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Travel Hacking

Frequent traveler programs (points and miles) are a mainstay of many people’s travel plans. Here’s our travel hacking guide with our top eight tips for earning points and miles.

When we became frequent business travelers after college, we immediately signed up for all the frequent traveler programs we could. At the time, we weren’t travelling for business all that much (maybe only once a month) and it seemed like it would take forever for the points to accumulate into reward travel. But we signed up for those programs because someone told us to. And we’re glad we did!

Companies offer frequent traveler (points and miles) to secure your loyalty – and get more money out of you. In a way, they are gambling on you to increase your share of business with them. But you can play that game too. Points and miles addicts play the game back and amass huge amounts of points/miles to travel for practically free (as seen in the movie Up in the Air). A popular term these days to explain the game is Travel Hacking or Points Hacking.

Everyone has their own definition of travel hacking, but we define it as involving two related goals:
1) Traveling for the least amount of money possible. The goal is to reduce your expenses to practically zero.
2) Traveling above your means by employing upgrades and perks that you would not otherwise pay for. The goal is to make the experience of travel more relaxing and enjoyable.
Travel hacking is about changing the value equation and getting the absolute best travel experience possible for the least amount of money.

We frequently write about maximizing your business travel into personal benefit and how to be a better travel hacker. Here, we share our top tips for travel hacking—

Sign up for all the mileage/points programs

The biggest mistake travelers make is not signing up or not signing up early. They say, “we travel so infrequently, we’ll never get the reward.” You won’t get the reward if you don’t play the game. Initially, that was our thinking. But we signed up anyway once we learned how travel rewards programs work. Now, we tell travelers to sign up for every program they can – because you can never predict your future travel plans. Check out our comprehensive list of travel loyalty programs.

Consolidate travel activity

The travel companies offer these programs in the hopes that you will consolidate all of your business with them. And the more you fly/stay with a company, the more rewards you get (they offer incremental 40%, 60%, 80% and even 120% bonuses on their programs once you get to higher-tier levels). This makes a compelling advantage to consolidate your travel rewards programs. And that is the recommendation you’ll see everywhere else about points hacking.

But don’t consolidate too much! If you put ALL of eggs in the airline basket or with a specific hotel program, you are locked in. And that’s what the airlines and hotels are counting on. We’ve found it beneficial to have a primary airline and two hotel chains that we focus on.

First class airline seat
The Holy Grail of air travel

Focus on bonus periods

When you signed up for the programs you gave them your e-mail address and they began e-mailing you (A LOT). You’re skimming those e-mails looking for special promotions and you ALWAYS sign up for every promotion (remember you don’t reap the reward if you don’t play the game). Even if you don’t think you’ll meet the minimums to receive the reward, you sign up anyway (because you can never predict your future travel).

All of the major hotel companies run special promotional campaigns or bonus periods. To get the benefit you have to sign up (which takes less than 30 seconds). Another advantage to you, the bonus periods sometimes do not overlap, so you make the choice to consolidate your travel with the company that is currently running a bonus – and reap the rewards.

The airlines have experimented with this. Back in the early 2000s, United Airlines used to run a lot of mileage bonuses and U.S. Airways ran a Grand Slam program for many years, but most of those programs have been eliminated. What you still see are selective promotions to launch a new route, specific routes, or volume-based promotions (if you fly 10 times within a quarter, etc.).

Keep your points and miles active

The airline and hotel companies don’t want you accumulating rewards indefinitely. They want to see activity – ideally, they want you paying them money for more flights or stays. But they also want to see you using your points (it decreases their “liabilities”). Each airline has a different point expiration policy so you’ll need to do your homework, keep track of expirations, and also monitor programs for changes. For example, Delta Sky Miles don’t ever expire and Frontier Airlines Miles expire every 6 months. And some programs like American and United set 24 months as the window.

Over time, we’ve found it useful to have some activity in each reward program at least once in a 12 month period. That keeps your accounts active and you still receive bonus incentives from the airline or hotel.

Here’s an example on how point expirations work. If you took a flight on American Airlines in December 2022, those miles would expire in 24 months, or December 2024. But if you took a flight in September 2023, that resets the expiration date on ALL miles to September 2025. The point to remember – the expiration is from the last activity. And that activity does not need to be a flight!

I have a lot of United Airlines miles and ultimately will probably use them for a free flight eventually, but I haven’t flown on United in years (although I used to live in a United hub market). I keep those miles “active” by accumulating “partner” mileage. In other words, I spend money with an United Airlines partner and chose to have the reward accumulate with United. Twice a year, like clockwork, my mother receives flowers on her birthday and on Mother’s Day. I order the flowers with the United Airlines shopping mall and get a mileage credit in my United account, which keeps my miles active. (Note: Technically, United’s miles don’t expire as long as your account is “active,” but United closes some accounts without activity in 24 months).

We do the same thing with hotels. Many of the hotel chains (Hilton and Marriott come to mind), offer surveys where they give you points just for taking 10 minutes out of your day to answer a few questions. The points we receive for the surveys keep all of our point totals active for another year. Some hotel chains also have partnerships with Uber or Lyft, where you get points for taking ride share trips.

We recommend using an online points or mileage tracker, such as Award Wallet, TripIt or similar to keep track of points/mileage balances.

The best reward might be the upgrade

The idea of free flights or free hotel nights is appealing, but sometimes your best perk is actually using the points/miles to secure a travel upgrade. Don’t want to pay $4,800 for a business class flight to Europe? Pay the airline the $900 for the coach flight, and then upgrade with frequent flyer miles. Or, use your hotel points to upgrade to the Club Level and get free drinks and meals.

But – if you’re a loyal guest, sometimes you get the upgrades automatically without paying for them. I travel frequently for business (sometimes weekly) and fly First Class about half the time because of free upgrades. This works with hotels too. I’m frequently upgraded to suites or the VIP club level at hotels because of status within the loyalty program.

And some airlines allow you to be a yearly pass to their airline lounge using miles. Over time, we’ve found this to be a great value.

This all goes back to goal #2 of travel hacking: upgrading your travel experience to enjoy things you would not otherwise pay for.

Not all points are “valued” the same

It’s true – not all points are valued the same and a dollar is not a dollar in the world of hotel points.

Grand Hyatt Istanbul is a Category 4 in the Hyatt Program and is 15,000 for a standard room (21,000 for the Regency/Club Level). The Ritz-Carlton Istanbul, basically across the street, is a Tier 3 in the Marriott Bonvoy Program and is 45,000 points for a standard room. The Ritz-Carlton is more than twice as expensive in terms of points. Now, you might think the Ritz-Carlton is the better property, but based on what? A point is not a point.

Some hotels (Marriott) offer more opportunities for bonus points. Therefore the “value” of those points is less than in other programs (the points buy you less; or you need more points to buy the same experience). But, those programs also offer you more points per dollar or in bonuses.

Elaborate happy hour spread in the VIP lounge of the Grand Hyatt Istanbul
Elaborate happy hour spread in the VIP lounge of the Grand Hyatt Istanbul

Do your homework. Once you accumulate points in different programs and begin spending them on free travel, some points may prove to be more valuable. Also, if you accumulate large balances in one program or need points in another program, it is possible to exchange your reward points and flight miles between your existing programs. For Hilton, allows you convert points between airline, rail and other programs into Hilton Honors points.

Even with points/miles, it can take cash

Points and miles are considered currency. And they have a tangible value. In the event of a divorce, they are considered an asset that is divided. And some airlines will allow you leave your miles to someone in your will when you die.

But even if they have a value on their own, many programs, particularly the airline programs, won’t let you actually use your miles without a cash fee on top of it. Those fees vary, but you need to factor them into your calculations.

However, one of the biggest changes to the hotel programs in the last few years is the addition of Cash and Points rewards. You put up some points and some cash. This can be either a fantastic value or a terrific waste of points – depending on the property and the room rate for the exact dates you want to visit. Do your homework before using a Point-and-Cash scheme.

Earn points for shopping

All the major frequent traveler programs have mileage malls or online shopping malls. Essentially, you earn miles or points per dollar spent in the online malls. If you do any amount of online shopping, you should always go through a mileage mall to earn points for something you are doing anyway. This is a great way to earn large bonuses!

To get big rewards, you need to go for credit cards

To receive the really big mileage/points benefits, you need to sign up for credit cards with their lucrative perks. This is a massive topic and we write about frequently, however, here is a short version to travel hacking with credit cards.

Yes, you can travel hack without a credit card, however, to really scale your activities, you need a travel credit card. The best travel credit card is the one that works for you and your goals. You need to know what you want to accomplish (free flights, free hotels, a mix of both, etc.) and then register for the card that meets your goals.

If you live in a major airline hub, you might register for a specific airline card. For example, if you live in Atlanta, you might get the Delta credit card, or a United card in Denver or an American card in Dallas. If your goals are hotels, you might register for a hotel-specific card.

Credit cards are a key component in this travel hacking guide

But, if your goals are more general and you don’t have a specific travel provider, consider getting a general travel card that will allow you use your points with any airline or hotel. The much advertised Capital One Venture card and Chase Sapphire are two of the more popular general cards.

To make hacking with credit card work, look for a card with a nice welcome bonus (for example, many airline cards offer 25,000, 40,000 and even up to 100,000 bonus miles). At the same time, make sure that the required spending level is achievable for you. If you can’t spend the $5,000 in 3 months to get the 40,000 miles, that is of no benefit to you. Pick the largest welcome gift for the least amount of spend. Then check and try to find a card with the lowest annual fee. Most cards will waive the annual fee for the first year. This is ONLY a good idea if you have decent credit and you pay off your bills in full and don’t carry a balance.

That welcome gift and the spending will get you a long way to your goals. But most travel hackers also “churn” their credit cards. Signing up for a card, keeping it through the welcome period and for a while beyond, and then cancelling. And then coming back and signing up for the same card again after a period of time. Each credit card has rules for “churning” and they may have a waiting period of 12 to 48 months before applying again. But in the meantime, there are other programs or credit cards. This is really pro-level travel hacking.

Manufacture spending to realize big rewards

Once you have your travel rewards credit card, you can earn massive amounts of miles/points through a process of “manufactured spending.” You can manufacture spending on your credit card and then get reimbursement for it. If you work for a company, see if they will let you use your personal card for business expenses and then you get reimbursed for it.

If you go out to dinner with a group, be the person who pays and then get cash from your friends. There are almost an unlimited number of options if you think creatively. The key is: manufacture spending on your credit card and while obtaining cash to pay it off.

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