Family vacations, unless you’re doing them Clark Griswold–style in the family car, can be quite expensive these days—and even then, gas can cost you a pretty penny. If you choose to fly, the average cost of a round-trip flight in the United States is about $340, according to Airlines for America, which means that a family of four will have to shell out a whopping $1,400 just to get to and from their destination.
But a few years ago, I found a way to make family vacations a lot more affordable for me, my husband, and our two school-age boys. In fact, I figured out how to almost totally eliminate the cost of flying from our vacation budget.
Our travel style
For most of our married life, we had just assumed that we could not afford to travel as a young family bootstrapping our own businesses. At best, we hopped in the car for a quick getaway a few hours away once a year. But once I uncovered the secret to flying almost entirely free, our world changed, and travel became a reality. We went from traveling once or twice a year by car to six or more times every year by plane.
Since 2014, we’ve traveled to the Caribbean, multiple national parks, the Rocky Mountains, Disneyland and Walt Disney World, Paris, Tuscany, Dublin, and many more places. The first year I employed the fly-free strategy, we were able to fly to six different places in the United States for a grand total of $600 for all four of us—something that should have cost upwards of $8,000 just for the flights. Even if you don’t use this trick, try these travel secrets to always get the best airfare possible.
How to fly one person free every time
Because I’m a busy mom, running my own business and caring for aging parents, keeping it simple is the name of the game. And I believe that I’ve truly cracked the code for how to fly free—without any hassle. In fact, I run a whole website and have developed online courses dedicated to this topic at the Go to Travel Gal.
So, what’s my advice? The simplest thing you can do to eliminate the cost of airfare from your travel budget is to fly Southwest Airlines and earn the Southwest Companion Pass. This nifty pass lets you bring one person along with you for free (you do have to pay the mandatory $5.60 government security fees) for the life of the pass, which can last as long as two years. You earn this pass by collecting 125,000 qualifying Southwest frequent-flier points, which sounds like a lot but is actually quite easy to collect.
Earn frequent-flier points without flying
Courtesy Lyn Mettler, GotoTravelGal.comOne of the first things I learned about flying free is that you don’t actually have to fly in order to collect frequent-flier miles (or points). I had always assumed that only business travelers who flew all the time could realistically collect enough miles to earn a free flight every now and then. But the reality is, there are many ways to earn frequent-flier miles without ever setting foot on a plane. On Southwest specifically, you can do things like starting all of your online shopping in the Southwest shopping portal, booking hotels through SouthwestHotels.com, and even subscribing to various publications for just $1 to earn thousands of points. Check out these other 24 ways you didn’t know you could earn airline miles.
But the quickest way to earn a big bunch of points so that you can get a Southwest Companion Pass is to sign up for two Southwest credit cards. Southwest offers three personal and two small-business cards, and you can get bonus points between 40,000 and 70,000 points after you meet their minimum spend.
Depending on which cards you choose, this gets you all the way—or almost all the way—to the 125,000 points you need to earn the Southwest Companion Pass, which is good from the time you earn it until the end of the following year. If you can snag one early in the year, you’ll have it for almost two full years. And FYI, it’s pretty easy for anyone to get a small-business card if you have any type of side income, even selling things on Facebook Marketplace!
Fly everyone else in your family free, too
Once you have the Southwest Companion Pass, you can add one person to your Southwest flight as many times as you want during the life of the pass without paying any airfare for them. That is a huge savings and is an unbeatable deal when it comes to saving on travel. Where else can you entirely eliminate the cost of one person in your family to fly? Think how much that could be over two years!
Once you’ve figured out how to eliminate airfare for one of you, how to do you eliminate it for the rest of you? The good news is that you can use the 125,000 points you accumulated for the Southwest Companion Pass to also book the flights for everyone else in your family. The first year we employed these methods, we were able to stretch about 160,000 points along with our Southwest Companion Pass to fly four of us to six different places. We spent about $600 to do so, which I’ll explain further below. We decided to apply for a third card, Chase Sapphire Preferred, to earn 50,000 bonus points, which transfer over to Southwest and can also be used to book free flights. These points got us to 160,000. Here are more tips for how to use credit card rewards to upgrade your vacation.
Stretching your frequent-flier miles
Courtesy Lyn Mettler, GotoTravelGal.comDuring that first year in which we spent just $600 for six flights for all four of us, we flew to San Diego, New York City, Ft. Myers, Orlando, Anaheim, and Denver. We strategically chose destinations that cost fewer points to fly to from our home airport of Indianapolis, and we also chose to fly on days and times where the cost was also lower.
Southwest Airlines bases their points price on the cash price, so when the cash price goes down during a sale, the points price goes down as well. Plus, they don’t charge any change fees, so if a fare drops even after you’ve purchased it in points, you can rebook the flight and get the difference in the points price put back in your account. We save thousands of points this way every year.
Why we spent $600
The cost to fly to these places was not entirely free, since there were still associated costs we had to fork over in order to save. The $600 we spent came from the $5.60 per person per way mandatory government security fees for each of us (there is no way to bypass this fee), the annual fees for the credit cards ($69 and $99 at the time), and the cost to purchase some Southwest points early on when we were just getting started to get us to the number of points we needed to book a flight. It was cheaper to do that than to pay for the entire flight in cash.
These days, we don’t buy points, and I have not had to get any new credit cards to continue to fly my family free on Southwest. In fact, I have the same Southwest personal and business cards I first opened along with my Chase Sapphire Preferred, and we currently have our fourth Southwest Companion Pass. How do you keep earning the Southwest Companion Pass without signing up for new credit cards? It’s totally doable, but that’s a topic for another article. Looking for some travel inspiration? Check out these 40 affordable destinations for a family vacation.