I admit I chuckled a little when the editor at FamiliesGo! asked me to write about my most ambitious family vacation. As a father of six, pretty much every trip we take qualifies as ambitious. The last time we all traveled together we took 17 (!) pieces of luggage to the airport!

Family vacation in lake tahoe

For our family of eight to travel, we started learning the tips and tricks of collecting airlines miles on the cheap about three years ago.  Our extended family has a large reunion every other summer, and in the summer of 2012 it was decided that the 2014 reunion would be at Lake Tahoe.  I knew that eight plane tickets to Reno from Cincinnati, where we live, would NOT be cheap, and that cost might well determine whether or not we would be able to go. So I got creative.

Preparing for the trip

I started by checking my miles (see the Basics section of my Beginner’s Guide for a few of my tricks for collecting miles). I had the most Southwest Rapid Rewards points, plus I had a Southwest Airlines Companion Pass, which lets one person fly for free every time I fly. The miles and free ticket brought the airfare into the realm of affordable.

Even a family of 8 can manage plane rides

Next, it was time to figure out which flights to take and from which airport. Southwest doesn’t fly out of Cincinnati, so we had 2 options:

  • Fly from Dayton: It’s only an hour drive to Dayton, but Southwest has one connecting flight to Reno a day – at 6:20 a.m., and it’s a connecting flight at that. The return connecting flight would get in at 11:55 p.m.
  • Fly from Chicago (Midway): Chicago is a 5-hour drive. It would cost us more in gas plus hotel stays both ways, but we decided this was preferable to getting 8 people out of the house at 3:30 a.m. and having to spend all day in airports. Plus, I figured out I could use a stash of hotel points to get our Chicago stays for free!

On the way

We have our packing down pretty well. My wife had us all ready to go the day before our flight. Because we had nothing super pressing to do in Chicago, we were able to be leisurely about the drive.  This was lucky since my youngest decided to get car sick –twice –along the way. (It’s always something, right?) We got to Chicago in time to take advantage of the hotel pool and get everyone to bed at reasonable time for catching the flight the next day.

In a big family you need some solo time

The hotel was close enough to Midway Airport to have a free airport shuttle, but far enough away that it didn’t charge $15-a-day for parking (we left our van there for more than a week). My parents connected with us in Chicago upping the adult-to-kid ratio for the flight. We zipped through the Family TSA screening lane at Midway and had a great flight out to Reno, where we enjoyed a week with our relatives (as you can see from the photos).

Returning home

One of the keys to keeping it together and not getting stressed by family travel is to always leave yourself a good buffer zone time-wise. Delays happen and you’re going to manage your kids through it better if you aren’t totally stressed about that connecting flight or getting back into to return to work immediately. Here’s what I mean:

Enjoying some beach time with family

The flight back was not smooth. It started with a three-hour delay to board in Reno, which left everyone on edge. Then, after we were on the plane we had to wait another hour as we dealt with a mechanical delay. My parents weren’t with us so the adult-to-kid ratio wasn’t as good on this flight. Despite that, plus delays that pushed our departure well passed the kids’ bedtimes I thought they handled the flight well. No one was yelling, running in the aisles, bouncing in their seats or kicking the seats in front of the. My 2-year-old cried for five minutes when some other loud people woke her from her nap, but we got her back to sleep quickly.

Still, as we were deplaning a passenger who hadn’t so much as looked as us during the flight told my wife and I that, “we were the type of people that shouldn’t have children.” So you know, it was good times!

It was nice to have a hotel nearby, rather than facing the long drive back home. We didn’t get everyone settled into bed until about 2:30 in the morning. Miraculously, everyone slept in the next morning.

We flew back Friday evening and so weren’t pressed to get home to get ready for work the next day, so that was fine. I just had to rouse them all in time to catch the free breakfast, which offered novelty in the form of a pancake machine, rather than the usual waffle iron.

The youngest traveler in the family
Home Sweet Home

We got back to Cincinnati by dinnertime and had all of Sunday to adjust back to “regular life” mode before Monday.

With a good start to using points and saving to the best our ability, it wasn’t long before we were planning the next adventure.

What are your best tips for using points and stretching your travel budget? share them below.

Dan Miller, writes over at Points With a Crew about how families (especially larger families) can travel cheaply or for free. Check out his Beginner’s Guide to airline points. You can post your travel questions to him on Twitter, @PointsWithACrew. He loves helping families travel and will answer specific questions.

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