As buzzwords go, “hack” is one of the 21st century”s most overplayed. You’re promised life hacks, style hacks, home hacks, hacks at work, and hacks to help your iPhone battery hold a charge. Your eyes are glazing over just from reading “hack” six times in a row (er, make that seven).
But if there’s once instance of the word you shouldn’t ignore, it’s this: travel hacking. The world’s most successful travel hackers are jetsetting on the cheap, booking big trips on small budgets and crossing country after country off their bucket lists. They’re travel ninjas without the nunchucks (but only because they’re impossible to get through security).
Hardcore travel hackers dedicate their lives to accruing miles, earning rewards points, and chasing elite status. They’ll happily spend hours scanning the fine print for loop holes and looking for the latest credit card to add to their collection. Crazy? Maybe, but you don’t have to walk the fine line between smart travel and insane obsession to get the benefits.
Casual travellers have plenty of perks to earn from understanding the basics, so we’ve put together a total beginner’s guide to travel hacking. The world awaits.
What Is Travel Hacking?
Having your Tinder account hacked: bad. Travel hacking: one of the best things to happen to your bank account.
Unlike the first kind of hacking, this kind is entirely legal. Travel hacking means working within the rules set up by airlines, credit cards, and hotels – but learning to use them (some might say “exploit”) to your advantage. Frugal travellers can score free or discounted flights, lodging, transportation, and other essentials using these methods. See more of the world and spend less doing it – what’s not to love?
Although travel hacking sounds sexy and dangerous, like Neo navigating the Matrix, in actuality it’s simple to start booking more affordable flights. No red pill or blue pill needed.
Travel Hacking: Level One
If this is your first time exploring the vast world of travel hacking techniques, you’ll want to start with level one. Master the fundamentals before you move on to more glamorous methods.
Travel hacking in its most primitive form can be summed up in one word: flexibility. The more flexible you can be with your travel plans, the more money you stand to save. Dedicate time to fully researching your flight options, and keep everything recorded in a document or spreadsheet, before booking any tickets. Follow these steps to find the lowest fares:
Start With An Aggregator
Use a site like Kayak to determine your baseline. Kayak and other aggregator services search multiple websites simultaneously so you can view a variety of options in one glance. Once you have the results from your first search, cross check with other, more global aggregators. Skyscanner and Momondo are favourites amongst travel hackers.
Expand Your Search
One of the major perks of using aggregators is that they often allow you to conduct flexible searches. Kayak users can search 3 days before and after the dates they select, while Skyscanner can return results for an entire month. If you don’t need to travel on specific dates, this is one of the easiest ways to find your cheapest flight options.
You may also be able to search with flexible destinations. Both Kayak and Momondo allow you to search nearby airports just by checking a box. If you use a site that doesn’t have a similar feature, you can conduct the research manually. Look into multiple airports that serve the same city (like John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark for New York City), as well as alternative routes. If you’re willing to take an extra flight or a form of ground transportation, it may be cheaper to fly into a different city and then travel to your final destination.
The rule is always this: more flexible you are with your search, the more likely you are to find a killer deal.
Go To The Source
When you’ve identified your best option from aggregator sites, it’s time to confirm the price. Head to that airline’s website from your search engine – do not click through from the aggregator. Some airlines price tickets lower on their own websites than they do on aggregators to entice passengers to book directly.
For an advanced travel hacking trick, search the airline’s foreign website as well. The prices can be significantly different, or you may be able to take advantage of exchange rates. It’s sometimes possible to save money by booking in another currency.
Watch For Deals
Travel hacking isn’t for the lazy. As you can see, a thorough price comparison requires serious time investment and equally serious organisational skills. Critics may call it common sense shopping around, but few travellers put this kind of effort into a flight search on a regular basis.
Then again, even globetrotters who are serious about saving cash don’t always have time to sink into the search. An easier option is to use a service like Airfarewatchdog to keep an eye on lower fares. Set up alerts for your desired destinations and the site will send you an email whenever an affordable flight is available. You can also follow travel blogs that post deals, like The Points Guy, Upgraded Points and Secret Flying.
Take A Gamble On Glitch Fares
The final level one travel hacking technique is not for the faint of heart, but can result in major savings. Meet the error fare, an occasional glitch in the airline matrix that never lasts long and isn’t always honoured, but can be responsible for the cheapest flights of your life.
On occasion (and maybe more often than you think), an airline accidentally prices a fare extremely low. Act fast if you spot one. Savvy travellers rush to snatch up the dirt-cheap tix before they disappear, which happens as soon as the airline realises its mistake. Fortunately, the airlines often honour fares booked during the glitch as a gesture of good will. It doesn’t happen 100% of the time, so be prepared to have your ticket cancelled, but serious travel hackers are willing to take the risk.
The best way to discover error fares is to follow blogs like the two mentioned above or the FlyerTalk forum.