Updated: 2017-07-07; Originally Published: 2011-10-02.
The other, more technical side to hacking flights is to hack the rewards systems, aka the frequent flier programs. These programs give you points for flying, which is redeemable towards more flying.
Most frequent flier programs go further and let you earn what’s known as “elite status” with them, if you can meet a certain threshold of flight activity in a year’s time. Likewise, most programs these days have partnered up with so many other retail and financial brands, that you can earn mileage by never even flying. Redemption of these rewards is an art form in itself, similar to finding the cheapest fares.
Hacking Airline Rewards: Know the Dollar Value of Mileage
All airlines’ frequent flier programs operate on a different scale, and value can be changed by factors such as award availability and mileage requirements. This being said, standard airlines(especially those in the US) have similar requirements and thresholds for rewards. For the most part, you can estimate the value of a frequent flier mile to be $0.01, or one cent.
This is good to help you decide which fares are good to pay for, and which ones are worth using miles for. If a fare is 25,000 miles, which most are in the continental US across the board (off-peak rates, at least), you should try not to use your miles to pay for the flight if the cost is less than $250. Put the miles to work for you; stretch them out that much further by recognizing their value.
Hacking Airline Rewards: Sign Up for Everything
Most agree that when you choose a frequent flier program, you should go all in on just that one. So, in this spirit, you should go all in on every way your program offers to earn you miles. Sign up for debit/credit affinity cards, which is probably the best way to earn a lot of miles fast. Sign up on every email that your program offers, so that you will always be in the loop as to what promotions and offers are happening.
Hacking Airline Rewards: Don’t Buy Miles
Though I love and follow N. Matt religiously, I disagree with him on mileage purchasing. I do not believe that this is what many consider to be fare hacking. Even when you buy miles at half the cost (averaging $13.50/1,000 miles), 100,000 miles still costs $1,350. A business fare from JFK to London Heathrow was 100,000 miles, but N. Matt forgot to mention that you still need to pay a hefty tax on top of this – in this case $260.10 in taxes after redeeming the 100k in miles. While this is usually still cheaper than buying the business fare outright, you also don’t earn towards your mileage base or elite status. It all depends on how much value you place on each aspect of the frequent flier program.
Hacking Airline Rewards: Do a Mileage Run
A mileage run is the term given for trips taken for the sole purpose of earning miles. For example, some mileage runners that I know fly from LGA (NY) to BOS(ton) with layovers in Kathmandu, Bratislava, and Ciudad del Este. This sounds like quite an amazing and exotic trip, but the cost is based on the typical short-haul, 1 hour flight from NYC to Boston. The layovers in other cities count towards the mileage earned for the frequent flier, as well as towards the elite status, which makes a case like this considered a mileage run.
Some fliers know how to work the system to force >24-hour layovers, so that they can work a little sightseeing and personal time in to make the trip more relaxing. I recently booked a “mileage run” to WAW (Warsaw, Poland). This was actually my first one, and I was very excited to get the fare. This coming February, I leave JFK for Toronto, where I forced a bit more than a 24-hour layover, so I can stay the night there. The next day, I leave Toronto for Amsterdam, where I also forced a little more than a 24-hour layover, again to see the sites. Finally, the following day I reach Warsaw, where I will stay for 4 days, until retracing that exact route (except for Montreal in the place of Toronto) on the way home. This trip earned me a lot of extra miles and segments, while catering towards my adventurous spirit of seeing different sites; A win-win, if you ask me!
Hacking Airline Rewards: Get Bumped
Especially as the holiday season approaches, more and more people are traveling. During these busy, peak travel periods, flights get oversold. Most airlines assume that 5-10% of fliers will somehow not make their scheduled flight (last-minute cancellations, tardiness, etc.), so they purposely oversell flights. This inevitably leads to those times when several passengers need to be moved to the next available flight, referred to as bumping. Bumping can be another art form, and one that I can speak of with confidence.
Airlines lawfully must compensate the passenger being bumped, and this is where the creativity comes into play. I have gone to visit family for Christmas several years ago, and when the plane was full, the airline’s agents asked for volunteers to be moved to the next available flight. It was a few days before the 25th, so I wasn’t stressing it. The agents then start something of a “voucher auction“, where they start at a low voucher compensation value and move up, and wait for hands to raise as they call out higher and higher dollar amounts.
This is a great tactic, and I happily received a $400 voucher towards future travel by accepting to take the next day’s flight. Not only that, but the airline put me up at a hotel nearby the airport, provided transportation both ways, and gave me meal vouchers for my dinner and the next day’s breakfast. The next day, I was booked on a flight, when somehow the same exact thing happened again! The agents apologized for overbooking the flight, and started the voucher auction again.
Though I could have earned enough in vouchers to afford a trip to Beijing immediately after, I stuck with my initial $400 and saw my family. Savvy frequent fliers are always praying to get bumped, as a compensating voucher goes towards future travel while allowing the user to still earn miles and rewards as if they paid cash.
Hacking Airline Rewards: Shop Airline’s Malls
Every major airline these days seem to operate complete retail malls. Airlines earn commission by linking to various online retailers, and they split that with the you, the shopper, by providing you program miles for shopping, usually per dollar. Watch out for special deals, where you can earn many times the normal rate of miles for a limited time. If I ever need to send someone flowers, buy a computer, or install a home security system, I always check several airline malls first; chances are, they have a lucrative offer that fits.
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