Smart Money Podcast – Elevate Your Family & Group Getaways: Get Travel Deals with Smart Planning and Points

Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions. In this episode:

Get expert tips on affordable group and family air travel, from maximizing points and rewards to booking the best flights and maximizing airline perks.

How can you make group travel both enjoyable and affordable?

What are the best strategies for using travel points and credit cards to your advantage when planning group trips?

Hosts Sean Pyles and Meghan Coyle discuss the intricacies of group travel planning and the mastery of travel points and credit card perks to help you understand how to have a memorable group trip without breaking the bank. They begin with a discussion of group travel planning, with tips and tricks on securing the best deals, navigating planning for multiple people, and leveraging travel credit cards to mitigate extra fees such as those for seat selection.

Then, Meghan interviews credit card Nerd Erin Hurd about the nuances of booking flights for groups. They discuss strategies for using points effectively when traveling with a group, the benefits of programs like Southwest Airlines’ Early Bird Check-In and Upgraded Boarding, and the flexibility of pooling points with hotel programs like Hilton and Marriott.

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Episode transcript

This transcript was generated from podcast audio by an AI tool.

Believe it or not, the summer travel season is fast approaching. Have you made your plans yet? Put together a budget? Well, if you’re traveling with a group, today we start a special series that will give you a big headstart on figuring out the best deals for all kinds of travelers.

Really, planning ahead is probably the biggest tool in my toolbox to get the best prices for flights. If you want to go to Hawaii over Christmas break or if you want to go to Florida for spring break, or if you want to travel at a really popular time, there’s going to be a lot of competition. Right? That means prices are going to be inflated.

Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money Podcast. I’m Sean Pyles.

This episode kicks off our nerdy deep dive into the cost of group travel. Spring is coming, so if you’ve got a travel itch you’re just dying to scratch, and you’re hoping to bring friends or family along with you, listen up.

Yeah. Throughout the month we’re going to have all kinds of tips and tricks for group travel, from flights and hotels to transportation, and yes, cruises, my favorite.

Not my favorite, but I digress. Meghan, why are we doing this series?

Well, group travel is growing in popularity. A 2024 travel trend report from the company RVshare found 43% of respondents are planning annual trips with family or friends this year. Think about how many opportunities people have for group travel. There are family vacations, girls trips, weekend getaways with friends, extended bachelor and bachelorette parties, all fodder for a lot of planning.

Absolutely, and plan you must if you’re going to travel with a group.

Sean, are you a fan of group travel?

I love to travel with a group, as long as it is the right group to travel with. My dear college friends and I, we’ve traveled all over together and I feel so grateful to have such wonderful travel companions in my life.

Well, for those of you out there who are thinking that group travel is either too difficult to plan or too expensive to put together, we’re here to tell you neither of those is true. It can be such a fun way to share experiences and vacations with friends and family of all generations. Throughout this series, we’re going to answer all of your group travel questions, like how to get some of the best group deals on hotels and other lodging, how to utilize points for air travel, what kinds of transportation options are available to you, and we’ll hit the waves to tell you all about getting groups on a boat.

Is that like snakes on a plane?

Oh, one can dream. But anyway, listener, we want to hear your thoughts about group travel. Are you organizing a trip for a bunch of friends? How are you going about it? What questions do you have? Leave us a voicemail or text the nerd hotline at (901) 730-6373. That’s (901) 730-NERD, or email a voice memo to podcast@nerdwallet com. Meghan, where are we starting the series?

We’re starting up at 30,000 thousand feet cruising altitude. Our fellow Nerd Erin Hurd, who covers credit cards at NerdWallet, will talk to us about getting groups up in the air.

Okay, stick around. We’ll be right back.

Erin, welcome back to the show.

Hey Meghan, thanks for having me.

You are our first guest of our travel miniseries all about group travel. Let’s start with, who do you usually travel with?

I have a family of four and we like to travel, take lots of family trips together. That includes my husband and we have two kids who are under the age of 10.

Have you all been traveling together since the kids were young?

We have, yeah. We love to travel, and when we had kids, we made a commitment that we were going to keep traveling no matter how we could, no matter what that looked like. Our kids have been really good travelers.

I know one part of the trip is traveling on an airplane with kids or with your whole family, it doesn’t matter how old they are. How easy or hard is it to sit together on an airplane these days?

Well, if you have booked a basic economy ticket, it’s a little bit harder. You basically will not be able to sit together as a group or as a family with most airlines if you have purchased a basic economy ticket, so I would avoid them if possible.

So many reasons to avoid them.

I think it’s getting a little bit better. President Biden has targeted seat selection fees in part of his junk fee crusade, and as a result, several of the main airlines like United and American have kind of adjusted their policies to make it a little bit easier for families to sit together. But the bottom line is, a lot of times if you want to sit together, you’re going to have to pay for it, unfortunately. There are a few ways to get around those fees or to help cover those fees that I’ve found.

Yeah, tell us about them.

One of them is that many of the premium travel credit cards come with something called an airline incidental fee credit. They all work differently depending on which card you have. If you have a travel card, definitely check into this so you understand the rules for your particular card. But if you have a credit like this on your travel card, you may be able to charge the seat selection fee to the card and then have it wiped off as a credit as part of your annual fee. That’s a good way if you want to pick specific seats, if you want to pick exit row seats, all of that is usually allowed under the airline incidental fees. But it’s important to note that upgrades are usually not. If you want to select a seat and that seat happens to be in a more premium cabin, that fee will probably not be able to be wiped off with your airline incidental fee credit.

What are your options if you do want to have your whole group or family fly in one of those premium cabins? Is there an alternative?

Usually if you’re booking a premium cabin, you’re able to get seat selection as part of your ticket, and so that’s not usually a problem. Now, another hack to avoiding fees and being able to sit together is if you have status on an airline. Generally, most elite statuses with airlines will allow you to select seats at the time of booking for your entire party. You may be thinking, “Oh, well, only road warriors would have status in an airline,” but it may be easier to earn status than you think. There are several airline programs now that allow you to earn status just from spending on their co-branded credit cards. It might be something to look into if you’re flying a lot.

If you are able to earn status on one airline, there are generally opportunities where you could take that status and be able to use it on another airline. That’s through something called status match opportunities. Now, these kind of come and go and they differ by airline, so you definitely want to do your research and figure out what opportunities are available to you. But the general gist is that, if Delta knows that you have status on American, they know that that probably means that you fly on American a lot, and so they would like to have your business to fly on Delta. So a lot of these airlines will offer you the chance to enjoy status with their airline for free for a temporary amount of time. Usually, they’ll give you the chance to earn that status for a much longer period of time if you meet certain requirements like flying a certain amount of segments within a certain timeframe. That’s a cool backdoor way to make sure that you’re always getting the seat that you want.

Not to mention all of the alliance partners and other airline partners, you might not even need to status match. You could possibly get some of those same elite status benefits that you already have on one airline with some of their partners, so that seems really cool. Let’s move to an unusual case in airlines, which is Southwest. They are infamous for having this free for all seating where you are assigned essentially a number in which you board, and then you can pick any seat that’s left. What are your tips for trying to get seats together on Southwest?

In my family, we love Southwest. We are based in Baltimore, which is one of Southwest’s hubs, and so we fly Southwest a lot domestically. It usually makes the most sense for us in terms of connections and cost. Southwest can be a little bit tricky. You mention this is a very unique boarding process. The first tip if you’re going to fly on Southwest is to really understand what you’re getting yourself into and understand what your boarding position is and how you can make it better, because the boarding position is really going to determine a lot about where you can sit.

Southwest offers something called Early Bird Check-in, which you can either pay for at the time when you’re buying your ticket, you can add it right to your cart, add it to the cost of your ticket right then, and that will check you in automatically 24 hours ahead of your flight. Or there’s also something that Southwest offers called upgraded boarding, and that is the chance to buy a boarding ticket where you are guaranteed spot A1 through 15. That means you’re going to get a really good seat. Both of these options, the Early Bird Check-in has a cost. It changes by flight depending on where you’re going. You don’t have to buy that right up front. You can add that to your ticket later on down the line if you want to. Upgraded boarding, on the other hand, is only available to purchase about a day or so before your flight, so you’ll have to do that last minute.

But the good news is that Southwest has several different credit cards. They have five different personal and business Southwest credit cards across their suite. A lot of these different credit cards come with various perks, including a certain amount of Early Bird Check-ins per year or a credit for a certain amount of upgraded boardings. If you have a Southwest card, definitely check and see which of these perks it has and make sure that you’re using that perk that’s given to you, because it will really make a big difference about where your seat is.

One way to save money on flying with a group or family is to use points, and these can get so complicated. What are some of your tips for people who are trying to use points for multiple people?

I think my first piece of advice is just to really make sure that everyone is on the same page with the approximate value of the points. Points are something that are earned and they’re not free. I’ve been in situations where I’m covering the hotel with my points and someone in my traveling party might say, “Oh, okay, great. Well, the hotel’s free, and so now you and I will split the rest of the trip.” I have to kind of back up and say, “Wait a minute, just because the hotel was paid for with points, it doesn’t really mean it’s free and it doesn’t mean that all the charges should be split necessarily 50/50 moving forward.” Maybe you want to be generous and maybe you do want to be using your points for everyone, and that’s fine, but just make sure that everyone’s on the same page with how much value points are giving towards this opportunity.

That’s great advice. We have all these calculators on NerdWallet’s website to help you figure out how much all of your points are worth. Talk to us about credit cards. I guess you could have multiple people in your group open up credit cards. But what is really the best play there in terms of using your credit card points to help cover flights for multiple?

If any of the people in your group are willing to take advantage of points and open new credit cards, opening what we call flexible credit card points is probably a good option. I’m talking about Chase Ultimate Rewards®, AmEx Membership Rewards. The benefit to those is that they can be used for a variety of things and they’re not locked into a specific hotel chain or a specific airline. If you’re looking to work together with multiple people, everyone having flexible points therefore gives everyone much more options than they would have otherwise.

One option that many people don’t know about is that some programs do have the option to pool your points together. Hotels like Hilton and Marriott are two that come to mind. They let you pool together your points with someone else in your family, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in your family. It can be a friend. I think Hilton allows up to 10 different people to pool their points together, and then it just makes it really easy to book the hotel from those pooled points and everyone can see what’s going on and everyone has access to it.

Some of the airlines offer this too. Now, definitely check the fine print because sometimes there can be a cost to pooling or to transferring miles to other people. A lot of times that won’t make sense. Let’s say, Meghan, you have a bunch of American Airline miles and you want to help me book my flight, but you realize that if you want to transfer some of your miles to me, there’s going to be a cost. There’s a fee per thousand miles you transfer, and so quickly that doesn’t make sense. But what you can do is you can book my ticket for me using your miles and there’s no problem there, and then we could figure out another part of the trip where I can help cover to make up that expense. But, that’s something that people don’t realize that you can book tickets for other people just using your points or miles.

And I want to call out that Chase and AmEx are NerdWallet partners, but that doesn’t influence how we talk about them. Erin, I know you recently went on a family ski trip and you covered some of the cost with points. Tell us about that. Where did you go, and how did you find such a good deal?

We recently went to Vail in January, which is the height of ski season, therefore usually, typically very expensive. I had originally booked flights that were pretty pricey, to be honest with you. But, because I am super interested in saving money when I travel, I am constantly rechecking reservations that I’ve already made. Right? Because prices are determined by supply and demand. One gift that COVID has given us is that, for the most part, we are now allowed to cancel or change flights that are booked with airline miles for many airlines without paying any change fees or penalty costs.

For example, right now if you book your flight using United Miles, you can cancel and get those miles back without any penalty pretty close to when you’re going to fly. If the price goes down or a better option pops up, you can just cancel those flights without penalty. That’s something that I really take advantage of a lot. My family’s booking this trip to Vail. I booked whatever flights were available at that time, but they weren’t a great price. I just kept checking and I kept checking.

Really close to when we were going to leave, maybe like three days before, I found flights on American that were only 8,000 American Miles each way. When I had looked originally, these American flights wanted 50,000 miles each way, and now they were down to 8,000 miles. I was able to cancel the flights that I had booked with my United Miles for no penalty. I got those miles redeposited, I’ll use them another time. Then I was able to turn around and book these super cheap flights on AA to Vail, and it really made a big difference for the quality of our trip because now we had more money in our pocket to spend on other things.

Like the skiing. I want to talk about companion passes for a second. Can you go over the basics of what they are and how you can get one and how to use them effectively?

Sure. I think the first thing to be clear on is that the term companion pass or companion fare really means different things depending on which airline is offering it. Some of them are a one-time use, which is great, but some of them are virtually unlimited within a certain timeframe. All companion passes are not created equal, and so if you are thinking about a companion pass or wanting to earn one, make sure you understand the rules and the restrictions of the brand you’re trying to earn.

That makes sense. Let’s talk about one of the most famous companion passes, which is the Southwest Companion Pass. This is a pass that lets Southwest members earn a companion to come with them for almost two years, depending on when you earn it. How can travelers take advantage of a Southwest Companion Pass to be able to travel with a group?

Yeah. Oh my gosh, this is one of my favorite perks in travel. My family and I have a Southwest Companion Pass, and it just allows us to save so much money and add so much travel to our calendars. The first thing before I get into the details of the Southwest Pass, I’ll just say again the note about really be realistic about how much you think you’ll be able to use this pass, because like you mentioned, it can be good for close to two years depending on when you earn it, but it does take a little bit of work and some spending on some credit cards to earn the pass quickly. If realistically, you’re only going to be able to use this pass once or twice, it’s probably not worth pursuing.

But if you’re like me and like lots of other people and you’ll be able to get many uses out of a pass, you can do so strategically by opening two Southwest credit cards around the same time. You can open one personal card and one business card if you qualify for a small business credit card. Otherwise, if you only qualify for personal cards, you can open one personal card and then keep spending on that card. There are other ways to earn Southwest points, like a dining rewards program, shopping program. But essentially, once you earn enough points to earn the pass, that pass is good for the rest of that year that you earn it plus the entire next calendar year. That’s why I say it’s good for nearly two years, which is just absolutely incredible.

Now, sometimes you’ll see credit card offers from Southwest offering a companion pass as part of the signup bonus. That can make sense for some people, but the pass that’s offered that way as part of the signup bonus usually has a shorter shelf life than if you earn it “the old fashioned way.” This companion pass might be good for only a few months or up to one year instead of the full two years, but it can still be a really fantastic perk. You can add your companion right up until the flight is taking off as long as there is a seat available for sale, and you’ll pay just the taxes, so $5.60 everywhere domestically. If you’re flying internationally, you’ll pay a little bit more in taxes. But, the other thing that’s cool about using this for a group is that you have the ability to change your companion up to three times in one year.

It’s pretty flexible, actually. I do want to give a shout out to some other companion passes if you’re not a Southwest flier. Just real quick, what are maybe some caveats people should know about the companion passes from Delta and Alaska?

These passes can be really valuable as well, but when they follow the discussion of the unlimited Southwest Companion Pass, they kind of pale in comparison. But you can earn companion passes from, like you said, Delta and Alaska Airlines. These are earned through specific credit cards. I think that the main point is to really understand the fine print and understand the rules. It sounds great like, “Oh, I have a companion ticket and my companion can fly free with me anywhere I go,” but in most cases, there are some strings attached.

Speaking of being aware of restrictions, let’s talk about lounge access, particularly for groups. I remember back in the day it was like, you can bring your whole family to a lounge and it would be completely free if you had access through your ticket fare or a credit card, but a lot of that is changing. Can you tell us what’s going on in the lounge access space?

I know, you are correct. It’s getting a little bit harder these days to bring your whole family to lounges. That’s really because there have been so many new credit card holders, there’ve been so many people who have gotten access to lounge passes that they’ve gotten very crowded. Too much crowding has led to restrictions on lounges, and also sadly, some slashed benefits on those. But, there are still some ways to get lounge access for your group.

What are your recommendations for lounge access for a group?

The priority pass lounges are probably going to be your best bets to give access to a group. Many credit cards will give you access to a priority pass lounge plus two guests for free. Then if you have additional guests over that two guest limit, you’ll pay a flat charge. That flat charge varies by credit card, but it’s somewhere between $25 and $35 bucks you’ll have to pay for any additional guests over those two free ones. The Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card is a cool card for this because that gives you the cardholder access, it also gives you two free guests. But, you can also add free authorized users onto that card and those authorized users will get entry for themselves plus their own two free guests.

It really can multiply with more authorized users or more people with the credit card. What about priority pass restaurant credits? I know you can use that with a few cards, is that right?

Yeah, so sadly, this is another one that used to be more widely offered and then slowly as time has gone on, this benefit has been slashed from many of the cards. Typically, priority passes are lounges in an airport. You go in and there’s a buffet, there’s a bar. But, some airports have what they call priority pass restaurants. They look just like a regular restaurant to you and me, but they’re part of the Priority Pass Network and specific priority pass restaurant cards will give you a credit at these cards. Probably the Chase Sapphire Reserve® is the most widely known card that will still give you this credit.

If you are traveling through an airport that has one of these priority pass restaurants pretty often, you can get a lot of value from them. How it works is you go to the restaurant. You show them your priority pass card, they verify that you indeed are allowed to have restaurant credits. Generally they will give you $28 off your check by presenting your priority pass card. Usually you’ll be able to add at least one guest, which would give you a total of $56 in credit at that restaurant.

Well, even $28 or $56 sounds like it’ll help make a little dent in buying meals for groups. To close off the show I wanted to know, are there any other strategies we didn’t get to talk about about saving on flights for a group?

I’ll just zoom out and some of this is just more general advice, but really planning ahead is probably the biggest tool in my toolbox to get the best prices for flights. If you want to go to Hawaii over Christmas break or if you want to go to Florida for spring break or if you want to travel at a really popular time, there’s going to be a lot of competition. Right? That means prices are going to be inflated. The best way that I know how to combat some of that price inflation for popular times is just to book as far out as possible.

I try to book bigger or holiday trips about 12 months in advance when at all possible. People think I’m crazy, but that way I’m locking in the best prices I can and I’ll still keep watching and seeing if other options pop up, if there are cheaper options. I know that if I’m booking with my miles, I have the flexibility to cancel and rebook something else. That leads to my recommendation that I made earlier, is just to keep checking prices. A lot of people, they’ll book a trip and they’ll set it and they’ll forget it. But, I am constantly reexamining all of the hotel rooms that I have booked and rerunning flight searches just to see if there are cheaper options. Surprisingly, oftentimes there really are, even if it’s really close in. Many people don’t realize that.

Erin, thank you so much for joining us.

Thanks for having me, Meghan.

I always love hearing Erin’s credit card travel hacks. Even though I might be too lazy to look into status match opportunities, I hope others will use that tip. Another thing that I’ll add is that I usually travel with a group that’s flying in from all over or maybe getting into our destination at different times. In this case, our flights aren’t really a big deal to coordinate. We all just arrive and depart whenever we need to, but we do still want to stay organized and, like Erin said, plan ahead. We use the tried and true Google Doc to coordinate. It is a major lifesaver. We’ll usually add our flight itineraries and information about things like how to get into our lodging, so whoever arrives first can start enjoying the trip while everyone else is still on the way.

Yeah, it’s really nice when people can connect with each other, especially people they haven’t met before, to share a ride to the hotel or hang out for the first few hours together at the vacation rental. The trip starts as soon as you leave home, in my book.

Meghan, tell us what’s coming up in episode two of the series.

Well, next time we’re going to look at all the different places you can park your group for the night. We’ll be exploring some of the best options for group lodging.

It would really depend on the type of location and the type of experience that you are going after. If you’re staying in a big city, it might actually make more sense to stay in a hotel room where you walk out your front door and you have access to all the urban amenities and adventures that are right there. Whereas, if you’re looking to get away from the crowd, you might be more interested in that Airbnb option.

For now, that’s all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at (901) 730-6373. That’s (901) 730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected]. Also, visit for more info on this episode. Remember to follow, rate and review us wherever you’re getting this podcast.

This episode was produced by Tess Vigeland. I helped with editing. Kevin Berry helped with fact checking. Sara Brink mixed our audio. A big thank you to NerdWallet’s editors for all their help.

Here’s our brief disclaimer. We are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes, and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

With that said, until next time, turn into the Nerds.

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