By Ariana Arghandewal
Raise your hand if you’ve heard the term “travel hacking.”
Thought so. Travel hacking is becoming more and more mainstream, with hackers giving interviews to national publications and countless e-books lining virtual bookshelves across the Web.
So what is travel hacking? Some people call it a hobby. To me, it’s not so much a hobby as a lifestyle, as cheesy as that sounds. Travel hacking revolves around getting travel, often luxury travel, at a fraction of the price by obsessively collecting frequent-flyer miles, taking advantage of airline-award routing rules to maximize those miles, and getting access to travel perks otherwise reserved for elites. It takes dedication and time, and that, plus the payoff, makes it a lifestyle.
There was a time when airlines ran such lucrative promotions that it actually made sense to fly around the country aimlessly, just for the miles and elite status. That’s changed, with packed planes eliminating the need for bonus-mile promotions and airlines incorporating revenue requirements for elite status. Still, earning frequent-flyer miles for next to nothing is a huge part of the travel-hacking game.
How’s it done? Mainly through credit-card signup bonuses.
Most airline and hotel credit cards come with lucrative signup bonuses that cover at least one domestic round-trip economy flight or two hotel nights. For example, a while ago Citi offered a massive 100,000-mile bonus for the Citi Executive AAdvantage credit card. This bonus was enough to cover one round-trip business-class ticket to Europe, or three round-trip economy tickets during the slow season (Oct. 15-May 15).
Aside from these random massive offers, 50,000-point bonuses – enough for two domestic economy-class flights – tend to be the norm. Wherever you want to go, you’re usually just one to three credit-card signup bonuses away.
In addition to signup bonuses, it’s possible to pick up extra miles by opening checking accounts or brokerage accounts, using shopping portals, or filling out surveys. A few years ago, 25,000 airline miles were passed out for hair-loss consultations. Men with full heads of hair showed up at hair-loss clinics across the country to collect their miles. Sometimes car dealerships offer miles for test-driving certain vehicles. Those lines at the local Cadillac dealership? They’re for the frequent-flyer miles, not the latest Escalade.
Elite status is a major component of travel hacking. Getting top-tier status with an airline or hotel rewards program can make travel more pleasant and budget-friendly. Airlines’ elite members get free checked bags, access to shorter security lines, and upgrades to premium cabins. While the old-fashioned method of mileage-running (i.e., finding cheap fares and flying around, just for the miles and status) is a dying sport, there are co-branded airline credit cards that make it possible for members to earn elite qualifying miles solely through credit-card spending.
The same goes for hotel rewards programs. Most hotel credit cards offer some level of status. The Citi Hilton Reserve card, for example, gives cardholders Hilton Gold status. This level comes with money-saving perks like complimentary Wi-Fi, breakfast, club lounge access (with complimentary snacks), and bonus points on stays. More importantly, Hilton Gold status can be used to request a status match to another program.
After the requisite number of points have been earned and elite status secured, it’s time to put them to use. When it comes to frequent-flyer miles, seasoned travel hackers research airline routing rules and figure out ways to tack on additional destinations without having to use more miles. The best way to learn about these routing rules is to check out the Flyertalk forums for the specific airline whose miles you’re redeeming.
Usually, airlines allow a stopover and/or an open jaw on each international award. Instead of flying directly to Australia using United miles, for example, work in two to three nights in Bangkok. The redemption rate is the same, and routing your trip through Asia can free up award space.
An open jaw is when you fly into one city but depart out of another. For instance, flying from San Francisco to London, with a return flight out of Paris. With Paris just a two-hour train ride away, this lets you see two cities on one itinerary. And since taxes out of Charles de Gaulle are substantially less than out of London airports, travelers can save upwards of $500 each way on their award tickets. Tricks like these help travel hackers save miles and cash on their travels.
Every once in a while, an amazing airfare or hotel rate shows up. It may be a $130 round-trip to Europe, a $20 rate at the Hilton San Francisco, or a $250 round-trip fare to the Middle East. Over the course of the last year or so, all of these fares have appeared and were honored. The important thing to keep in mind with mistake fares is they can disappear at any moment, so you should always book as soon as they appear. These fares may be cancelled or pulled arbitrarily, so it’s best to avoid making travel plans unless a ticket has been issued or a hotel confirmation sent. A great place to find out about mistake fares or rates is through Twitter, where they’re spread like wildfire, mainly through @airfarewatchdog and @TheFlightDeal.
Travel hacking has many other components, but mainly it’s about earning miles and elite status cheaply, learning how to stretch miles and cash, and traveling well without paying exorbitantly.
Now that you know how it works, hack away!
Ariana Arghandewal is the creator of http://www.pointchaser.com, a fun and informative look at travel deals across the internet and around the world.