On Wednesday, I published a short list of blogs I always read. It doesn’t mean I don’t read or don’t like other blogs, just that I picked an arbitrary number (five; there are too many top-ten lists) and tried to decide which were the most important ones to me. But I still included an honorable mention for Frequent Miler because, even though I don’t think his is the best blog for me, it is still a very good blog for its niche and deserves recognition.
One reader complained that it was ironic a blog called “Hack My Trip” wasn’t interested in the credit card bonuses, manufactured spend, and other schemes described on Frequent Miler. I’ve heard similar comments elsewhere, so I don’t mean to call out this particular reader. I’ve met the Frequent Miler a couple times and think he’s a great guy. I think his blog is so good that I was willing to break my arbitrary cap of five blogs. But enough people shared this reader’s thoughts that I think my reasoning deserves more explanation.
Credit cards by themselves are not travel hacking. They are but one tool.
Just take a look at the decline of Vanilla Reloads over the past year. We used to be able to buy them at office supply stores with an Ink Bold card for 5X points and load them on a Bluebird, draining the balance at an ATM or even just issuing a check to pay off the credit card balance directly. But VRs were taken away from office supply stores — which no longer carry even standard $500 Visa or American Express gift cards — and the alternative choice of drug stores is being chipped away at by the loss of category bonuses, Hilton’s devaluation, and caps on purchases. I can’t even buy VRs easily anywhere in Seattle unless I pay cash.
Sign-up bonuses have become either less lucrative or harder to get with higher spend requirements and tougher restrictions on multiple cards. Consider American Express’s decision to prevent you from getting the bonus on a new Gold or Platinum card if you’ve had any card (even a different one) affiliated with Membership Rewards in the past year.
New opportunities for manufactured spend continue to appear, but they are not always practical and may be risky. Wells Fargo had an option to load prepaid cards with a credit card, but that window is being shut down in May and risked cash advance fees and security reviews if you weren’t careful. Buying and reselling merchandise requires a large upfront cost, the risk you won’t earn it back, and the risk that the category bonuses you were relying on will be reduced (as Frequent Miler himself discovered with Sears).
Make no mistake: I take advantage of all of these ways to earn more miles and points, and I share some of them on this blog. They can sometimes be an easy way to pad your balance when you are traveling a little less or need a boost for an expensive award. But I still think some are riskier and more complicated than I would prefer. They are also not very valuable to me as long-lasting approaches to cheaper travel. When terms change or you run out of cards, the spigot will run less freely.
Well, What Is Travel Hacking?
This same reader I mentioned above responded that my version of “travel hacking” is thus more traditional. Really? I don’t think so. Traditional travel is booking whatever flight or hotel you see because it looks cheap but you don’t really know you’re getting a good value. They settle, and then they gripe about the trip and how the airlines are thieves who lose their luggage and charge for the privilege.
It doesn’t have to be that way. I know when I’ve got a good value. I don’t always pick the cheapest option, but I pick the flights and hotels I do because I have a good understanding of the cheapest possible price, how much more (if any) I am paying, and what I am getting in the form of miles or status in exchange for my willingness to pay a little extra. Usually I pay more because of loyalty, but you don’t need to join any loyalty program to be a travel hacker (it would still help).
And none of it’s illegal. Just yesterday I shared how I got a perfectly legitimate status match to Kimpton’s Inner Circle program, and as a result I expect to get 11 free nights this year. Most people wouldn’t think to look into a small program like Kimpton’s. Most people who do wouldn’t think to look closely at all its benefits. But I and a few others have taken a look and made the effort to share our findings.
Travel hacking starts with all the things you could do to save money and travel better if you woke up tomorrow morning and wanted to book a trip. You can’t do that with credit cards alone. You’d need to have great credit just to start, and then you’d have to apply for the cards and usually meet some minimum spend. Then you’d have to find availability. Not exactly the hardest thing, but roadblocks nonetheless.
My version of travel hacking requires none of that. Tell me the trip you want to buy, the one you were just about to pull the trigger on, and I’ll tell you three ways you could change your plans to save money or make it more rewarding. It’s not always about flying free. Sometimes it’s just about knowing how the system works. Building up elite status and, yes, credit cards can make this game even more rewarding, but you don’t need them.
You aren’t sure if you got the best price on Orbitz? Check ITA or learn how to construct your own fare using ExpertFlyer. If you fly often, decide which loyalty program is going to provide the best benefits for your particular situation because it will depend on things like whether you get reimbursed for business or fly with a companion. Hotel best rate guarantees can be used by anyone, with or without elite status, and learning how to decode the offers presented by Hotwire can help you save money on a property you would have booked anyway.
A lot of this is freely available information, but most people just don’t know it’s out there or can’t find it in one place. That’s why I created this blog. If you are relying on miles and points to book everything for free, that’s great. I applaud you for it. But it isn’t going to help you when award space isn’t available or you need to take a relatively inexpensive trip that makes redeeming those points and miles a bad deal.
Travel hacking is a very broad field that can help you with all of these scenarios. It includes credit card bonuses and manufactured spend among its topics, but the two should not be confused as the same thing. No doubt Frequent Miler works very hard at what he does because some of the ideas he comes up with would never occur to me. We need people like him. Maybe he does deserve to be called a “travel hacker,” but of a different sort. There are enough differences between our strategies that I felt some distinction should be made.