlines. She then made purchases as she normally would. One of the keys to her success was paying off her credit card bills monthly so she was able to rack up points without racking up debt.
Here's a Q&A on exactly how she did it:
About.com Family Vacations: Let's start with how the Southwest frequent flyer program works and what makes it different from other programs.
Lyn Mettler: Southwest has a great frequent flyer program that has been named the top airline program in the Freddie Awards. I love it because there are no blackout dates, which makes booking so simple. You can change or cancel a flight without paying a fee and your points never expire. You can earn points by flying, signing up for the Southwest credit cards, shopping via their online portal, eating at restaurants in their dining program, and with car rentals. I even earned 1,000 points once just for signing up for three months of the Wall Street Journal for $3.
About.com Family Vacations: How did you rack up so many points?
Lyn Mettler: I accumulated these points by signing up for three credit cards: two Southwest cards and the Chase Sapphire Preferred, all of which offered a 50,000-point bonus after spending a minimum of $2,000 to $4,000 per card.
Once I accumulated 110,000 points by signing up for a Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards personal and business card, meeting the minimum spend and using the cards for everyday expenses (and paying those off monthly), I achieved Companion Pass status. This means that one person can fly free with me for up to two years, whether we book flights with points or cash. This allowed my Rapid Rewards points to stretch even further, as I only needed to use points to book three tickets instead four for my family.
Companion Pass status is good from the time you earn it until the end of the following year.
I am also careful to only book flights during Southwest's fare sales, as the number of points to book a given flight is tied to the price of the ticket, so when prices go down so do the number of points required to book. I've also continued to earn points by starting all online shopping at the Southwest Rapid Rewards portal and utilizing their Rapid Rewards Dining program, which earns you points when you eat at participating restaurants.
About.com Family Vacations: Are there certain times of year that are better than others for accumulating points? Is there a time of year that is better for traveling?
Lyn Mettler: If you want to earn Companion Pass status, it's best to start early in the year. The pass is good from the time you earn it until the end of the following year, so the earlier you earn it, the longer you can use it. In my experience, the end of the year (at least last year) had the best prices on flights. Summer and the holidays are busy seasons with so many families traveling and fares are not as good. Late winter and fall are probably the best times to travel to get the most out of your Rapid Rewards points.
About.com Family Vacations: What are some of your tricks for maximizing points/value with the Southwest program?
Lyn Mettler: I keep a close eye on the cost of fares—both in dollars and points—for our favorite destinations. That way I can recognize what is—and what isn't—a good deal. Then I try and wait until fares hit a low point to book our flights.
Of course, because there are no cancellation fees with Southwest, you can always book a flight and then change or cancel if your plans change or you find a lower price. Buying during fare sales is essential, and Southwest has many sales. I've found that the best sales are those you see advertised on television.
It's also important to have your Companion Pass so you are not having to redeem points for one additional person. For a couple, the Companion Pass cuts the points you need to spend for a flight in half. For my family, we only need to redeem points for three of us instead of four.
About.com Family Vacations: What advice can you give to someone who is just getting started with the program?
Lyn Mettler: Southwest is a great program for anyone who wants to begin learning how to utilize miles and points to fly free or super cheaply. It is very simple to follow and quickly earn points. With many other airlines, only certain seats on certain flights are available to book with miles, whereas Southwest allows you to book any seat on any flight.
The first thing everyone should do is sign up for a Rapid Rewards account and then using your member number when flying. An easy way to start earning points is to begin online shopping at their shopping portal and enrolling in their dining program.
On my blog, Go To Travel Gal, I daily post about ways to earn Southwest Rapid Rewards points and tips for getting to Companion Pass status. I also alert readers when Southwest is having a sale and whether it's a good one or not. It's also a good idea to check Southwest.com regularly to see the changing fares for destinations you're planning to visit.
About.com Family Vacations: Are you currently planning another trip using Southwest points? What is your strategy?
Lyn Mettler: I am always planning our next trips using miles and points. My husband says, "You know, one day we will have to actually pay for a flight." I say, "No way!"
We have already booked trips to New York City and Denver this summer and will be booking flights to Orlando soon for fall break. Then it's on to Keystone Resort in Colorado over the holidays. I even have my ideal 2017 mapped out.
We will eventually run out of the big chunks of points I have accumulated, though I can still earn points through everyday spending, shopping and dining. At that point my husband will start the process of signing up for cards.
Because a person can only earn the 50,000-point credit card bonuses every 24 months, I'll have to wait until 2017/2018 to do so again. In the meantime, my husband will sign up for the Southwest credit cards, earn Companion Pass status and accumulate 150,000 to 200,000 points for us that we can use through 2018. Then it will be my turn to start the process all over again.
To learn more about how to fly free on Southwest, check out Lyn's e-book, "The Step-by-Step Guide to Earning the Southwest Companion Pass and Flying Free Around the U.S.," which is available as a free download.