travel-photo-istockI don’t need to tell you that times are tough lately, especially for avid travelers. Unemployment is still relatively high, problems abound abroad in those most picturesque of countries, and airfare continues to climb, due to the increasingly expensive cost of fuel. With these uncertain economic situations looming over our heads, those who love to travel need to find creative ways to get more bang for their buck. Below is more of a beginner’s guide to what travel hacking is, how it works, and some simple tricks to get you started.

What is travel hacking?

Well, travel hacking is the term that has been getting progressively more popular as of late, which, collectively, can be those creative ways to get more bangs for fewer bucks. Travel hacking can cover a broad range of activities, but essentially boil down to finding ways to accomplish various travel goals for as little cash as possible, though some take part in numerous mileage runs to maximize other lucrative bonuses, such as elite status. This can include finding ways to maximize earning frequent flier miles or elite status, using earned rewards to purchase flights or lodgings, and staying at unconventional places during travels. “Travel Ninjas” (the accepted label for those deeply involved in travel hacking, not to be confused with collapsible Kawasaki motorcycles) pride themselves in their ability to travel to faraway destinations and obtain the lowest prices possible on flights, lodging, attractions, transportation, and even meals! Ninjas, indeed.

Hacking Airfare

There are components of the travel machine that are able to be hacked, but the most associated one is flights/airfare. Even this can be broken down into several different parts, as some fliers prefer to do anything to obtain insanely cheap or free fares by earning miles, and others pay for seemingly ludicrous flights where they may fly to a far off destination and return the same day, all to earn up towards elite status with their chosen airline. Here are some steps and suggestions to get you started on your way to become a fare hacking genius in no time:

  • Establish Your Ceiling – Your first step should always be to establish a baseline, or ceiling, for which to rate all other fares you come across. This is done by picking a fare search aggregator (searches multiple sites at once), such as Kayak, Momondo, Mobissimo, or SkyScanner. These websites offer great fares as it is, as they collectively search over 200 websites, including airline’s business sites, travel booking engines like Priceline, and more obscure sites like StudentUniverse. Popular aggregators such as these are the best way to start your search, because they offer the lowest fares that are conventionally available, usually. More advanced users may like to use ITA Software.
  • Reverse Check– After you have found a decent fare to use as your baseline, you probably see a particular flight or flights with a certain airline that is the fairest of them all. If the destination is international, you can do what I like to call the reverse check; that is, checking the airline’s website from the other end. For example, you are in the States, and you booked yourself a trip to Shanghai already. Before you leave, you decide to add a little side trip over to Lhasa, Tibet for a few days, since you are already over on that side of the world. After looking at Kayak, you see a fare like this:
    Kayak.com locates this fare from PVG-LXA for $963 USD, including taxes.

    But you need to know one very important rule: Airfares are usually cheaper when booked from the originating country. This is due mostly to hefty taxes that a company must pay to sell the ticket to customers abroad. Airlines have offices in the locations that they fly to, to allow them to do business within these other countries. However, this does not mean that fares are even all across the board with one airline.  So, let’s mosey on over to the China Eastern Air website. Instead of choosing the USA site to look for this fare, we’ll say that we want to visit China’s site(English is still available), http://en.ceair.com/, since this flight will originate in Shanghai. When looking up the exact same flight/dates/times, it will look like this:

    The total cost of the exact same flight from the Chinese version of the site is 3,590 RMB.

    Since we are in CEA’s China site, we see the fare in RMB(Chinese Renminbi/Yuan ¥). ¥3,590 is the total cost of that same flight that we found for $963 on Kayak. Now we need to convert the RMB to USD so we can figure out if there is a price difference and how large. XE.com is where I usually turn to, as currency conversion is updated in real time. The conversion is quite startling: The exchange rate to the US Dollar makes this airfare $562.78! This is a $400 difference, almost half the cost that Kayak originally quoted. Another way to hack international flights is to go against what your mother may have told you and book one-way flights. If you book each one-way from its originating country’s site, you may find cheaper fares this way also, but we’ll talk about that in detail in another post. Either way, you can see that this is a viable and valuable option to try when flying internationally.

  • Know When to Fly – We all know that off-peak travel will be cheaper than peak, but let’s get more specific. When flying domestically, the cheapest day to fly, on 95% of cases, is on Wednesday. Tuesdays and Saturdays are similarly cheap; You want to avoid Fridays and Sundays, as most people are either leaving after the work week on Friday, or scrambling back on Sunday before it begins again. The cheapest times in the day to fly are usually the first early-morning flights out, and the later flights, especially the red-eye overnights. Knowing when to fly also means that you should know when to book. Tuesday(around 3pm, according to FareCompare.com) is the best day of the week to book these domestic fares, as that seems to be the time when discounted fares are posted. Waiting until Thursday will probably see that your fare climbs back up, as airlines jack the price up for weekend ticket searchers. Generally, whatever seems to be the most inconvenient for the most people will probably be the cheapest(booking on Tues, flying on Wed, etc.). The upside to all this inconvenience is that you are more likely to get lucky enough to not have someone sitting next to you.
  • Be Flexible – Being flexible is key to driving costs down wherever you shop, and it is no different when it comes to airfare search. Dates are the most important factor to try to be flexible with, as you saw in the previous paragraph. If possible, use an airfare search aggregator that also allows you to search +/-3 days, which pretty much means that you are searching an entire week of dates, both for your departure and your return. For example, searching Jan 4 to Jan 13 for a fare, using the +/-3 day option will allow you to search from Jan 1-7 for your departure (3 days on either side of the original departure date) and Jan 10-16 coming back. This gives you exponentially more options, saves you from plugging single numbers in one at a time, and will almost certainly expose lower fares.

Hacking Airline Rewards, Miles, and Status

The other, more technical side to hacking flights is to hack the rewards systems, aka the frequent flyer programs. These programs give you points for flying, which is redeemable towards more flying. Most frequent flyer programs go further and let you earn what’s known as “elite status” with them, if you can meet a certain threshold of flight activity in a year’s time. Likewise, most programs these days have partnered up with so many other retail and financial brands, that you can earn mileage by never even flying. Redemption of these rewards is an art form in itself, similar to finding the cheapest fares.

  • Know the Dollar Value of Mileage – All airlines’ frequent flyer programs operate on a different scale, and value can be changed by factors such as award availability and mileage requirements. This being said, standard airlines(especially those in the US) have similar requirements and thresholds for rewards. For the most part, you can estimate the value of a frequent flier mile to be $0.01, or one cent. This is good to help you decide which fares are good to pay for, and which ones are worth using miles for. If a fare is 25,000 miles, which most are in the continental US across the board, you should try not to use your miles to pay for the flight if the cost is less than $250. Put the miles to work for you; stretch them out that much further by recognizing their value.
  • Sign Up for Everything – Most agree that when you choose a frequent flyer program, you should go all in on just that one. So, in this spirit, you should go all in on every way your program offers to earn you miles. Sign up for debit/credit affinity cards, which is probably the best way to earn a lot of miles fast. Sign up on every email that your program offers, so that you will always be in the loop as to what promotions and offers are happening.
  • Don’t Buy Miles – Though I love and follow Nomadic Matt religiously, I disagree with him on mileage purchasing. I do not believe that this is what many consider to be fare hacking. Even when you buy miles at half the cost(averaging $13.50/1,000 miles), 100,00 miles still costs $1,350. A business fare from JFK to London Heathrow was 100,000 miles, but Nomadic Matt forgot to mention that you still need to pay a hefty tax on top of this – in this case $260.10 in taxes after redeeming the 100k in miles. While this is usually still cheaper than buying the business fare outright, you also don’t earn towards your mileage base or elite status. It all depends on how much value you place on each aspect of the frequent flyer program.
  • Do a Mileage Run – A mileage run is the term given for trips taken for the sole purpose of earning miles. For example, some mileage runners that I know fly from LGA(NY) to  BOS(ton) with layovers in Kathmandu, Bratislava, and Ciudad del Este. This sounds like quite an amazing and exotic trip, but the cost is based on the typical short-haul, 1 hour flight from NYC to Boston. The layovers in other cities count towards the mileage earned for the frequent flier, as well as towards the elite status, which makes a case like this considered a mileage run. Some fliers know how to work the system to force >24hour layovers, so that they can work a little sightseeing and personal time in to make the trip more relaxing. I recently booked a “mileage run” to WAW(Warsaw, Poland). This was actually my first one, and I was very excited to get the fare. This coming February, I leave JFK for Toronto, where I forced a bit more than a 24hour layover, so I can stay the night there. The next day, I leave Toronto for Amsterdam, where I also forced a little more than a 24hour layover, again to see the sites. Finally, the following day I reach Warsaw, where I will stay for 4 days, until retracing that exact route(except for Montreal in the place of Toronto) on the way home. This trip earned me a lot of extra miles and segments, while catering towards my adventurous spirit of seeing different sites; A win-win, if you ask me!
  • Get Bumped – Especially as the holiday season approaches, more and more people are traveling. During these busy, peak travel periods, flights get oversold. Most airlines assume that 5-10% of fliers will somehow not make their scheduled flight(last-minute cancellations, tardiness, etc.), so they purposely oversell flights. This inevitably leads to those times when several passengers need to be moved to the next available flight, referred to as bumping. Bumping can be another art form, and one that I can speak of with confidence. Airlines lawfully must compensate the passenger being bumped, and this is where the creativity comes into play. I have gone to visit family for Christmas several years ago, and when the plane was full, the airline’s agents asked for volunteers to be moved to the next available flight. It was a few days before the 25th, so I wasn’t stressing it. The agents then start something of a “voucher auction”, where they start at a low voucher compensation value and move up, and wait for hands to raise as they call out higher and higher dollar amounts. This is a great tactic, and I happily received a $400 voucher towards future travel by accepting to take the next day’s flight. Not only that, but the airline put me up at a hotel nearby the airport, provided transportation both ways, and gave me meal vouchers for my dinner and the next day’s breakfast. The next day, I was booked on a flight, when somehow the same exact thing happened again! The agents apologized for overbooking the flight, and started the voucher auction again. Though I could have earned enough in vouchers to afford a trip to Beijing immediately after, I stuck with my initial $400 and saw my family. Savvy frequent fliers are always praying to get bumped, as a compensating voucher goes towards future travel while allowing the user to still earn miles and rewards as if they paid cash.
  • Shop Airline’s Malls – Every major airline these days seem to operate complete, retail malls. Airlines earn commission by linking to various online retailers, and they split that with the you, the shopper, by providing you program miles for shopping, usually per dollar. Watch out for special deals, where you can earn many times the normal rate of miles for a limited time. If I ever need to send someone flowers, buy a computer, or install a home security security system, I always check several airline malls first; chances are, they have a lucrative offer that fits.

Hacking Lodging and Accommodations

Just like airfare, accommodations and its hacking are increasing in popularity as well, due to the similar consolidation of hotel rewards programs along with the myriad options of earning those hotel rewards points, without even staying at a hotel.

  • Obtain Affinity Credit/Debit Cards – Like co-branded airline cards, the most popular and far-reaching hotel programs align themselves with cards, to increase member loyalty. Spending  money on these credit or debit cards earn you points towards future hotel stays. The best card that I have seen, and that most agree with to be the industry standard bearer, is the Starwoord SPG American Express Credit Card.
  • Acquire Unconventional Lodging – Though most travelers like the privacy and intimacy of a hotel room, especially if traveling with children or as a couple, there are many more economical options out there. Hostels are one option, where you can lodge in a dormitory-style building, possibly sharing a bunk with another backpacker, as well as the room with many others. Hostels are the base camp of many travelers on a budget. Another option can be a homestay, which is where a traveler can be hosted by a local person or family, who also provides meals and delightful(and a bit awkward) conversations, for a smaller fee than what conventional hotels charge. I advocate for this form of lodging most strongly, as it allows you to completely immerse yourself in the culture and life of a real local, with the home-cooked meals, conversation, and day-to-day routines. Couchsurfing is similar, where a local may offer you their couch(or room, if one is available) during your stay. Unlike the other forms of lodging, couchsurfing is usually gratis, though compensation such as treating the host to dinner or drinks is common.

Like I said earlier, travel hacking is really just any creative, unconventional way a traveler may use to reduce or eliminate the cost of a trip. There are other things to hack, but the larger the interconnected world of a company(airlines, hotel chains, etc.), the more hackable it can be. This being said, many have been clever enough to hack costs such as food, beverages, and museum tickets, all by knowing what to look for. Start with these more major travel hacks, and the small things will hit you in time.

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