Sure, flying first class sounds nice. But the reality is some of my favorite vacations are when we travel as a family. Earning enough rewards for front-of-the-plane tickets for a party of four is exponentially more challenging than for a solo traveler.
I’ve found far more utility in using our credit card rewards to take family road trips and I’m fortunate enough to live in Florida where there are a plethora of cool trips within just a few hours’ drive from home. Here are some ways I’ve used points and miles in the Sunshine State to create fantastic family memories along with some other options to consider.
My criteria for choosing locations included:
- Family-friendly: I’m looking to relax and connect with my husband and two teenagers. The ideal place for us is one where we can dress comfortably with all-day dining options, so we aren’t locked into a meal schedule.
- Access to water: It can be a beach, a hotel pool or both. But we need some splash around time off of the devices.
- Value for points: It’s a tight squeeze for us to fit in one room with two queen beds and one bathroom. We will choose a mid-tier hotel or lower with more space 100% of the time over a fancy hotel with a small room.
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1. Family Fun in the Florida Keys
A few weeks ago, my family of four spent a weekend in the lower part of the Florida Keys. This archipelago starts about an hour south of Miami but seems worlds away thanks to its aquamarine waters, tropical views and laid-back vibes. Stretching from Key Largo to the southernmost part of Key West, the Keys are a major destination for world-class fishing, boating, snorkeling, scuba diving and pretty much any other water-based activity you can think of.
If you’re looking for something more land-based and lively, Key West is well known for nightlife and the bar-hopping possibilities along Duval Street. But less liquid pursuits include watching the famous sunset from Mallory Square, visiting Ernest Hemingway’s house or simply watching the wild chickens, roosters and human revelry.
Hotels in the Keys can be prohibitively expensive, costing hundreds of dollars a night even in the steamy summertime. But you can find plenty of steals and deals using a points stash.
Fairfield Inn & Suites, Marathon
Marriott has a large footprint of hotels with a total of 14 properties across Key Largo, Marathon and Key West, making it easy to score a stay using Marriott Bonvoy points. We stayed at The Fairfield Inn and Suites in Marathon, since it was the perfectly-located base to explore the sights of downtown Key West (only about an hour’s drive away), take an afternoon off-shore fishing expedition or hang out on the beach. Between the expansive water views and laid-back feel, a trip to the Keys can look much the same as visiting a Caribbean island, minus the pricey flights and fancy resort fees.
The Fairfield Inn has waterfront views, two swimming pools, free breakfast, a restaurant on-site and is a three-minute drive from quiet Sombrero Beach with amazing sunset views. The cash price for a standard room in August 2022 with two queen-sized beds, including taxes and fees, was just over $300 a night.
For a recent family stay, we used the two free night award certificates that come with my holding both the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card (Terms apply) and the Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card (Terms apply). Depending on when you go, the certificates alone may be enough to cover the rooms, or if needed, as we did, you can top off your Marriott Bonvoy free night certificates with additional points.
DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hotel Grand Key, Key West
This hotel near the heart of downtown Key West has rooms with two queen beds and a balcony for just 70,000 Hilton Honors points a night for Friday Dec. 23 through Sunday Dec. 25, 2022, giving you time to soak up some sun and have someone else handle the holiday cooking. The cash price for the same room is $532 plus taxes and an additional $30 per night in resort fees. One benefit about booking with Hilton Honors points is that with award stays the taxes and fees are waived, so you truly won’t have any out-of-pocket costs if you’re booking with your rewards.
Perks of the hotel include a complimentary airport shuttle for the five-minute drive to or from Key West International airport, a large zero-entry freeform pool, an onsite restaurant and the hotel brand’s signature warm chocolate chip cookie at check-in. It’s pet-friendly, so your favorite fur baby can come along too.
2. Theme Park Thanksgiving in Orlando
Families flock to Central Florida for the theme parks. The cost of an all-day pass to Universal or Disney for a family of four or more can put a dent in anyone’s wallet. Instead of staying steps from the action, consider using points at an off-site spot to save everywhere else.
The Residence Inn by Marriott Near Universal Orlando
This Residence Inn is just a short drive from the Universal Studios theme parks and runs between 37,000 to 41,000 Bonvoy points a night. Every room is a suite so a kitchenette, seating area and a pull-out couch are standard. The hotel offers free breakfast, a putting green, free parking and a complimentary shuttle to and from Universal. It’s also pet friendly, so you can save money on a pet sitter.
Holiday Inn Orlando, Disney Springs Area
Located at Disney Springs, this IHG property is an official Walt Disney World hotel so it comes with perks like early theme park admission and free park shuttles. Guests with kids here can also take advantage of Holiday Inn’s “Kids Stay and Eat Free” policy where up to four kids staying with two adults can eat for free with every adult meal purchased at the property.
The hotel has a large pool and recreation area with ping pong, cornhole, giant connect four and hopscotch. Rooms are basic, but with Disney Springs a mere 12-minute walk away and the Disney parks just a shuttle ride away, it’s not likely you’ll be spending much time in the room. If you’re considering a trip this fall to see Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween, weekend rates here start at $242 a night including taxes and fees for a room with two queen beds. Or, you can use 29,500 IHG One Rewards a night (taxes and fees included in the rate).
Romance on the Upper Keys
Baker’s Cay, Key Largo
If you want to splurge a little bit for a more adult vacation, consider Baker’s Cay in Key Largo, which is part of Hilton’s Curio Collection. In August 2021, I used my stash of Hilton Honors points to score for my husband and I two nights at this property at 70,000 points per night. A Covid-fueled staycation frenzy had those same rooms going for a cash rate of over $750 a night, but with points we were able to have a relaxing getaway a few hours drive from home and steps from a private, sandy beach. A Baker’s Cay stay includes free kayaks and stand-up paddleboards but our activities mostly consisted of planting ourselves on lounge chairs and staring out at the view. And since the hotel is pet-friendly, we took our dogs with us, too.
Cheeca Lodge, Islamorada
Not every hotel you want to stay at is part of a larger hotel chain. But there are workarounds. Take Cheeca Lodge for example. This oceanfront resort has a nine-hole golf course, six tennis courts and three full restaurants. There’s also a robust kids club filled with enough activities that you can leave the offspring for the day while you and your partner hit the full-service spa. Rooms here in the fall currently start at $441 a night including taxes and fees. Or, you can book your room here using your Chase Ultimate Rewards® through Chase Travel. The number of points it will require will vary from 35,280 Ultimate Rewards points a night to 44,100 points per night, depending on what Ultimate Rewards-earning card you have.
3. Waterpark Fun
JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa in Aventura
Last October, my kids had a day off from school and so with several other mom friends, we decided to take our kids for an overnight stay at the JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa in Aventura, Florida. Although the hotel itself is only about an hour from where we live, the main attraction for us is the attached waterpark, Tidal Cove. Our kids were old enough that they could run around and have a blast with the water slides, surf simulator and lazy river while we could sip drinks from our shaded lounge chairs. That’s a win-win for all.
Day pass admission to Tidal Cove on the day we visited was $95 per person plus taxes and fees, so for a family of four it was about $400 for the day just to get in. Resort Day Guest prices range from $55.00 off-season weekdays to a jaw-dropping $250 per day per person on holiday weekends. But if you spend a night at the hotel, you can access the waterpark both the day you check in and the day you check out at no additional cost.
Even better? The stay cost me just 40,000 Bonvoy points, and thanks to my Marriott Platinum status, I was upgraded to a junior suite with more room and a pull-out couch. My friends each paid a little over $400 each for their rooms with fees and taxes, but without the benefit of a room upgrade.
Residence Inn Miami Aventura Mall
If your kids aren’t big enough to spend two full days at Tidal Cove or only some of your party likes wet thrill rides, consider a stay at the Residence Inn Miami Aventura Mall. A studio room with a pull-out couch starts at $132 a night plus taxes and fees or 25,000 Bonvoy points per night plus taxes and fees. The more adventurous family members can walk across the street and enjoy Tidal Cove on a day pass, while the rest of you can explore the Aventura Mall.
As one of the largest malls in America, it has something for everyone from the outdoor gentle splash fountains to a giant indoor playground designed by contemporary artists to over 300 retailers ranging from luxury to fast fashion. Even the eateries alone could fill your day with more than 50 restaurants and a gourmet food court that’s more like a European food hall.
Hotels in Florida can be expensive. But redeeming your points and miles to offset the lodging part of your vacation can have a big impact and may allow you to take trips you otherwise might not have been able to. There’s no one “right” way to use your rewards. For me, the value I get out of taking my family on these local adventures is priceless.