The game we play

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The term “travel hacking” means different things to different people.  To me, travel hacking is simply a collection of techniques and opportunities that can make travel both more affordable and more pleasant.

Many travel hacking techniques have nothing to do with points & miles.  For example, one can use status matches or challenges to fast track to elite status.  That can make travel more affordable by leading to free checked bags on airlines and/or free breakfast and internet at hotels.  And, it can make travel more pleasant by giving you access to priority security lanes, better seats, hotel room upgrades, etc.

Another example is the use of “hidden city ticketing” to save big money on airfare.  For details, see this View from the Wing post: How to Use Hidden City and Throwaway Ticketing to Save Money on Airfare.

Yet another example is to take full advantage of credit card perks.  For example, the Chase Priority Club card offers a free night each year at any IHG property worldwide.  The credit card costs only $49 per year, but the free night can be used at $700+ per night properties (such as the Intercontinental London Park Lane, for example).

Points & Miles Arbitrage

Despite the examples given above, most travel hacking techniques are centered around points & miles.  The game we play is at its core very simple:

  1. Acquire points & miles very cheaply
  2. Use points & miles for maximum value

Some would call this pursuit “Arbitrage”.

Getting cheap points

Here are some examples of how we acquire points cheaply:

Maximizing value

Here are some examples of how we use points for maximum value:

  • Use airline miles for otherwise very expensive flights (international, last minute, etc.)
  • Use hotel points in the most expensive cities and at the nicest hotels.  The best deals include using Hyatt points (only 22,000 points per night for their top properties world-wide); or use Club Carlson points for two-night stays if you have the Club Carlson credit card (see “Club Carlson rocks our world… Again“).
  • Find sweet spot awards where a particular type of award is much cheaper than any alternative (my favorite of these are the short, non-stop flights on British Airways partners that cost as little as 4500 points each way)
  • Take full advantage of flexible award ticketing rules to include multiple stops or free one-ways without increasing the cost of your award.

Putting it together

Through techniques that I often write about, points can often be acquired for less than a penny each (and often, for free).  And, by using those points wisely, one can get anywhere from 1.5 cents to 10 cents (or more) value from each point.  Let’s conservatively assume that you average a cost of half a penny per point acquired, and receive on average 2 cents per point value.  This would mean that you essentially quadrupled your investment.  Not bad!

Outside the travel-hacking box

While I occasionally cover other aspects of travel hacking, most of my posts tend to be about how to get points & miles in large quantities cheaply or for free.  Rounding out the picture, the blog Travel is Free primarily covers how to maximize value from your miles.  Many other blogs tend to have a more rounded approach and cover all aspects of travel hacking.

While travel-hacking techniques provide many great arbitrage opportunities, there are plenty of opportunities that have nothing to do with travel.  Personal Finance Digest and Saverocity are two examples of blogs that cover not just travel-hacking but much broader topics regarding acquiring wealth and spending wisely.

If you think about it, the travel hacking game of getting cheap points and maximizing their value can be generalized to almost anything.  Points & miles are a form of “intermediate currency” which, when used wisely, can lead to much more value than the cost of acquisition.  The same could be said of some gift certificates, coupons, store loyalty rewards, and more.  So, the game is the same, but generalized:

  • Acquire currency (points, coupons, gift certificates, and even cash) cheaply
  • Spend currency wisely for maximum value.

My recent search for good uses of Discover rewards is an example of this wider thinking.  Discover offers nice options for acquiring cash back rewards easily (5X rotating categories, ShopDiscover portal, frequent special deals) and so it would be great to round that out with a way to get more than 1 cent per penny value from your Discover rewards (stay tuned for tomorrow’s post where I’ll show exactly how!).  Another example is my coverage of Plink that offers gift cards as rewards rather than airline or hotel points (of course, the great thing there is that you can earn both: airline miles from your credit card, and gift card rewards from Plink).  Also, blogger Deals we Like maintains a “Free Money” tab on her site showing ways to get free money (usually from American Express).

Frequent Miler direction

Today’s post is little more than me rambling about the game we play.  I’m not declaring a new direction for my blog, but I’m not ruling out a wider focus either.  I tend to write about whatever interests me most at any given time.  Since I love travel, a focus on airline miles and hotel points will likely continue indefinitely.  When I run across interesting arbitrage opportunities outside of travel, though, I’m sure I’ll cover those as well!

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

More articles by Greg The Frequent Miler »

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Comments

  1. Based on the term hacking, a rational person may define it as breaking or circumventing the rules, as the the term hacking is a general reference to that, and as some of your examples show.

  2. The quarterly bonus on my Discover right now is 5/ back on gas purchases up at $1500 over the three month period, so $75 for something I would be buying anyway. Especially lucrative now that my local 7-11 has vanilla reloads. Last quarter was home improvement, so bought pet smart cards for dog food along with other yard things at lowes and Home Depot. Got a fifteen dollar on a purchase at Office Depot a few weeks ago. Have gotten over $100 from Discover so far this year.

  3. @Kris Ziel – Actually, no. The term “hacking” has nothing to do with “breaking the rules.” It has always referred to the effort to utilize a set of rules in a manner unintended by the system’s designer in order to accomplish a specific goal that would otherwise be impossible. In other words, it makes perfect sense when used to describe the game we play in the travel world.

  4. Thanks for the mention!

    I’ve felt for some time now that there are too many people in ‘this game’ that shouldn’t be. Or more specifically they should be deploying the tools we learn for other things, such as wealth accumulation, paying down debts etc.

    When the art of collecting miles can easily become, the art of building a $5,000 brokerage account new opportunities arise for people to own IRAs that formerly couldn’t.

    If you have debt, and have a lower salary then perhaps you need to forgo the Business Class flights, earn miles and points aggressively, and use them to turn around your financial situation.

    They are just one tool in that of course, but a really powerful one.

  5. Wrong. Hacking used for computers. Ppl are using this word way too loosely and applying it to everything now to sound cool.

    Dont believe me, look it up.

  6. I go to about 10-15 different blogs a day and you are the only blogger that I read each and every day. All hail King Arbitrage!

  7. “Travel hacking” – what nonsense.

    Using the term “hacking” for this activity is lazy and shows either ignorance or a willful intent to mislead simpletons who don’t know better (or both). Yes, I know, people who play the miles and points game LOVE to use the term, because they seem to think it makes them appear clever. That’s pretty pathetic.

    “Hacking” involves writing computer code, or at least manipulating computer systems, and requires a good amount of technical knowledge. Travel bloggers may like to pretend that they have deep technical skills, but that’s laughable. If you were really a “travel hacker” you would be sneaking in to online airline and bank systems to credit yourself with millions of miles, making reservations at 5-star hotels in the Maldives for zero points, and using your Southwest RapidRewards to reserve the entire first class cabin on that Singapore A380. Instead, your techniques involve such complex tricks like “hang up and call again”.

    Of course, you haven’t a clue about how you might actually hack a travel system, so instead you call what you do “hacking” – even though it involves nothing more than signing up for lots of credit cards, buying Visa gift cards, and other simple activities that anyone could do without any special knowledge, if they merely took the time to bother.

    You’re not “hacking” anything. You’re merely following simple instructions to perform basic tasks. If this is “hacking” then someone who reads the directions on the back of a Betty Crocker box and produces something like a cake is a “food hacker”.

    Calling what you do “hacking” is stupid. Inflated sense of self-importance much?

  8. Some people just don’t get it.. To support FM’s and #3’s definition, look at http://www.ikeahackers.net for hacking of another kind. pretty sure they don’t deal with computers and it’s been there for years. Also, language evolves, deal with it.

  9. @Art – I’m actually an experienced cybersecurity professional and I see nothing wrong with this game being referred to as hacking.

    Your examples of what real “travel hackers” do shows that you’re actually the one who doesn’t understand the term hacking, in any sense of the word.

    Hacking isn’t about syphoning money from a bank account or stealing seats on an aircraft. It’s about getting a system to do something that it wasn’t originally designed to do.

    Now, take a deep break, and ask yourself who the one is with the inflated sense of self-importance.

  10. I also agree with Art Vandelay that overuse of the words “game” and “hacking” borders on pathetic. Hope FM will continue to advance the term “Arbitrage” as the most appropriate category for the methods we use. ☺

  11. I also have to agree with mr. vandelay, sorry.
    Traveling Hacking is just taking small advantages from the points/miles policies and getting a little profit which doesn’t mean anything to real hackers.

    Travel Blogger tend to over sell their so-call “strategies” which do not even worth the effort for most of us who have a real jobs. Good for the jobless though.

    • Wow, I seem to have inadvertently hit a touchy subject in using the term travel hacking. I’m surprised that people have such strong opinions about the words people use to name this hobby. Whether “hacking” is the right word or wrong word here, why do people care if it is used for this purpose? Discuss.

  12. Personally, I don’t like the word “hacking,” as it has a negative connotation to me. Granted we sometimes circumvent the rules in this hobby, can’t we use “leveraging” instead?

  13. at least hacking is better than say Laundering when talking about Manufactured Spend and the likes. I also hate the F word, Fraud!

  14. I agree with airgypsy as I also personally strongly dislike the word “hacking” as it does have strong negative connotations! I wish it had not stuck but it has! On the same token, I also strongly dislike “leveraging”!

    I could go on but…I need to go through my blog rounds now:-)

  15. I have to agree with some of the previous comments. Most of supposed “hacks” that the bloggers write about are nothing more than ideas pinched from somebody in a forum. Few bloggers actually discover/create any new points/miles earning strategies. They are normally just copied from one another without much thought at all. Where I come from we don’t call the travel hackers, we call them travel lemmings.

  16. …..I also should have noted, that I feel you are actually one of the most creative ones out there though which is why I always check-in!

  17. I understand the reasoning behind the term “travel hacking” as used by experienced people in the hobby but I do wish a different term can be found. The word “hacking” just has too many negative connotations amongst the general public. I don’t want the average Joe I meet to think I am hacking into computers and tranferring miles and points into my account or something like that. If I had to choose a term, maybe “miles & points maximiser”?

  18. Yes! Use other people’s ideas to pimp your credit card affiliate links. Classy move. Very FM of you. Thank you. *rolls eyes*

  19. @Art Vandelay
    Agreed. An example of travel hacking is accessing the IFE via ________ (it’s a secret) on a commercial airliner and altering its programming and operation (this is not that difficult for a smart person (me), but impossible for the average person who thinks they are smarter than everyone else (blogger). It’s not this credit card spending mumbo jumbo by bunch of self-serving, dishonest, and greedy bloggers who can barely write English properly.

  20. I never liked the term TRAVEL HACKER and while it is creative, it leans towards being a hacker–like someone who breaks into your computer and steals something. Instead I think we are more like casino card counters. I have had the privilege of working on the other side of the black jack table and dealing the cards to such folk… they break no laws, they are just good at figuring systems out and changing the risk to lean more in their favor. We are card counters.

  21. All of you guys are misunderstanding the definition of hacker. It is not always malicious as the media makes it seem. It just means someone who probes systems for unintended access points and loopholes. Travel hackers do this for credit card programs, loalty programs, lounge access, free wifi on flights etc. The term fits and there is nothing illegal here.

    • @Bob: I know the term is not always about bad things and I know nothing I do is illegal with GCs, CCs etc but the term is, to me and to many people, not the greatest way to describe us. Why? Because we already often ARE compared to or thought of as people who are doing something wrong. How many times have you or others here run into situations where the first thing a person, a friend, or family member or co worker or store clerk or bank or other company thinks is wrong, malicious, illegal, scammer-like, unethical, etc. And the next thing you know you are sitting there trying to defend yourself rather than just chat with the person or do your transaction. I often cant and wont even tell people what I do or why because 99% of them wont get it and being on the defensive all the time is not worth my time.
      .
      To many the term “hacker” is like using the term “rape” as in, “I sure ‘raped’ that Walmart when I bought $32,000 in MOs that day, Wow!” or it’s like saying “bomb” on a plane or “Fire in a movie house.” Just doesn’t work as nicely as something else might. What is that something else? I dunno, but I don’t like hacker. I consider it more like card counting and when someone–say some co-worker or neighbor who knows you travel a lot and wishes they knew how you did it — wants to boil it down and figure out how or why I have X million miles and points, I just tell them, “Well I’m kinda like one of those card counters at the black jack table… not illegal or wrong, just able to figure out the system and play it to my advantage.” This they seem to instantly understand and then the misunderstandings are gone. Sure it may not matter what other people think, but often it does!

  22. All of you guys are misunderstanding the definition of hacker. It is not always malicious as the media makes it seem. It just means someone who probes systems for unintended access points and loopholes. Travel hackers do this for credit card programs, loyalty programs, lounge access, free wifi on flights etc. The term fits and there is nothing illegal here.

  23. I have to agree with marathon man.
    Just to make a point: If I were being interviewed for a job and the interview gets to the part where I’m asked, “And what do you do for a hobby?” – NEVER in this life would I tell my potential employer, ” I TRAVEL-HACK!”

    • Lol exactly!

      I was just on a plane and the guy next to me and i were chatting a bit and he said so what do you for work? I said im in manufacturing. Nuf said.
      .
      Yup, i buy and sell product from cvs wmt rite aid and i have a region of my state i am in charge of. Lol

  24. The term travel hacking is offensive because it’s inaccurate.

    The term hacking came from the computer field, which as a software engineer, I’m part of. A hack is a minor modification to a system to get it to do something that at the very least is undocumented and at the very most is a departure from the original design of the system.

    Like over-clocking your CPU is a hack because your *modifying* BIOS values to tell your CPU to run at speeds it has not been well-tested to run at. You’re running your CPU at faster speeds which are *undocumented*.

    While this hobby may have us using the system in doing undocumented or not originally designed for, we are not modifying anything. So, the term hacking is inaccurate.

    But if you look at the title of this piece, I think you find a term that is much more apt: game. Gaming is exploiting a system to gain the maximum possible advantage out of it. What we’re doing is credit industry gaming or possibly travel industry gaming, depending upon your goals. And well, this blog probably focuses more broadly on consumer reward programs gaming… I’d accept terms like travel gaming, credit gaming, rewards gaming for brevity purposes…

    But travel hacking just sounds dumb. It’s like how kids mis-use the word “epic!” The Berlin Wall coming down was epic. That they successfully irritated some guy in a chat room so that he ran off angry… When I was a kid, we mis-used the word “awesome!” Awesome is supposed to mean awe-inspiring, not just that you’re really excited…

    Using the term hacking for way too much because it sounds cool is just another one of these stupid little annoying things where people are mis-using words because they think they sound cool.

    • I would agree with the preface of this post. Even gaming sounds bad in some circles. It almost suggests that we are once again scamming someone. Some feel the term Loopholes kinda works but even THAT suggests you are some slick underworld mafia lawyer dude or something.
      .
      So I tend to lean towards being a Travel Enthusiast or Specialist… or someone who finds legitimate but creative travel related work-arounds (a term borrowed from my days doing graphic production on early MACs and needing to find ways to make things work when the systems in place allowed for it but certainly didn’t make it obvious).
      .
      I also mentioned being a bit like a card counter, which makes most of us instantly come up with thoughts in our heads of classic films like Rain Man, or stories of people who didn’t break the laws but were politely (hopefully) asked by casino management to leave.
      .
      Again, “Hacker” to me instantly brings up security concerns, like the North Koreans are hacking our databases or something. We don’t need the NSA shutting down Bluebird due to our types of spend activities now do we! lol. But hey, I don’t even like the term, “App-O-Rama” but I cant think of a better one, and that’s what it is!

  25. And now that I think about it a little more, hobby is probably a more socially acceptable term. Which is what most of the complainers are in here complaining about: social acceptance. And when the executives of these companies do see these blog posts, you don’t want them reading about how we’re gaming them. No reason to unneccarily antagonize them. But if you put it as, we have a hobby… Maybe they’ll laugh with us a little? And realize, types like us are typically more adamant and vocal about the products we use. So maybe they can have some appreciation about us spreading the word?

    And maybe word your blog posts so you’re promoting the companies who have rewards and deserve the promotion? I wouldn’t think this a complete re-write of a blog post, maybe just a few kind words here or there when a company deserves it.

  26. I also wanted to add one thing in response to Art Vandelay…
    .
    Yes what we do is not rocket science, but relative to 99.9% of the people who get CCs and get on planes and have any knowledge of the words, “frequent flier miles and points” we are doing some sometimes interesting stuff. And much of it, while seemingly simple once outlined and tested in blogs like this one, was not thought of by you, but maybe by some FT posted nic-named Betty Crocker or something!

  27. There have been a lot of good points made here. My take away is that, regardless of whether or not “travel hacking” is a correct term, I think there is agreement that most people hear it as a negative term. Unfortunately, I think that is true of almost any term we might use: gaming, arbitrage, card counting, …

    • @FM: I agree man. Lesson is… dont try and splain it to anyone who isnt already expressing a keen and like minded interest in it in a one on one conversation.

  28. As I said before, my biggest argument about some of this being worth it is that time is more valuable than money. And it seems that some of these schemes and tactics take an awful lot of time. If you are unemployed and independently wealthy then maybe all of these are worth it. I look for the hack that requires the least about of time but nets the biggest bang for the minutes spent on it.

  29. Not sure if you’re aware of this but the manufactured spend process at Wal-Mart is nigh impossible now (if the cashier is on their game). I tried loading two gift cards yesterday at the Wal-Mart Neighborhood market in Huntington Beach and after card one ($499.99) was loaded (since they have a rule now that requires paperwork at $500 and more paperwork at $1000), a manager came over to let me know that Wal-Mart policy now, company wide, does not allow for loading Bluebird with debit gift cards. He referenced structuring and money laundering as the company’s reasons for limiting the practice. I then took my other card to the Wal-Mart up the street (where I first encountered the $500 rule and loaded $499.99 with no problem (likely because the cashier knew me and I had done this before). But it looks like the good times on this particular gravy train is about done.

    • Instead of loading Bluebird, you might be able to use the gift cards to pay bills or buy money orders. I don’t know if these services are available at a Neighborhood market though.

  30. Hack in modern terminology means a short-cut, or any feature that saves time, money, resources, etc.

    Skirting the rules doesn’t have to apply, but often does.

  31. I need some expert opinions 🙂

    I have about 1000 x $25 American Express gift cards. Any thoughts or ideas of how I can get these turned back into cash? Even if I have to take a small loss.

    Thanks!

    • Wow.. ok.. No.. not easily. I was going to suggest doing a BillPay at walmart to your credit card account. You can use (I think) Amex Gift Cards as “DEBIT” cards for that. BUT the problem is you can ONLY use “four swipes” per transaction. So that would take care of 4 cards in one transaction, paying basically $100 into your credit-card account.
      And you can only do five billpays per account per 30 day period. So that would be 20 cards per month (unless you have different authorized users — you MIGHT be able to use their account ids for another shot of 20 cards).

      MAYBE if you had several credit cards that could be paid, like a couple of Capital Ones, an Amazon Chase, two Discover cards… then you could do 20 each (for 100 cards per month)… that would whittle it down more quickly.

      Now, if you CAN do that, then withdraw $100 cash each against the Credit card you will billpay. Then walmart billpay that card (to put the money back in).

      Did that make sense?

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