Welcome to the next interview in our interview series where renowned mile and point gurus share their insights on having Big Travel with Small Money!
Miles & Points Interview: Hack My Trip
Scott writes Hack My Trip, a blog which very clearly explains the more complex Travel Hacking schemes such as Fuel Dumps, Hidden City Ticketing, and deciphering Fare Rules to construct your own mileage run (flying just to earn miles and elite status).
He recently proposed to his girlfriend in Maui, so I was counting down the days to Friday!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
I signed up for United’s MileagePlus program in 2006 when I started booking travel for medical and graduate school interviews. Prior to that time I didn’t travel very much by plane, and when I did it was usually with Southwest. I guess I got a few free trips from them, too, but I didn’t start really get into the game until I joined United.
I had a plan from the start to earn at least 25,000 miles for Premier status so I could get free EconomyPlus seating and checked baggage. I hit it without too much trouble, though the following year I had to do a mileage run to DC to keep my status. That was what got me hooked on mileage runs.
Sure I passed up my first upgrade and had to endure a two-hour delay and several gate changes thanks to US Airways in Charlotte (it was a lot like that scene in “Airplane!” where the plane keeps rolling past its assigned gate), but it was an amusing experience. The whole time I felt like I was doing something sneaky.
Now in the last year I finally managed to fly 100,000 miles and reach 1K status. The merger with Continental has certainly helped me reach that goal, and I think it will improve the benefits even if some perks like the upgrade certificates are reduced.
All the domestic runs to places like Kansas City really got to me last year, so to keep my 1K status, my first international mileage run is coming up in March. I’m going to Bahrain with a stop in Kuwait. In coach. Everyone thinks I’m crazy!
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
When I joined MilePoint, I somehow became known as a go-to person for fuel dumping knowledge (potentially saving hundreds of dollars by removing the fuel surcharge from a fare) and was always getting questions.
While I may have been willing to share some of the mechanics of how to construct a fuel dump, ultimately that won’t help you at all unless you’re willing to do most of the work yourself. If anything it’s just an interesting puzzle for me, and I rarely use them myself. I usually travel with a companion and would never hear the end of it if a dumped itinerary went south.
There are lots of other kinds of hacking that I’ve tried to learn about because I think having a diverse tool belt is my best chance at getting a whole trip at the price and comfort level I desire. I might do some mileage runs to get extra miles for my parents’ business class tickets to Europe but pay for my own ticket in coach to get the elite miles.
I can use a promotion targeted at someone else to get free elite status with a hotel and churn a couple cards to pay for the room. And then maybe in another city where I don’t really care I can try to decipher the Hotwire listings or strategically roll the dice with Priceline. While some people rely almost totally on points (and more power to them for being successful at it), I’m different in that so far I’ve paid for all my travel.
Some of the hacking knowledge I have was not always easy to find in one place or was being kept secret. I do have guidelines in place to prevent sharing too much, since some things are secret for good reason, but I thought I could create a destination for learning about lots of different ways to strategize for the best deals on travel.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
For a long-term strategy I recommend traveling enough to get elite status. The point of my blog is to be able to find good deals that let you travel 50,000 or 100,000 miles a year without breaking the bank. With an elite bonus of 100%, that can mean earning 100,000 or 200,000 miles each year, which may be worth more for an award ticket than what you spent on paid travel to earn them.
This means you have to focus on one airline’s program, and a lot of factors go into that decision like its membership in an alliance or other partners as well as its hubs and the diversity of its route network. Definitely consider which benefits you will actually use. If you travel infrequently, Southwest may be the way to go, and I don’t begrudge people that. But I fly enough that I really want an airline with a first class cabin and other elite benefits.
It helps that about 75% of my travel is domestic, which means that free checked baggage and elite upgrades still apply. And I love the checked baggage policy since there are often presents to shuttle around at Christmas and boxes of wine to bring home from my parents. I easily save $500+ on this each year. Free Economy Plus for my companions and I probably saves another $500-1,000. If you only travel internationally, many domestic elite benefits don’t apply and you may find that it doesn’t pay to be loyal to a specific airline.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
I recently got engaged in Maui, where I proposed to Megan on the top of Haleakala at sunrise. I didn’t redeem any miles or points to make it cheaper, but elite status still helped with upgrades. For example, I redeemed some regional upgrades with United to make sure she got a window seat in first class, and I checked FlightAware to see the plane’s usual approach path and pick the side with the best view.
My Costco membership got us a great deal at the Hyatt Regency Maui, where for about $100 more each night we moved up from a garden view to an ocean front room with a free breakfast buffet (about $25/person). The Gold Passport Platinum status from my Hyatt Visa earned us another $50 total discount on the resort fees, free WiFi, and a higher floor. In fact, even though it was a tour package, I still got night/stay credit.
One of the great things about travel hacking is that if you can make your other trips cheaper, you can afford to pay for the more expensive, once-in-a-lifetime vacations more often.
What do your family and friends think of your miles and points hobby?
They laugh at my crazy mileage runs, and sometimes there’s a little bit of awe, but for the most part I’m doing this on my own. Now and then I’ll get an email asking me to check one of their itineraries to see if it’s the best option. However, they’re all very skeptical about the rewards of credit card churning or chasing elite status. So far I haven’t told any of my coworkers exactly how deep I am in this game or even that I have a blog, but they have figured out that I know more than I let on.
Megan is the only one who’s a willing participant, and I think that’s because she sees the benefits first hand. I still keep control of all the accounts and credit card applications, so most of it is really me using her as a front to get two applications instead of one. But we’re both using the miles and points, so that’s only fair.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
The folks at FlyerTalk and MilePoint are extremely helpful, but as for actual tools, the best is ITA’s Matrix flight search engine. It’s extremely powerful for exploring your options, and it’s free. Many times I’ve used ITA to save $20 to $100 on what I would have paid if I went straight to the airline’s own booking site. That adds up.
Increasingly I’ve realized the challenge is not just passively finding a good fare on ITA but actually understanding the fare basis codes and rules and the availability in different fare buckets. That’s a lot more work to truly understand at an expert level, but I’m working my way up from intermediate. Usually I just aim for something I’m comfortable with and call it a day. I’ve never been the competitive type who has to wring every last mile or every last dollar out of a cheap fare.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
I don’t think I’ve done anything very creative. I still have never played the Grand Slam promotion from US Airways, for example. However, it surprises me how great the compensation can be for reporting bad service at a hotel or airline. If you can remain polite and direct (and have a justifiable complaint), it’s an easy way to get 5,000-10,000 points.
Less surprising, but more lucrative, was how I strategized paying for Megan’s surprise trip to Maui and her engagement ring. I signed my mom up for a Chase Sapphire Preferred card and had myself listed as a second cardholder to pay for the hotel and car, which easily cleared the threshold to earn 50,000 Ultimate Reward points plus various travel and end-of-year bonuses.
Then I transferred the points over to my account. I opened my own Sapphire card and an SPG Amex card to pay for the ring. All-in I’d say her engagement earned us at least 120,000 Ultimate Rewards points and 40,000 SPG points including actual spending and bonuses and could have done even more if it weren’t for the hassle. I may have set the bar high with the engagement, but we’re well on our way toward paying for the honeymoon wherever she wants to go!
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
I didn’t know anything about churning credit cards or fuel dumping. Some of the best fuel dumps died just when I learned how they actually worked, so it would have been nice to have an opportunity to take advantage of them. These days the dumps are constantly changing and getting far more complex. Some of them aren’t even normal dumps but require you to use obscure booking sites to search and book the trips. Frankly it’s not something I have much patience for anymore, but I still enjoy helping new people learn how to do it on their own.
As for credit cards, I knew the potential was there but was too afraid to try it. People who are concerned about the effect on their credit score should start small until they feel comfortable. After the first two or three cards, you’ll see that it really isn’t that hard and your score may actually go up. There’s no reason to leave free mile opportunities on the table, and like fuel dumping, I don’t want to completely miss my chance as some banks like Chase start to clamp down on frequent churners.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
I work 60 hours a week earning minimum wage as a graduate student. It’s amazing I can afford to spend any time on my blog, let alone spend money traveling. But I enjoy the distraction of non-technical writing, and anyone can travel as long as they are willing to sacrifice other things. Good planning is the key to successful trips, but I sometimes like to spread myself too thin.
Megan laughed the first time I told her about what I call “practical procrastination.” Rather than write the grant proposal I know is due next week, I’ll work on a couple of blog posts instead. Then I’ll read some financial magazines that have piled up. Then I’ll do my taxes. During the depths of the recession I was trying to figure out an angle for trading stock options, and I was actually pretty good at it before the stress got to me.
I enjoy number crunching and filtering through a mountain of data to find exactly what I’m looking for, which is probably why the nuts and bolts of travel hacking appeal to me. I also love to cook, bake, and mix cocktails, highly specific tasks that require some understanding of the chemistry involved and how to save yourself from the occasional disaster.
Any parting words?
All the information I share is publicly available. If it looks easy for me it’s because I’ve already spent a few years looking for needles in the haystack, and yet I still make plenty of mistakes. That’s a sign you’re doing things right, testing your boundaries to see how far you can go and where you need to focus on doing better.
When I get stumped, I just find interesting passages and copy them into a Word document before going back to scan them later and distill them into key pieces of information. Maybe what works for me doesn’t work for everyone, but the point is to find your learning style and tackle it head on. For me, that means reading widely and keeping good notes until I see the bigger picture. You’ll be surprised how much easier it becomes to add to your growing travel expertise.
Scott – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!
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