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 in official policy; 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. Some are completely legitimate but require a lot of work. Others may be in an ethical grey area (legal, but discouraged). Either way, you should feel confident when you book your next trip that you found the best possible deal.
Travel pricing is intentionally confusing. It’s a perishable product that can’t be resold if the airplane seat or hotel room sits empty. Some information isn’t limited to travel agents and other industry insiders, so consumers only see a shadow of reality. There are also extra fees and very real differences in quality that sometimes mean the lowest price isn’t really the cheapest. Check out this article on the total cost of travel to learn more.
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
- Award Maximizer: Search and Compare 14 Airline Award Charts
- The Best Transfer Partners for Each Airline
- Seven Tips for Booking Cheaper Flights
- 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 Airline 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
Advanced Fare Construction and Search Tools
- Introduction to ITA Matrix
- 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
Fuel Dumping (Expert Material)
- Hacking a Great Rental Car Rate
- The Cheapest Rental Might Be Silvercar
- Rental Car Grace Periods Can Save You Money
Researching Flight Data
Learning how to use these resources should be on your to-do list as a travel hacker. Booking a great deal begins by knowing where to look and how to evaluate the data. Start by collecting information on what’s possible — and what’s not. For example, if you need to book a cheap flight from San Francisco to Toulouse on Star Alliance (United Airlines, Lufthansa, etc.) then 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, where connections are abundant.
OpenFlights.org — OpenFlights is a great resource for planning an award trip. Generally ITA does all I need when I want to optimize the price-per-mile on a revenue ticket, but if I need to figure out all the options for getting from A to B, OpenFlights will tell me which airports have direct flights and which carriers operate them.
OpenFlights Data — OpenFlights maintains a blog page with downloadable datasets that they use to populate their results. I’ve used these data files to create lists of airports and city-pairs for fuel dumping, as well as for my publicly-available Award Maximizer tool.
AirlineRouteMaps.com — This site isn’t always up-to-date. However, that does’t make it a bad resource. If you want to take a quick look at the route network for your preferred carrier, this is probably good for a first-glance and may be easier than using the interactive tools that are more common on airlines’ websites today.
AwardNexus — This handy service will automate your award search by accessing airlines’ own search tools and returning the results. Everything it does you can do yourself for free, but I still find it worth paying for because of all the time it saves me.
ExpertFlyer — ExpertFlyer accesses the same reservation databases as travel agencies to provide you information on fares, availability, seats, and award space. I think it’s more user-friendly than KVS Tool, but the difference between how they acquire their information means that you may need to think about which service will provide you more benefits.
KVS Availability Tool — Similar to ExpertFlyer, KVS Tool operates as a standalone application (instead of within a web browser) and is Windows-only. The interface is a little clunky and dated, but some people find it preferable to a website.
You can look for route maps on airline and alliance websites, or take advantage of user-supported projects like OpenFlights.org and GCMap.com to plan your own itinerary. Different services like AwardNexus and ExpertFlyer can then help you find award space and look up non-public information like maximum permitted mileage and minimum connection times.
Keep in mind that most airline websites allow you to search for award space at no cost, but they also do not display information for all of their partners. This means that negative results may indicate a limitation of the search engine, not the absence of award availability. When this happens you need to find another resource and call an agent to book. The award space that one airline makes available to one partner is usually available to all partners, so a search-by-proxy approach works well. AwardNexus is intentionally designed to overcome this issue.