5 Travel-Hacking Tips – and One That’s No More

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"Travel hacking" is sort of like computer hacking – it's a way around the rules that airlines impose on racking up free miles. Is it ethical? Not always. But unlike computer hacking, it's legal.

Who doesn’t want to travel for free? Last week, NPR and other media outlets reported that “travel hackers” were charging huge quantities of $1 coins to their mileage-earning credit cards – since the U.S. Mint coins sold for face value and shipping was free. Then they’d load the coins into their car, deposit them in the bank, and start the process over again.

Feeling that people were are abusing the system, the Mint last week stopped accepting credit cards for $1 coins. Fair enough: Ordering coins from the Mint to earn frequent flier miles isn’t illegal, but it violates the spirit of the program as created by Congress.

Fortunately, there are many remaining ways to earn miles that are neither illegal or unethical. While you can no longer order coins just to earn miles, there are still many clever exploits to score miles. But they have their pros and cons…

1. Credit card churning

Receiving a sign-up bonus multiple times from the same card? It’s a technique travel hackers call “churning.” While most credit card bonuses are supposed to be available to new customers only, I and others have repeatedly received generous sign-up bonuses from the same card. There had been banks that allowed this nearly every month, but by design or by neglect, most banks’ computers now seem to only “remember” if you have received a bonus within the last 18 months. So you can cancel your card, then re-apply. I don’t consider it unethical to give a bank another chance to earn your business.

The downside: Continuously applying for new credit will lower your credit score by a few points, but only temporarily. Smart churners limit their applications to the best offers.

2. Bonus-bumping

What seems like an attractive sign-up bonus can be disappointing when, soon after opening an account, the same card is offered with a higher bonus. Chase gave a 50,000-point bonus with its Sapphire card, but then some lucky folks reported receiving an offer for 100,000 points. Customers were occasionally able to request – and receive – those additional 50,000 points.

The downside: Your credit-card issuer could deny your request, so obviously, it’s better to hunt down the best offer before you apply.

3. Frequent flier malls

It’s possible to “double dip” – earning miles on both your credit card and from an online shopping portal. Most airlines have an online frequent flier mall that allows customers to earn mileage from everyday purchases. This is not related to the SkyMall catalogs you find in your seat-back pocket that hawk overpriced novelties. These are links to popular online retailers such as Amazon, Home Depot, and Best Buy.

The downside: Always look for better deals elsewhere, because it never pays to spend more just to receive a few extra miles.

4. Promotions

In fall 2009, US Airways travelers discovered that purchases of “TrackItBack” could earn 40 miles per dollar spent. TrackItBack is a sticker affixed to valuables such as electronics – when an item is lost, the person who finds it can contact TrackItBack and get a reward, while the item is returned for free to its rightful owner. Although 40 miles per dollar spent is a good reward, US Airways was running a promotion that made purchases from their shopping mall eligible for an additional 250 percent bonus. I earned 140 miles for each dollar spent on TrackItBack – then received tax benefits by donating most of the TrackItBack stickers to charity. Result? I was able to buy 100,000 miles for a $715, tax-deductible purchase – enough for a business-class award ticket to Europe. Similar promotions are regularly exploited by those savvy enough to find them.

The downside: It takes some effort to ferret out these deals, and a little faith that the company will honor its offer. To be safe, always keep a copy of the terms and conditions of any promotion.

5. Renewals

When your reward card’s annual fee is due, contact your bank and tell them that you are considering closing your account over this charge. You will be transferred to their retentions department where they will likely waive the fee or offer bonus miles to keep your business.

The downside: None. You have nothing to lose by asking, except a few minutes of your time.

Stacy Johnson

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