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Frequent fliers know that in the competitive world of modern airlines, it takes a skilled player to spot the good deals among the gimmicks.
In this month’s episode of Business Traveller, we meet with bloggers and aviation insiders who’ve learned how to play the often risky game of travel hacking, uncovering the loopholes the airlines don’t want them to find.
In this game, the rewards can be great — but the stakes are high.
1. Hidden city ticketing
What is it? Say you want to fly from New York to Los Angeles, but a ticket from New York to San Diego via Los Angeles is much cheaper.
The daring traveler books the San Diego ticket, but only completes the Los Angeles leg of the trip.
The practice is called “hidden city ticketing” and while it’s not a new phenomenon, software engineer Aktarer Zaman has created a search engine called Skiplagged specifically to find opportunities for “hidden city” trips. It’s so unpopular with the aviation industry, in 2014 United Airlines sued Zaman — but the case was dropped.
The catch: On a practical level, you have to travel hand luggage only, as checked-in baggage will go all the way to the final destination. Much more seriously, skipping out portions of your itinerary violates fare rules on many airlines. Frequent flier privileges could be revoked and miles confiscated.
2. Manufactured spending
What is it? Blogger Alex Bachuwa has developed a method of earning air miles without actually flying them. “I just apply for a lot of credit cards and I get a lot of points, and I use those points to go wherever I want to go. “The banks have promotions on new products all the time. They offer 50,000, 100,000, 150,000 points promotions. “They have a minimum amount you have to spend and once you spend that amount, the points go on your account and it’s time to start looking for flights.”
But as those minimum spends are far higher than the average person’s daily expenses, Bachuwa racks in the points through “manufactured spending.”
First get a credit card with rewards. Then buy a gift card and use the gift card to purchase a money order. You deposit the money order into your bank account and then use it to pay off the credit card.
The catch? “This is a frowned-upon business,” says Bachuwa. “It’s a way to spend without spending. Certain credit card companies now have in their terms and conditions, ‘Thou shalt not manufacture spend.'”
Not to mention that it’s seriously risky: Slip up in your calculations and you could get caught in spiraling debts.
3. Frequent Travel University
What is it? US-based Frequent Traveler University organizes regular seminars to teach would-be travel hackers the latest tips, tricks and methods that they say will help their students travel cheaper, better and more creatively.
“We’re teaching people how to redeem those miles for trips that can cost $20,000 one way, how to utilize that elite status,” says FTU’s James Larounis, adding that they offer expert tips on airline alliances and Fifth Freedom routes — flights where an airline from one country has the right to operate between two other countries and which are often heavily discounted.
The catch: Banks and airlines get wise to the hackers’ tricks and then promptly shut them down. “That’s why we host so many courses a year, because of this changing information,” says Larounis. “We’ve got repeat customers, year after year, session after session.”
4. Play your cards right
What is it? Stefan Krasowski, who blogs at RapidTravelChai, had these four tips to give us on the art of credit card shuffling.
1. “First, get as many cards as the banks will give you. Your credit scores will probably improve, if you manage them correctly.
2. “Get a hotel credit card. Many of those credit cards give you elite status with that hotel. Then you can turn around, go to other hotel chains and say, ‘I have the status, will you match me?’
3. “Get a credit card, usually a premium card, such as an Amex Platinum, a Citi Prestige, that has worldwide airport lounge access.
4. “Scale all this with your family members. If you’re traveling with a spouse or family member, each get hotel cards and then you’ll get double the benefits.
The catch: Mismanage your cards or drop behind on your payments and you’ll be left holding a losing hand.
5. Bid in a live auction
What is it? Open auctions for airline seats have been around for a while, but for a real fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience, at Seatboost the bidding for the last remaining first-class seats begins just 90 minutes before takeoff.
It’s teamed up with Virgin America to auction off any free available premium seats on certain routes — but getting an airline to buy into the idea took some convincing.
That’s because airlines don’t want customers to expect that they’ll win in the auction, because then the customers might be reluctant to buy those premium seats beforehand.
“We are more positioned for a flier or guest who wants to give themselves a treat. If you’re used to flying first class, you’re not going to leave it to chance,” says Seatboost CEO Kevin Stamler.
The catch: Bid too high and you might win the upgrade but pay over the odds for your seat.
Bid too low and you miss out on your upgrade and remain stuck in economy.