Trying to save money on travel — or spending the same amount of money and getting more for it — is the essence of travel hacking. What makes it different from ordinary bargain hunting is that we don’t “hunt” for deals that are already published, there for the taking. More often the process involves identifying loopholes; overriding faulty automatic tools with a manual search; and an intelligent, strategic use of miles and points.
Never feel that you have to use all these methods to be a travel hacker. Some are completely legitimate but require a lot of work. Others are easier but may be in an ethical grey area — legal, but discouraged. My goal is to familiarize you with your options so you’ll feel like you have more control over the cost of your ticket, and you’ll learn new terms like “fare construction” and “average daily rate.” Take that next vacation with more confidence that you found the best possible deal.
I’ve provided reviews of useful websites I draw upon when searching for the best deals on air travel, hotels, and more. I also have some tables and charts I created to help make sense of loyalty programs and compare their benefits. Finally, some of my tools include “how to” guides that go into the details of more advanced topics or discuss general strategies for how to cancel a difficult situation, such as a cancelled flight.
Individual posts will cover these topics in far more detail than I can here, but the resource pages and other posts I link to below will give you a good overview when getting started.
- Comparing Airline Loyalty Programs — 2016 Edition
- Comparing Hotel Loyalty Programs — 2016 Edition
- Searchable Airline Award Chart Tool
- The Best Transfer Partners for Each Airline
- Links to Published Hotel and Airline Award Charts
- Booking Cheap Flights
- Finding Flight Data
- Booking Cheap Hotels
- Booking a Hotel When Your Flight Is Cancelled
- Picking the Best Seat When You Have to Fly in Coach
- Award Routing Rules on Alaska Airlines
- Award Routing Rules on American Airlines
- Award Routing Rules on United Airlines
- Which Airlines Have Fuel Surcharges on Award Tickets?
Upgrades and Fees
- Complete Guide to Same Day Change and Standby Rules
- Introduction to United Airlines Upgrade Policies
- Searching for United Airlines Upgrades
- Searching for American Airlines Upgrades
Introduction to ExpertFlyer
- Fare Rules and Prices
- Finding Availability and Constructing Fares
- When Manual Fare Construction Helps or Hurts
- Combining Fares and Pricing Units
- Planning an Award Trip
- Routing Rules
- Seven Tips for Booking Cheaper Flights
- Introduction to Fuel Dumping
- Finding and Booking a 3X
- Fuel Dump Variations and Advanced Strategy
- Hacking a Great Rental Car Rate
- The Cheapest Rental Might Be Silvercar
- Rental Car Grace Periods Can Save You Money
Basic Travel Hacking Procedure
Learning how to use these resources should be one of your first steps as a budding travel hacker. Booking a great deal involves three parts:
1. Collect information so you’ll know what you’re looking for before your search.
Take note of the tools to predict flight and hotel options before I ever visit a search page. Many people ignore the first step, and I’ll admit that it is sometimes not necessary. However, knowing what to look for is critical to good travel hacking skills.
If you need to book a cheap flight from San Francisco to Toulouse on Star Alliance, it would help to know that there are no connecting flights from Paris to Toulouse. Even though United operates a nonstop flight to Paris, you may be better off flying to Frankfurt instead (or plan on taking the train). You may need to visit many different sites for different pieces of information.
2. Search for the best compromise of price, quality, and long-term value (e.g., loyalty benefits or rewards).
This is where the strategy comes in. I can’t always answer your questions directly because everyone prioritizes things differently, but I can provide my thoughts on what alternatives are most common. It may be that I remind you of a great idea.
3. Actually book what you found. This may be on the same sites you used in Step 1, or sometimes it’s somewhere else.
Finally, the best sites for searching aren’t always the best choices for booking travel. Some of my favorite tools, like ITA Matrix, don’t let you book flights but provide more comprehensive results. And while I don’t like booking through OTAs because they often mean giving up hotel elite status and benefits, they are one of the better options for comparing the hotels in a given market.