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Best Credit Card Mile Programs for Traveling Parents

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It’s hard to turn on the TV or walk through an airport without having an airline credit card application shoved into your stroller or diaper bag. For the right type of spender (someone who always pays in full) they can be a great way to score free airfare. But how can parents make the most of them?

Credit Cards

Since you have kids, you’re going to want to look at mile programs a bit differently. Why? Because some programs have benefits better suited for families, while others not so much. Here are five important factors to keep in mind when looking for the best credit card mile programs for parents.

1. Pay attention to value per mile, not the number of miles

Mileage programs are not created equal. There are actually two types of credit card miles:

– Airline-Specific Miles:  These are the mileage programs associated with a specific carrier. For example, the Delta credit card earns Delta SkyMiles (and those can only be redeemed on their airline).

– General Travel Miles: Some credit cards that offer rewards actually function more like a cash back card because each “mile” is worth a specific amount, regardless of where you spend it. For example on the Capital One Venture, each “mile” is worth exactly $0.01 towards a travel purchase.

Usually (but not always) the airline-specific miles will have the highest value. For example on Virgin America, each mile is worth 2.2 cents towards a Virgin America flight. So even though their Visa card only earns 1 mile per dollar, the potential value is actually higher than the “double miles” given on the Capital One Venture or Discover Escape.

So rather than focusing on how many miles per dollar you earn, or how many you will get as a bonus, what you really should be concerned with is how much each mile is worth during redemption.

2. Families benefit most from the free checked bag benefit

Depending on how many kids you have and how often you fly, this benefit might be even more valuable than the miles you earn!

Take the Delta SkyMiles Gold Card. At $95 per year, it’s definitely not cheap. However, it includes the benefit of getting your first checked bag for free – a roundtrip savings of $50. Since this benefit is given to the cardholder and up to eight additional people on the same reservation, the savings can really stack up! For example, the roundtrip savings would be $250 for a family of five, assuming each person had one checked bag.

For a single person who only flies once per year, this benefit isn’t good enough to make or break the deal. But for those traveling with kids, sometimes just this perk alone makes it worth getting a card.

3. Companion airfare works great with kids

A few cards offer a companion ticket feature, giving free or reduced cost companion tickets. This is another benefit that is great for traveling families.

Most cards that include this will only give you one companion ticket per year. An exception is the credit card from US Airways, which gives you two $99 companion tickets each year. Granted, I’m not the biggest fan of the US Airways MasterCard because their mileage program has poor availability for reward flights. But if you can get past that, it could be worthwhile for a family of four (or more) since it would mean two of your kids could fly for only $99 each.

4. Airport lounges are lifesavers for parents with young children

Let’s be honest… airports aren’t exactly the cleanest place to hangout. It’s no fun changing your baby’s diaper in a dirty restroom. It’s not easy to catch a nap (for you or your baby) either when that darn loudspeaker is making an announcement every other minute.

For these reasons and others, the private airport lounges can be a lifesaver. Unfortunately to gain access, you typically have to be flying first class. There are, however, a few travel credit cards that will provide you free access.

The United and Continental credit cards provide two 1-day lounge passes each year. That’s not exactly enough to get your whole family in the door, but extra passes can be purchased.

Other cards that offer free or discounted lounge access include the PenFed Premium Travel Rewards (no annual fee), US Airways MasterCard ($89 fee), and American Express Platinum (pricey at $450).

5. Ironically the best choice might be a hotel card

The best credit cards for air travel might not even be from an airline. Why? Because the Starwood Hotels American Express lets you convert points to frequent flyer miles on nearly 30 different airlines, usually on a 1 point = 1 mile conversion.

So excluding the other benefits – when it comes down to just earning miles – this hotel credit card will often beat the airlines since you get greater flexibility with it. It’s a good choice if your family is constantly flying with different carriers.

What is your favorite credit card for earning miles? Let us know in the comments!

Mike Dolen is a blogger in Southern California who doesn’t have kids of his own [yet] but travels frequently with the young ones in his family. He’s constantly ranking the best credit cards on his blog and bulletin board, CreditCardForum. You can follow him on Twitter @creditcardforum.

Photo by Kryu, purchased from istockphoto.com.

About Mike Dolen, Travel Mamas Guest Blogger
Comments
  1. http://Allison says

    Great article! After years of trying to find seats on an airline-specific credit card, my absolute favorite card is the Capital One Venture. Being able to select any airline, getting double miles on every purchase, AND having no foreign transaction fees is worth the small $45 annual fee. Trying to find 4 seats on an airline-specific card is next to impossible. I love my Venture!

  2. http://Gustav says

    This is really one great post, perfect for someone who is wondering which mile program to choose. Thanks for the share!

  3. http://Marianne%20at%20BestTravelDealsTips says

    Great job at covering a very big topic! I’m a big believer in synergizing credit card reward programs with loyalty programs. My favorite is the American Express Rewards and I have saved an incredible amounts on travel using rewards including flying first class to China for just $99. Their platinum card also has great travel benefits that gets you into the premium airport clubs and up to $200 in free baggage fees. Finally, I’ll be getting a Southwest Visa as they have good airfares, an excellent rewards program plus you get two free bags on every flight you book. I use Visa only when American Express isn’t accepted. Again, this is a BIG topic an so much to learn to really maximize these programs!

  4. http://Jonathan says

    Very good tips, pay attention to value per mile….hmmm, I think it was miles (length), yeah I agree with you, good point on this.

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