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Travel Hacking 101: A Beginner’s Guide to the Process

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These days, there are a million and one ways to make budget travel a reality. From embracing the sharing economy to working overseas or volunteering abroad to hunting down cheap flights , traveling has never been easier or more affordable. Even with the pandemic-related price increases, travel is still relatively cheap and there are lots of deals out there to be found.

But the most incredible way to lower your costs even further? Travel hacking .

It’s something I’ve been doing for years, which has enabled me to earn more free flights and free hotel stays than I can count. And if you’re not doing it, you’re leaving a lot of money on the table and paying way more for travel than you should be!

What is travel hacking?

Travel hacking is the art of signing up for travel credit cards and collecting credit card points, hotel points, and/or airline miles you can cash in for free flights, flight upgrades, hotel stays, transportation, and much, much more.

While there are a ton of advanced tips, tricks, and hacks to out there (and we go over a lot of them in my guide on the subject), many people don’t even know where to start. The process seems daunting because of all the programs and credit cards out there. Which card do you get? How do you know you’re maximizing your points? And just how do you redeem them for rewards?

It’s a lot to wrap your head around.

But travel hacking is a lot easier than it seems. By just tweaking how you pay for groceries, gas, and dining out, you’ll be able to start earning points and miles toward free travel today .

In this Travel Hacking 101 guide, I’ll explain the basics, so you can stop leaving money on the table and start making your travel dreams a reality.

Here is how you get started:

Step 1: Figure out your goal(s)

The first thing you want to do when it comes to travel hacking is to figure out your goal(s). What are you looking to achieve?

Are you saving for a big family trip? Do you just want the odd free economy flight or hotel here and there? Or are you more interested in a huge first-class upgrade? Or are you an avid flyer who wants perks, like lounge access and free upgrades?

There’s no wrong answer, so spend some time pondering this. If you just go into travel hacking without direction, you’re going to get lost.

You’ll need to do this because it will help you pick the cards and spending strategies that will get you closer to your goal(s). There are hundreds of travel credit cards to choose from, and they all have their own pros and cons.

For example, if you’re a loyal flier with American Airlines, the best cards to start off with would be those that are AA branded. That way, you can jump-start your point balance as well as get the perks that those cards come with (free checked bags, priority boarding, etc.).

If you’re looking to go to Europe on a United partner, you’ll want to apply for the cards that get you United or Star Alliance points.

Always like staying at a specific hotel chain? Get that particular brand’s card.

If you just want points to spend wherever you choose, get a Chase, Citi, Capital One, or American Express® Card, because you can use their points with a variety of travel companies.

Once you decide your goal(s), you can figure out the cards and programs that will get you there.

Step 2: Get a travel credit card

Once you know your goals to and what perks are important to you, you can start to browse for a credit card.

Note: Travel hacking is impossible without a credit card. You just cannot get enough points otherwise. Here’s everything you need to know about credit cards and why they aren’t as evil as society makes them out to be.

While many introductory cards are free, the best travel credit cards usually have an annual fee. However, this fee, which can range from $99 to $500, is usually waived for the first year. You can also often get it waived in subsequent years if you call and threaten to cancel the card. I do that often to avoid the fee.

Some things to remember before you apply for a card:

  • There is no perfect card — each has its pros and cons based on your goals. Don’t listen to blogs touting some card as “the best.”
  • Aim to get a card with a low annual fee and no foreign transaction fees (so you can use it abroad without paying extra).
  • Make sure the welcome bonus is attainable (more on that below).

Remember that you need to pay off your monthly balances to make travel hacking worthwhile, so only apply for a card if you’re able to pay off your expenses each month.

Here’s what the ideal card should have:

  • A huge welcome bonus – The best travel cards all offer a sizable introductory bonus. It will be these welcome points that jump-start your account and get you closer to a free flight or hotel stay. Typical travel credit card welcome bonuses range between 40,000 to 60,000 points, though sometimes they can be as high as 100,000. That’s why cards are so great: you get an instant balance of tens of thousands of points for very little work.
  • A low spending minimum – Unfortunately, in order to get the great welcome bonuses these cards offer, there is usually a required spending minimum in the first few months. I typically sign up for cards with a minimum spending requirement of $3,000 USD in a three- to six-month period. While there are ways to temporarily boost your spending, it’s best to get the bonus using normal day-to-day spending. Only apply for a card or cards that you can meet the minimum spend(s) on to qualify for the welcome bonus(es). (More on minimum spending requirements in the next step.)
  • An added category spending bonus – Most credit cards offer one point for every dollar spent. However, good credit cards will give you extra points when you shop at specific retailers, use their online portals, or, if it is a branded credit card, shop with a particular brand. This will help you earn points much more quickly.
  • Special travel perks – All of these travel credit cards offer great perks. Many will give you a special elite loyalty status or other perks. Travel hacking is not just about just getting points and miles, it’s about what else comes with the card that makes your life easier!
  • No foreign transaction fees – Credit cards are great to use overseas because you get the best possible exchange rate from them. But if you are paying a fee every time you use the card, then it’s less good. Nowadays there are so many cards offering no foreign transaction fees that you should never, ever, ever have to get one with a foreign transaction fee.

Step 3: Earn the welcome bonus

As mentioned, the most important part about signing up for a new credit card is to make sure you earn the welcome bonus. Most cards offer this bonus if you spend a set amount within the first few months of receiving a card (usually the first three months). These offers can be huge, often equal to the cost of a round-trip flight.

Obviously, it would be silly to pass up the chance at a free flight, so make sure you can meet the minimum spending requirement for the welcome bonus before you pick a card. If you can’t meet the spending requirement, there’s no point in signing up just yet.

That might mean waiting until your next big purchase (e.g., waiting until you need a new computer, a new couch, etc.) or waiting until a big holiday like Christmas or a loved one’s birthday, so you can earn more points than your normal spending.

If even that isn’t going to do the trick, you’ll need to get creative.

For example, when you go out for dinner, pay for the bill on your credit card and have everyone pay you back. That way, the cost will go toward your minimum spending requirement. Additionally, if any friends or family are planning big purchases, ask them if you can put them on your card so you can get the points. That’s another easy way to meet the minimum spend without having to shop til you drop.

Step 4: Maximize your category spending

Most travel credit cards offer category bonuses. That means that instead of getting just 1 point per every dollar spent, you might get 2 or 3 or even 10 when you shop in particular categories. Restaurants, supermarkets, and gas are three of the most common ones, but there are lots more too.

To maximize your points, always use the right card for each purchase.

If you just have one card to start, just put everything on that card to maximize your points. Once you start branching out and have a few cards, just keep track of the main category bonuses so you don’t miss out by using the wrong card. Earning double, triple, or even 10x the points can drastically speed up your earnings, so don’t skip out on the category bonuses!

Step 5: Redeem your points and miles

It’s time to cash those points in and make your travel dreams a reality! Depending on your spending and financial situation, maybe you’ve been able to save up enough in just a few months. Maybe it’s taken you a couple years. Either way, it’s time to reap the rewards of your travel hacking! (If you want to learn more on how to do that, get this guide I wrote .)


Now that we’ve laid out the steps, I wanted to answer some common questions I get about travel hacking.

Can non-Americans travel hack? Yep! While the US definitely has the best travel hacking cards, many other countries have similar cards too, including Canada, the UK, Australia, and most of Europe.

Start by checking with your local airline to see if it has a branded credit card. You can also check in with your bank and ask what cards are available. Every country is different, so you’ll need to ask around to get the ball rolling.

Here are some posts to help you get started:

  • How to Become a Travel Hacker in Canada
  • How to Travel Hack in Australia & New Zealand
  • How to Be a Travel Hacker in the UK

Do I need to pay off my bill every month if I want to travel hack? Yes. Credit cards charge huge interest fees, which will eat up whatever small benefit you get from the points.

Can you travel hack even if you have bad credit? Yep! You’ll likely need to start slow, with a card that doesn’t have amazing perks. However, over time, you can build your credit up as long as you’re paying off your bill every month. If you have bad credit, start with a prepaid or secured credit card to build back your credit.

Does opening a new card hurt my credit rating? Opening or closing a lot of credit cards at once can hurt your credit. However, applying for a few credit cards over a period of time won’t ruin your score. Sure, it will slightly dip every time there is an inquiry, whether for a credit card or home loan or car loan — that’s how the system is set up. But so long as you space out your applications and pay off your bills each month, you won’t find any long-term damage to your credit. I have dozens of cards and apply for and cancel them regularly, and my credit score is excellent.

Travel hacking can be intimidating, but it’s really just the art of being smart with your spending on the right one or two credit cards. You don’t really need to do more than that. While you can also dive much deeper in the hacking game (some people really go down the rabbit hole on this!), it’s not all that necessary.

Don’t leave money on the table. Get a card, earn the welcome offer, maximize your points — and then do it all over again! Eventually — with no unnecessary spending — you’ll reach your goal and get to enjoy some awesome travel perks!

Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks

Book Your Flight Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner . It’s my favorite search engine because it searches websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is being left unturned.

Book Your Accommodation You can book your hostel with Hostelworld . If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use as it consistently returns the cheapest rates for guesthouses and hotels.

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:

  • SafetyWing (best for everyone)
  • Insure My Trip (for those 70 and over)
  • Medjet (for additional evacuation coverage)

Want to Travel for Free? Travel credit cards allow you to earn points that can be redeemed for free flights and accommodation — all without any extra spending. Check out my guide to picking the right card and my current favorites to get started and see the latest best deals.

Need Help Finding Activities for Your Trip? Get Your Guide is a huge online marketplace where you can find cool walking tours, fun excursions, skip-the-line tickets, private guides, and more.

Ready to Book Your Trip? Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use when I travel. They are the best in class and you can’t go wrong using them on your trip.

Got a comment on this article? Join the conversation on Facebook , Instagram , or Twitter and share your thoughts!

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above may be affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you make a purchase. I recommend only products and companies I use and the income goes to keeping the site community supported and ad free.

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What is travel hacking—and should you be doing it?

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See recent posts by Alene Laney

Can you really get free travel? 

It sounds like a scam, but many travelers manage to vacation for pennies on the dollar regularly. They might call themselves “travel hackers,” but they’re really just points and miles enthusiasts who are extremely good with credit, credit card rewards, and loyalty programs. 

Even though you’ve seen other people do it, you’re probably also wondering if it’s worth it. We all have a friend who has been lured into credit card debt. Or, you may have tried a card only to find it difficult to earn and redeem enough points for a good vacation. 

So, how are all these people—these “travel hackers” who post pictures of themselves in first class—doing it? And more importantly, can you do it, too?  

If you want to know more about how it works and how you can start, you’ll want to read this. 

What is travel hacking?

Travel hacking is a way to get travel for a low cost, sometimes even for free. What most people mean when they say they “travel hack” is they’re redeeming credit card points or frequent flier miles for flights, hotels, car rentals, and other travel costs. People who get good at it are known for booking luxe travel on the cheap.

Zachary Abel, TikTok phenom and travel blogger says travel hacking is about making the system work for you rather than against you. “The biggest misconception is that travel hacking is somehow cheating,” he says, “but it’s just optimizing benefits that many have access to and don’t realize it.”

Travel hacking has a lot of benefits, such as:

  • Using points to pay for travel
  • Redeeming miles for flights
  • Traveling more often 
  • Staying in nicer hotels
  • Learning how to earn status
  • Upgrading your flight or hotel room
  • Taking family with you at a lower cost
  • And countless other benefits

Once you’ve tried it, it’s hard to go back to paying cash. 

Learning how to “travel hack” by taking advantage of credit card rewards is easier than ever. There are a bevy of sites with excellent articles and courses to help you learn the ropes. 

It starts with a travel rewards card

Small cart filled with credit cards on world map

If you’re open to earning travel rewards with credit cards, the next question you may ask is, “What credit card should I get?” You’ll want to consider a few things before deciding, such as:

  • What travel partners pair with the credit card?
  • How much are the points worth?
  • Is the sign-up bonus lucrative enough?
  • Does it have foreign transaction fees?
  • Will it be accepted where you spend money?

Surprising things most travel hackers don’t consider dealbreakers include:

  • Interest rate
  • Bonus points categories

If you pay off your credit card bill every month, you shouldn’t be paying any interest, so the interest rate isn’t very important to people earning points and miles. 

The annual fee is a consideration, but most travel hackers can see the value in paying it to get the benefits of the card. What travel hackers do look at is how high the fee is and whether or not the added benefits of a more expensive annual fee are worth it. 

Also, many travel hackers continue to open a handful of cards every year, so the points bonus categories unique to each card may not be as important to a travel hacker. 

Related: The Best Family Reward Credit Cards

Cards you can start with

Looking further into the details of the card can help you find one that will work for your travel goals. However, while every major card issuer has a travel rewards card product, there do seem to be some clear winners for the best travel rewards cards. 

The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is a popular choice even for experienced travel hackers. There are a large number of desirable travel partners, an easy-to-use travel portal, a lucrative sign-up bonus, and a referral bonus program that can help you earn a ton of points. It’s a great first card to get you started in the hobby. 

Currently, the offer for signing up for this card is 80,000 bonus points. To put that in perspective, you could score 16 free hotel nights at a category 1 Hyatt (like the Hyatt Place or Hyatt House). You could also get a free flight to Tahiti with that sign-up bonus. 

Another card you’ll want to look at is the American Express Gold. The American Express Gold earns 4X points on supermarket purchases, 4X on dining charges, and 3X on airfare booked directly with the airline. Other cool benefits like the monthly dining credits, Uber credit, and travel perks make this a card worth considering. The sign-up bonus is 60,000 Membership Rewards, which goes far towards redeeming travel. 

How do travel hackers earn more points than the rest of us?  

Travel hackers don’t wait around for their points to accrue via spending on a credit card. In fact, if you only have one credit card, you’re probably not earning as many points as you want or traveling often as you would like.

Bryce Conway, founder of the popular online travel community 10X Travel , says travel hackers have realized two things:

  • It’s really easy to earn a lot of points and miles, most times without even flying. 
  • If you put in just a little time and effort to learn how they work, you’ll see outsized results from that. 

“Travel hackers are able to earn more points than the average person because they are really savvy with credit cards and credit card offers,” he says. 

“They’ll often open more credit cards than the average person. The reason behind that being that the bonuses on credit cards are so incredibly lucrative compared to ongoing spend.” 

Conway also explained that travel hackers pay close attention to bonus categories to help them earn more points. 

“They’re just kind of savvier with points and miles, but a lot of it really comes back to the use of credit cards, opening of new credit cards,” he said, “That is really the secret sauce of travel hacking.” 

Related: The Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards with No Foreign Transaction Fees

Travel hackers make the most of redemptions

Woman making a credit card purchase on her phone

Learning how to earn points is important, but it is just as important to make the most out of a redemption. Travel hackers are excellent at finding the maximum value in their redemptions, which in turn helps them travel more and upgrade their experiences. 

There are two major ways to redeem points for travel: 

  • Booking travel through your credit card’s travel portal
  • By transferring points to a partner program (think Delta, Marriott, etc.)

Snag a Super Low Fare

One of the best ways to maximize value from a travel portal is to book a mistake or sale fare. If you get emails about flight deals, you can usually find these deals in the portal and book them using points. You get the benefit of both points and low fares this way.

Book Any Hotel You Want

You can also use the travel portal to book unique or local hotels that do not belong to the travel partner program of your credit card issuer. 

If you want to find a specific bed and breakfast in Ireland, you can book it. If you want to stay in a castle in France, you would book it in the travel portal. 

Related: How to Dramatically Slash Your Hotel Costs with These Priceline Tricks

Transfer Points to Credit Card Travel Partners

Many travel hackers swear by the incredible value they get by transferring points to travel partners. Points are often much more valuable when transferred to a partner program. 

Abel explained how this works: “Instead of using their points to redeem in the bank’s travel center where they may get 1 to 1.5  cents per point, cardholders can make use of travel partner’s award chart sweet spots to get a multiple of this value.” 

“Each partner maintains their own award chart detailing how many miles it requires to get between locations around the world in each cabin of service. You’d be surprised at many of those award rates compared to the cost of the ticket in the bank’s travel center,” he said. 

“For instance, if you were pining for a trip to Japan, and wished to fly business class, in non-covid times that would have cost you $3,000 to $5,000. In a bank’s travel center, that may cost you as low as 200k, but could go as high as 500k points. Compare that to transferring to ANA to fly as low as 75k roundtrip in business class from the west coast.” 

That’s just one example of how transferring points to a partner program can help you get the most out of a redemption. 

“It’s all about finding outsized value within the system,” Abel says.

How to make travel hacking work for you 

Group of friends at airport

Travel hacking isn’t for everyone. It’s easy to get burned by credit card debt and pay more in interest each month than you earn in rewards. However, if you have disciplined spending habits, some organization, and a willingness to learn, travel hacking can massively benefit you and your family. Here are a few tips to help make it work for you.  

Pay off Your Balance Each Month

When you earn rewards, you’re essentially putting dollars on your credit card to get back pennies. If you’re not paying off your balance and you’re being charged interest, those benefits are moot. (On the flip side, if you do have to carry a balance on a credit card, you might as well be earning rewards for it.) 

Stay Organized With Your Points and Credit Cards

Some travel hackers keep a spreadsheet of their credit cards and reward programs. They know exactly when they can apply for a new card to earn the sign-up bonus, when their due dates are, when their points expire, and any other detail they find relevant.

You can also use an app or an online program to do this for you. AwardWallet is an example of a program that can help you track all your loyalty points in one place. 

Keep Learning

You never know when you’ll come across a tip that will make your vacation amazing or help you save a ton of money. Keep reading your favorite travel websites and follow social media accounts that will help you learn more about getting the most of travel rewards programs. 

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Travel Hacking 101: Beginner’s Guide to Free Flights & Hotels

R.J. Weiss, CFP®

  • Updated December 20, 2023

Travel hacking has saved me tens of thousands of dollars. Just as important, it’s given my family incredible travel experiences that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford.

With this guide, you’ll have all the knowledge and tools you need to start travel hacking like a pro and create unforgettable travel memories yourself. 

Here’s what we’ll cover :

  • What is travel hacking?
  • Travel hacking and credit Impact
  • How to earn points and miles
  • The best first credit cards for travel hackers
  • Tips for getting free flights with credit card points
  • How to maximize your hotel points to get the most free nights
  • My favorite award redemptions of all time

And lastly, we’ll answer some of the most common questions asked by new travel hackers.

What Is Travel Hacking?

Travel hacking is the art and science of unlocking free or significantly discounted travel experiences by strategically earning and redeeming reward points and airline miles. 

This concept encompasses various techniques, including leveraging credit card rewards, airline loyalty programs and hotel rewards to make your travel dreams a reality.

Since some credit cards offer as much as 2% cash-back, you might wonder whether it makes sense to just use those rewards for travel. The real benefit of using points and miles comes from point redemption values that can often reach 3 cents per point or more, and sometimes even go up to 10 cents per point.

Credit cards that offer generous welcome bonuses and reward points for everyday spending are the foundation of travel hacking. By using credit cards strategically, you can accumulate valuable points that can be redeemed for flights, accommodations and other travel-related expenses.

It’s not uncommon for a single credit card signup bonus to cover the cost of an international flight, making this a game-changer for many travelers.

In addition, you can also earn points or perks by taking advantage of airline loyalty programs or hotel rewards programs. By staying loyal to a specific airline or hotel brand, you can earn rewards points or perks such as free upgrades, lounge access and more. 

In essence, travel hacking is about understanding the ins and outs of the rewards ecosystem and using that knowledge to make the most of every travel opportunity. 

How Travel Hacking Impacts Your Credit and Finances

If you’re considering travel hacking, it’s crucial to understand how it can impact your credit score and overall financial health.

Your credit score is a three-digit number that indicates your creditworthiness and helps lenders evaluate your risk as a borrower. 

Several factors determine your credit score, including:

  • Payment history (35%)
  • Credit utilization (30%)
  • Length of credit history (15%)
  • New credit (10%)
  • Types of credit in use (10%)

Signing up for credit cards is closely tied to many factors that carry the most weight in your credit score. Therefore, it’s not whether travel hacking will affect your credit score but how it will affect it.

To ensure a boost to your credit score while enjoying travel rewards, remember to:

  • Choose credit cards you plan to keep long-term.
  • Aim to hit the minimum spend requirement without overspending.
  • Keep your credit utilization less than 30%.
  • Space out new credit card applications.
  • Pay your balance in full using auto-pay to avoid missing payments.

Much of this is familiar to anyone who has managed their credit responsibly. But if you’re new to managing your credit, check out our article titled “ How Travel Hacking Impacts Your Credit and Finances ” for a more in-depth guide. 

How to Earn Points and Miles

Points and miles are the currencies of the travel hacking world. When you know how to earn them efficiently, you’ll be well on your way to ticking off dream destinations from your travel bucket list.

Fortunately, with the right travel hacking strategies, you can earn points and miles toward your dream vacation without spending a fortune. 

The top strategies for earning points include :

  • Credit card sign-up bonuses . By strategically choosing a card with a great bonus, you could find yourself enjoying a premium flight experience or a free hotel stay.
  • Optimizing your spending through bonus categories . Many credit cards offer bonus rewards for specific purchases, such as travel or dining. Using the right card for each purchase can help you accumulate points faster.
  • Shopping portals . You can earn rewards at popular online stores. Many credit card issuers, airlines and hotels have their own shopping portals.
  • Maximize points earned while booking travel . Frequent travelers can optimize their rewards by taking advantage of loyalty programs offered by airlines and hotels.
  • Refer friends and family to credit cards . Referring friends and family, including a spouse, to credit cards can be a rewarding way to earn additional points or miles.
  • Open a business credit card . Business credit cards often have some of the most lucrative signup bonuses, making them an essential part of beginner travel hacking.
  • Earning points with bonus transfers . Bonus transfers can be a powerful tool for quickly reaching your rewards goals. Many credit card issuers and loyalty programs offer periodic promotions, where you can transfer your points or miles to partner programs with a bonus.
  • Promotions and offers . Promotions and offers can encompass both limited-time and ongoing incentives, which involve activities such as adding authorized users, making purchases at specific merchants, linking your loyalty accounts with certain merchants, or completing one-time tasks, such as meeting a spending threshold within a specified timeframe. These offers vary by credit card issuer and card type.

By implementing these strategies, you’ll effectively accumulate rewards and transform them into unforgettable travel experiences. 

To learn more about these strategies, read our detailed guide on earning travel rewards: Earning Points & Miles: The Best Ways to Earn Travel Rewards .

The Best First Credit Cards for Travel Hackers

As a beginner, choosing a card that offers long-term benefits, has a quality signup bonus, and has reasonable minimum spending requirements is essential.

Our top choices for first-time travel hackers include the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, among other outstanding credit card offers we’ve curated for your convenience.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card offers a reasonable annual fee of $95, making it a great value. It also provides a consistently great signup bonus worth hundreds of dollars in travel rewards. 

With this card, you can redeem your points at a rate of 1.25 within the Chase travel portal, or transfer your points to various airline and hotel partners (including popular brands such as United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Hyatt Hotels).

The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is another excellent option for beginners. 

With this card, you can earn unlimited 2X miles per dollar spent on every purchase, making it easy to accumulate rewards quickly. It also offers a consistently high signup bonus, which can be worth hundreds of dollars in travel credits. 

One unique feature of the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is that it allows you to use points to erase purchases categorized as travel on your credit card without using a travel portal.

You can then benefit from a larger sign-up bonus and other travel perks the card offers, like lounge access, TSA credits and the option to transfer points to travel partners for potentially higher value. This combination of features makes the Venture card more appealing for travel enthusiasts compared to a 2% cash-back card.

Overall, both cards offer flexibility in using your rewards, making them worthwhile even if you don’t have a specific travel destination in mind.

We’ve partnered with CardRatings to give our readers access to top credit card products. By collaborating with CardRatings, we ensure all data is accurate regarding the credit card products available, as it changes frequently. To discover these and other top travel card offers, see their “ Best Travel Cards ” page.

Airline Miles for Beginners

If you’ve never done it, booking flights with points can feel intimidating. With so many airline programs and transfer partners, knowing where to start and how to get the most value for your points can be challenging.

So let’s start with the basics. There are two main ways to use your points to book flights:

  • Through an airline’s mileage program . Using an airline’s mileage program means you redeem points or miles earned through that airline’s loyalty program. Each airline has its own award chart and pricing, which determines how many miles you need to save for a free flight based on the destination and class of service. 
  • Using fixed-value points . These points hold a set value, typically measured in cents per point. You can use these points to book flights or other travel expenses at a fixed redemption rate. For example, if you have 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points and the Chase Sapphire Reserve , you can use them to book a flight at a rate of 1.5 cents per point, which would be worth $750 towards the cost of the flight. 

When trying to maximize the value of your travel rewards, booking flights with miles can offer outsized rewards compared to fixed-value points. However, there are certain situations where fixed-value rewards can come in handy.

At the same time, booking flights with reward points is more challenging than booking flights with fixed-value rewards, as award space availability can be limited. 

When you’re ready to book your flight, check out our step-by-step guide to redeeming points for airfare . Plus, see our rankings of the best free tools for award flight searches to help save time. 

Exploring Your Accommodation Options: Hotels, Vacation Rentals and More

Booking accommodations like hotels, vacation rentals, and other types of lodging with reward points can be a great way to save money or even splurge on a luxurious stay. 

Similar to flying, when it comes to redeeming points for lodging, there are two primary methods: 

  • Hotel loyalty programs.
  • Fixed-value rewards.

Earning points by transferring them from credit card companies is one of the fastest ways for you to book hotel stays. For example, you can earn a signup bonus with a credit card issuer like Chase, then transfer the points to a hotel loyalty program like Hyatt. 

This allows you to earn points fast and potentially stay at a higher-end property than you would be able to afford if paying with cash. 

Additionally, some hotels offer co-branded credit cards that allow you to earn points directly with the hotel, and often offer free nights or room upgrades.

Using fixed-value rewards to book hotels offers flexibility to those who prefer to avoid committing to a specific hotel chain. The Chase travel portal, for example, allows you to book hotels at a rate of 1.25 cents per point with a Chase Sapphire Preferred card or 1.5 cents per point with the Chase Sapphire Reserve . 

Capital One offers many redemption options, including booking hotels through deal sites like Priceline or vacation rental sites like Airbnb. 

After making bookings, which can be done outside of Capital One’s travel portal, you can use your points to effectively “erase” those purchases from your account statement. The key is that they must be categorized as travel.

Remember that leveraging the power of points and rewards to create meaningful travel experiences is the core idea of travel hacking. Whether you’re looking to save money or splurge on a luxurious stay, booking accommodations with points is an excellent way. 

Check out our Booking Hotels with Points Made Easy guide for more tips and tricks.

Discover My Favorite Reward Redemptions

Curious about the real-world potential of travel hacking? Don’t miss my article on my favorite reward redemptions . 

This piece dives deep into some of the most incredible travel experiences I’ve had, all thanks to strategically using points and miles. From first-class flights to five-star resorts and unforgettable family vacations, these examples will give you a glimpse of what’s achievable. 

Let this article inspire you, whether you’re just starting out or looking to take your travel hacking to the next level.

Traveling Hacking FAQ

Yes, travel hacking is legal. It involves strategically using credit card rewards, airline loyalty programs, and hotel rewards to get the most value for your points and miles. However, it’s essential to follow the terms and conditions of each rewards program and credit card issuer to avoid potential issues; while violating these rules is not illegal, it could get you kicked out of the program and may result in the forfeiture of any accumulated points or progress.

When done responsibly, travel hacking should not ruin your credit. In fact, it can even improve your credit score. Ensure you pay your credit card balance in full every month, keep your credit utilization low, and avoid applying for too many cards in a short period.

The time it takes to earn enough points for a free flight or hotel stay depends on various factors, such as your spending habits, the credit card you choose, and most importantly, how you plan to use the rewards. With the right strategy and card, you could potentially earn enough points for a free flight or hotel stay within a few months. 

The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is most often recommended for beginners. The card offers flexible rewards, reasonable annual fees and a valuable signup bonus. But make sure to check out the best current offers for other cards that might match your travel goals, in addition to making sure you’re a good fit to hit the minimum spend and having a good enough credit score. 

Unlock Your Next Adventure

Travel hacking is all about leveraging the power of points and rewards to save money and create meaningful travel experiences.

To dive deeper into specific topics, be sure to check out our related posts:

  • Travel Hacking & Credit Impact
  • Earning Points & Miles
  • Choosing a Travel Rewards Credit Card
  • Airline Miles 101
  • Maximizing Hotel Loyalty Points and Programs

With these resources, you’ll have everything you need to take your travel hacking to the next level. 

Happy travels!

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Travel hacking 101: A beginner’s guide to travel hacking like a pro

When I started travel hacking 11 years ago, it was an obscure “hobby” that few had heard about and most dismissed as a scam . Nowadays, seemingly everyone is doing it to some degree. Whether getting in on the latest credit card promotion or snagging a first-class seat for the price of coach, travel hacking has become more popular than ever.

It’s the easiest way to save on travel and improve your experience. Utilizing travel hacking methods, you can fast-track your way to top-tier elite status and earn frequent flyer miles without ever stepping on a plane.

There is endless information about maximizing every dollar (and mile) spent. But if you’re new to this “game” and just want a simple explanation of how it works, you’ve come to the right place.

Here is everything you need to know about getting started with travel hacking.

What is travel hacking?

Travel hacking involves earning frequent flyer miles or points through non-traditional methods and redeeming them for nearly-free travel.

The most common travel hacks include leveraging credit card welcome bonuses for premium cabin flights and taking advantage of sweet spots and generous routing rules to get the best deal on award flights.

How much are points and miles worth?

Points are worth 1-2 cents each, depending on the loyalty program and how you use them. You’ll generally get the highest value by redeeming points for premium cabin flights and luxury hotel stays. Some programs impose a fixed value on points, depending on the fare cost. For example, Southwest Rapid Rewards points are worth 1.3 cents towards Wanna Get Away fares.

The same goes for transferrable rewards. Most of them are worth at least one cent each towards direct travel bookings. For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards® are worth 1.25 cents each towards direct travel bookings for Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card  cardholders and 1.5 cents for those with a Chase Sapphire Reserve® .

The difference between points, miles, and rewards

Points, miles, and rewards are different types of loyalty currencies. There are exceptions, but airlines usually issue miles, while points come from hotel loyalty programs or bank rewards.

A good travel hacking strategy involves having a mix of all three currencies.

Transferable rewards

Thanks to their flexibility, transferable bank rewards are the gold standard of loyalty currency. You can transfer them to airline miles or hotel points, usually at a 1:1 ratio or better.

Examples of transferrable rewards include Amex Membership Rewards, Capital One Venture Rewards miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards®, and Citi ThankYou® points.

Airline miles

You might be wondering if it’s worth earning airline miles when you can just transfer your bank rewards points instead.

Well, you should earn airline miles from a co-branded airline credit card for several reasons. For starters, you can supplement welcome bonuses from airline cards with a bonus from a transferrable rewards card to reach your travel goals faster.

In addition, some airlines incentivize you to earn miles (through a co-branded credit card or otherwise). For example, American Airlines counts all co-branded credit card spending towards elite status. Meanwhile, Southwest Rapid Rewards issues the Companion Pass after you earn 125,000 points in a calendar year (which increases to 135,000 next year). Earning airline miles can pay off.

Hotel points

Hotel points can go a long way in reducing out-of-pocket travel expenses. You can earn hotel points from co-branded hotel credit cards, by shopping online, and even by participating in surveys. Hotel credit cards offer generous welcome bonuses, with perks like elite status and annual free nights.

Examples of hotel points you should consider earning include World of Hyatt, Marriott Bonvoy, Hilton Honors, and IHG One Rewards.

How to start travel hacking

Travel hacking is fun and rewarding but can also be a lot of work. There is a wealth of information about ways to earn and burn points for maximum value. But if you’re just learning and want to know the basics, here’s a step-by-step guide to getting started.

Step 1: Set a goal

Before you embark on your travel hacking journey, you’ll want to set a goal. Are you hoping to redeem miles for international travel ? Or perhaps you’re saving up for a family trip to Disneyland. Regardless of your goals, it’s important to identify them early on to determine which credit cards and loyalty programs will help you get there.

Step 2: Choose your rewards program(s)

Once you’ve determined your travel goals, it’s time to pick your loyalty programs. Start with your home airport; if you live in an airline hub city, that airline can be a good starting point. There’s no sense in earning Southwest points if you live in Alaska. You might be better off with the Alaska Mileage Plan program since the airline serves the region and offers domestic and international partners. You’ll have more opportunities to redeem miles, and if you fly the airline often enough, you’ll even earn elite status.

When choosing a loyalty program, keep partner airlines in mind. For example, if you’re saving up for a Hawaiian vacation and want to fly United, you should consider collecting Turkish Miles&Smiles instead. Turkish Airlines is a Star Alliance member, like United, and offers domestic United flights for just 15,000 miles round-trip in economy. Exploring partner programs can help you save on award travel, stretching your miles further.

Choosing a hotel loyalty program might be easier. Think about which hotels you like when traveling and which elite benefits you care about. Most hotel loyalty programs let you earn top-tier status from credit cards alone, so think about which programs offer the best perks and properties in the destinations you like to travel to.

Here’s a look at every major hotel program’s global footprint to help you choose:

  • Marriott Bonvoy: Over 8,000 properties in 139 countries
  • Hilton Honors: Over 7,000 hotels in 122 countries
  • Choice Privileges: Over 7,000 hotels in 40 countries
  • IHG One Rewards: Over 6,000 properties worldwide
  • Radisson Rewards: Over 1,700 hotels worldwide
  • World of Hyatt: Over 1,150 hotels in 70 countries

While it’s good to identify at least one airline and hotel program, you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. Try to collect at least one transferable rewards currency, so you’re not limited to only a few programs.

Transferrable rewards can also protect you against program devaluations — if one airline or hotel increases its redemption requirements, you can transfer your points to another.

Here are some of the most popular transferrable rewards programs:

  • American Express Membership Rewards®
  • Bilt Rewards
  • Capital One Miles
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Citi ThankYou® Rewards

Step 3: Choose a credit card

Once you’ve identified the loyalty program you want to earn points with (and incorporated at least one transferrable currency), it’s time to find a credit card.

When choosing a credit card, you should consider the following features:

Welcome bonus

A high welcome bonus will help you achieve your travel goals much faster. Some credit card bonuses are high enough to cover a round-trip international business class ticket. You’ll incur a 2-5 point credit score hit from every inquiry, so make it count. You should aim for a welcome bonus of at least 50,000 points, and plenty of cards meet that criteria.

Credit card application rules

Remember that some banks have strict application rules when applying for credit cards. For example, American Express limits welcome bonuses to one per lifetime. Meanwhile, Chase’s infamous 5/24 rule prevents you from being approved for a new card if you’ve had five or more in the last 24 months.

Be sure to familiarize yourself with these rules before applying for a card to avoid unnecessary rejection.

Travel perks

Many travel rewards cards come with valuable perks like elite status, airport lounge access, airline fee credits, and annual free nights. Think about which of these perks you’re likely to maximize every year. Doing so can help you choose the best credit card and figure out if the card is worth renewing every year.

Annual fees

Travel hacking can get expensive if you’re not careful about annual fees. Rewards credit card annual fees range from $89-$695. It’s easy to get tempted by a high welcome bonus, but annual fees can dent your travel budget if you’re not careful.

Before settling on a credit card, explore the lower or no-annual-fee version to see if it’s a better fit.

For example, the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card may seem appealing with its welcome bonus, but you’ll pay a lower annual fee with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card .

Step 4: Other ways to earn points

Credit card welcome bonuses are the fastest way to earn points, but they’re not the only way. You can earn points from shopping portals, dining rewards programs, completing surveys, and more.

Shopping portals:

  • American AAdvantage eShopping
  • Alaska Mileage Plan Shopping
  • Delta SkyMiles Shopping
  • Free Spirit Online Mall
  • Hilton Honors Shopping Mall
  • JetBlue TrueBlue Shopping
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Shopping
  • United MileagePlus Shopping

Dining rewards programs:

  • American AAdvantage Dining
  • Alaska Mileage Plan Dining
  • Delta SkyMiles Dining
  • Free Spirit Dining
  • Hilton Honors Dining
  • IHG Rewards Club Dining
  • JetBlue TrueBlue Dining
  • Marriott Eat Around Town
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining
  • United MileagePlus Dining

Airline companion passes

Airline companion passes are one of the best travel hacking tools to stretch your points further. Some passes are issued annually as a credit card benefit, while others have to be earned. In most cases, you can save 50% or more on airfare with a companion pass.

Here’s a look at companion passes you should consider adding to your travel hacking arsenal:

Alaska Airlines Famous Companion Fare

The Alaska Airlines Famous Companion Fare is a great travel hacking tool for west coast flyers. The pass is issued as part of the welcome bonus on the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card and reissued annually. Considering the Alaska card has a reasonable annual fee, this is a terrific benefit.

Simply book a companion on the same flight and pay just $99 (plus taxes and fees).

American AAdvantage

You can get an American Airlines Companion Certificate from one of four co-branded credit cards. The spending requirement ranges from $20,000 to $30,000 per year. Once you’ve secured the certificate, you can use it to cover a companion’s airfare for just $99 plus taxes and fees.

  • Barclays Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard: Spend $20,000 in a year
  • AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard: Spend $20,000 in a year
  • AAdvantage Aviator Business Mastercard: Spend $30,000 in a year
  • CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard®: Spend $30,000 in a year

The American Airlines Companion Certificate is only valid on round-trip economy class tickets within the contiguous U.S. For Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Island residents, the pass is good for round-trip flights originating in those destinations.

British Airways Travel Together Ticket

The British Airways Travel Together Ticket is issued to British Airways Visa Signature® cardholders who spend $30,000 in a calendar year . This perk can take the sting out of high fuel surcharges imposed on British Airways award tickets transiting through London.

The Travel Together Ticket is valid in all cabins, including first class and international fares .

Delta Companion Passes

Delta has two companion passes: one is valid on economy class tickets only, while the one issued through the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Card can be applied to first-class travel. You’ll pay just $80 for your companion’s ticket, which is a bargain — especially when using it for first-class flights.

Note that the Delta companion tickets are not valid on award flights or basic economy tickets.

Here’s a list of cards you can earn the companion pass with:

  • Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
  • Delta SkyMiles® Platinum Business American Express Card
  • Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card
  • Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card

Iberia airfare discount

Iberia offers a $1,000 airfare discount on two tickets booked on the same flight. You can earn it by spending $30,000 on the Iberia Visa Signature® Card per calendar year. It’s valid in all cabins, providing ultimate flexibility.

Southwest Companion Pass

The Southwest Companion Pass is one of the most popular travel hacking tools out there. You can get one after completing 100 segments or earning 125,000 Southwest points in a calendar year, though the requirement is increased to 135,000 points in 2023. However, points earned from the Southwest credit card welcome bonuses count towards the pass.

It only takes one business or one personal card welcome bonus to earn the Southwest Companion Pass:

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card : Earn 50,000 points after you spend $1,000 within the first three months of account opening
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card: Earn 50,000 points after spending $1,000 within the first three months of account opening
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card: Earn 50,000 points after spending $1,000 within the first three months of account opening
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card: Earn 80,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 within the first three months of account opening

Redeeming points

You’ve accrued thousands of points and are ready to start booking your dream vacation. Now what? Redeeming points isn’t exactly easy, and that’s by design. Loyalty programs count on members not doing their due diligence to get as much out of their points and miles as possible.

While booking the first award that pops up in the search result is easy, that’s not the best way to stretch your points. Here are a few concepts you should familiarize yourself with to get the most out of your points:

Stopovers and open jaws

While a simple round-trip flight is great, you can stretch your points further by incorporating stopovers and open jaws into your flights.

A stopover is when you visit an additional destination on your way to your final destination or home. Several airline loyalty programs allow you to add a free stopover to award flights:

  • Alaska Mileage Plan (free stopover on one-way awards)
  • ANA Mileage Club ( one free stopover and one open-jaw on round-trip awards)
  • Cathay Pacific Asia Miles ( up to four destinations per itinerary)
  • Emirates Skywards (one free stopover per round-trip)
  • Japan Airlines Mileage Bank ( three stopovers or two stopovers and one open-jaw )
  • Singapore Krisflyer ( one stopover and one open-jaw per roundtrip flight )
  • United MileagePlus (one free stopover within the same region per round-trip flight)

Open jaws are another great way to add a destination to your itinerary. An open jaw is when you return from a different destination than you flew into.

One example of an open-jaw ticket is if you fly from New York to London and then return home from Paris. Many people book this route with Avios because British Airways imposes hefty fuel surcharges on flights departing from London. Savvy travelers will take a train to Paris and fly back from Charles de Gaulle to save money.

But booking an open-jaw doesn’t have to be about saving money. It’s a great way to see multiple destinations on the same trip, especially in Europe, where connecting flights are relatively cheap. Here’s a list of loyalty programs that allow open jaws on round-trip award tickets:

Fourth and fifth night free

Some hotel programs offer free nights when you redeem points for consecutive nights at one property. These deals can help you save as much as 25% on an award stay. The most generous is IHG One, which offers a fourth night free to IHG Rewards Traveler, IHG Rewards Premier, and IHG Rewards Premier Business card members. Meanwhile, Marriott members and Hilton elites get the fifth night free on award stays.

These discounted award rates can help you save thousands of points and book extra free nights at no cost. Factor this into your award-booking strategy, and you’ll stretch your points further.

Take advantage of sweet spots

Sweet spots are awards that are significantly discounted compared to other loyalty programs. Both hotels and airlines have sweet spot awards that can help up your travel hacking game.

For example, Turkish Airlines offers round-trip economy class tickets between the mainland U.S. and Hawaii for just 15,000 miles . That’s what some loyalty programs charge for a one-way ticket, making this an excellent sweet spot award.

Travel hacking is all about finding ways to stretch your points further. You can do this with tactics like searching for generous credit card welcome bonuses, booking flights with stopovers and open jaws, taking advantage of hotel programs that offer free nights, and looking for airline sweet spots.

With a little bit of effort, you can travel hack your way to (nearly) free travel.

Happy travels!

About the author


Ariana Arghandewal

Ariana is a travel reward expert and founder of her own award-winning blog., PointChaser. She has worked as an editor and covered all things points, miles, and credit cards for over a decade across a number of personal finance sites.

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What is 'skiplagging' and why do the airlines hate when you do it?

Scott Neuman

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American Airlines' lawsuit is bringing renewed attention to a controversial travel hack known as skiplagging, or hidden city ticketing. Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

American Airlines' lawsuit is bringing renewed attention to a controversial travel hack known as skiplagging, or hidden city ticketing.

A new lawsuit brought by American Airlines against a controversial ticketing website is bringing renewed attention to "skiplagging," or "hidden city ticketing" — a technique used by some passengers to get lower fares.

Lufthansa Airlines Sues Customer Who Skipped Part Of His Return Flight

Lufthansa Airlines Sues Customer Who Skipped Part Of His Return Flight

What is skiplagging.

It works like this: Say a passenger wants to travel from New York to Charlotte, N.C., but the nonstop route is pricey. So instead, they book a cheaper flight that takes them from New York to Denver, with a layover in Charlotte. Rather than fly all the way to Denver, they simply get off in North Carolina and ditch the rest of the ticket.

The practice isn't exactly new. "Travel agents have known about hidden city fares for decades, and in some cases travel agents would knowingly tell their customers," says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group.

But as airline prices started to surge in late 2021 , skiplagging started getting a lot more attention.

One site that's helped popularize hidden city ticketing is . The website allows users to type in their desired destination, locating flights where that destination is actually a stopover en route to another city (with a less expensive fare). The customer simply exits the airport at the connecting city and never completes the second leg of the journey.

Last week, American Airlines filed suit against Skiplagged in federal court. In its complaint, American alleges that Skiplagged's practices are "deceptive and abusive."

"Skiplagged deceives the public into believing that, even though it has no authority to form and issue a contract on American's behalf, somehow it can still issue a completely valid ticket. It cannot. Every 'ticket' issued by Skiplagged is at risk of being invalidated," the airline said.

Officials for the site could not be reached for comment. But Skiplagged, which has been around for a decade, has survived past lawsuits from the likes of United Airlines and Orbitz. It even brags about these victories on its site, boasting, "Our flights are so cheap, United sued us ... but we won."

Why do the airlines dislike skiplagging?

Skiplagging is not illegal. But most major airlines, including American, Delta Southwest and United, don't allow it.

For one thing, airlines lose money on the practice, says Tim Huh, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, who co-authored a study on skiplagging last year. For a non-direct flight, "they have a lower price ceiling for it compared to direct flights so that they can attract customers."

When someone skips out on the final leg of a trip, airlines can't fill the empty seat, which would have sold for more money had it not been booked as part of a multi-stop itinerary.

"They are selling that seat with a 95% probability that you'll show up," Huh says. "That's what the airline accounted for. So that's a [big] loss in the system."

In addition, failing to board a connecting flight can cause confusion and delays at the gate, Harteveldt says. The airlines "will make announcements [such as] 'paging passenger John Doe or Jane Doe.' ... The airline doesn't want to leave people behind."

What are the risks for customers who skiplag?

If an airline finds out what you are doing, it could simply cancel your ticket or even ban you from flying with it. That's what reportedly happened recently to a North Carolina teen who booked an American Airlines flight from Florida to New York but disembarked at his Charlotte connection. The boy's father told Insider that American banned him from flying the airline for three years.

"If you've done this repeatedly, [the airline] is going to say you owe us money," Harteveldt says. "They may be willing to settle for a certain number of cents on the dollar. Maybe they want to collect all of it. But airlines can and will take steps to protect themselves."

There are other drawbacks as well, he says. Even if your attempt at skiplagging is initially successful, it's only likely to work for one-way travel. Once the airline realizes you didn't fly to your ticketed destination, it is almost certain to cancel your return.

Finally, any checked luggage would arrive at the ticketed destination without you. So, carry-on is it.

Intentional Travelers

What Is Travel Hacking?

I almost cringe at the term “travel hacking”- it sounds like something illegal. But that’s the commonly used phrase for  the art of getting free or discounted travel through award points and miles .

Try not to think of hacking like a guy on his computer in a dark basement breaking into your bank account online. Think more along the lines of a pinterest life-hack, like “you can remove deodorant stains from a shirt by rubbing it with a dryer sheet.”

Helpful hacks. Not illegal.

How to Travel Hack 101

There are numerous strategies for accumulating these award points and miles but the quickest and most common way is strategically opening credit cards with major sign-up bonuses .

Before I learned about all of the people who are successfully traveling the world by opening dozens of credit cards, I was extremely skeptical. I had one credit card to my name, which I almost never used.

A quick word about credit

Yes, spending on credit is a slippery slope for some people. If you cannot stay on top of your finances nor keep your card paid off, then this may not be the hobby for you.

But if you are responsible with credit and have time to put in a little effort to learn the ropes, travel hacking really pays off.

In fact, our credit scores have gone up since we started our travel hacking hobby. This is because we’ve responsibly managed more and more credit.

A travel hacker in action

Just so you don’t have to take  my word for it, here’s an official news report about a travel hacker showing a reporter how it’s done:

How we got started travel hacking

I first learned about travel hacking in 2014. I started small, focusing on miles we could earn with the Alaska Airlines award program to get two of us to Europe.

I soon expanded to the American and United award programs with a few more credit cards. By the end of that year, we had booked two pairs of round-trip international flights (France and Jamaica), all paid for with miles!

I’ll admit: travel hacking has a bit of a learning curve .

While our credit scores have actually gone up, it’s only because I’ve learned the ropes.

Travel Hacking 101: Our #1 Recommended Resource

Thankfully, Chris Guillebeau over at The Art of Non-Conformity blog, created a comprehensive guide to travel hacking, which gave me all the essential info I needed to get started. I still use the excel sheet template he provided to track our credit card info.

These are important things to know before diving in to travel hacking:

– when to apply and when to cancel credit cards – how to find the best sign-up bonuses – creative ways to meet the minimum spend requirements to earn sign up bonuses – which points are most valuable  – how to not to waste miles once you’ve earned them

If you’re looking for a one-stop resource to be on your way to more travel for less money, then I highly recommend the most recent iteration of Chris’s guide, which is in a “bootcamp” video course format.

Chris and his friend, Stephanie, put together an awesome 30 day video course on CreativeLive called Make Your Dream Trip A Reality .

The course is a few years old now, so it’s offered at a discounted price. While some of the specifics have changed over time, the foundational lessons in this course still apply. It’s both practical and inspiring.

Get yourself off on the right food.

Start the Travel Hacking Bootcamp here >

Have you tried travel hacking? If not, what are your biggest concerns? If it doesn’t sound right for you, see our other budget travel recommendations in our book, Unconventional Budget Accommodations .

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About Barry Choi

Barry Choi is a Toronto-based personal finance and travel expert who frequently makes media appearances. His blog Money We Have is one of Canada’s most trusted sources when it comes to money and travel. You can find him on Twitter: @barrychoi

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Hi Barry, I’ve been reviewing your Travel Hacking eBook and your recommendations/suggestions on other newsletters. In your eBook, you mention what a great deal Aeroplan is with their re-vamp. I put in a test flight or two and it was outrageous. I used to earn/churn/use my points to get biz class flights but now it is entirely untenable. The additional fess/costs are insane – why do you think that they’re not bad? I put in a test booking from YYZ to LHR return. The amount of points going Business class there and returning Premium Economy was crazy and THEN there was close to $800 in fees. Why on earth do you think there’s been an improvement? I’ve been collecting with them for years (no travel during COVID, so hadn’t checked out the flight situation until now) but cannot see much point in giving them my business, since it’s out of the realm of reality to get even close to what they used to offer as rewards and cannot understand how you can recommend them after they’ve “improved”. I would love to see your response to this.

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M. Collier,

Thanks for reaching out. Let’s make something clear, with the exception of a few routes, the new Aeroplan costs more points for the same flights as previously. There’s no denying that. However, since you can’t change that, you need to look at what’s changed and what works in your favour.

You can now pool points as a family, there are no extra taxes and fees when booking rewards, all seats on Air Canada are available, there are better credit cards, and there is still a fixed price for partner airlines. For the majority of users, this is a big improvement. For example, in the previous Aeroplan, getting a direct flight to Orlando from Toronto would cost you 60K+ points return. Now it’s not difficult to find something under 30K. Flights within Canada are often cheaper too. That said, there’s also a lot of dynamic pricing where flights are crazy expensive.

Another way of looking at is like this. If you’re not going to give Aeroplan your business, then who will you use? WestJet has limited flights and their rewards program is mediocre. American Express has a great loyalty program, but the base value is still 1 cent per point. I personally still find better value with Amex.

With any loyalty program, you need to find the sweet spots. With the current Aeroplan, that’s using partner airlines in business class. That said, some of the most popular routes e.g. Toronto to London or Paris will always be crazy expensive.

It’s also worth noting that the credit cards have been improved as they come with a higher welcome bonus and better benefits such as free checked bags.

Pooling isn’t available for everyone, so I completely discount that as an “option”.

You have a point…who else is there if not Aeroplan? I guess maybe no one if it’s a Canadian carrier, but there are other non-Canadian carriers to choose from, so a good way for Aeroplan/Air Canada to lose our business.

You say you can find a deal to Florida…so what? Flights to Florida aren’t that expensive (right now, I know a couple who just flew one way for $260 – all in, taxes, bags, etc. for BOTH). And this is prime winter getaway time. So what’s the benefit of using up Aeroplan points on those short-haul trips? That’s not a big selling point.

When you say that the more popular routes (e.g. Toronto to London or Paris) will always be crazy expensive…that’s my point. There is no excuse for this gouging. The same flights that cost about 110 K miles not long ago for business, round trip (and that was increased from 90 K) are now 132 K ONE WAY. And these are for your basic 7 – 8 hour flights…not lengthy 10 – 14 or more hours. And by the way, these flights used to include a stopover/open jaw option for the same amount. Not any more.

You say the credit cards have been improved with higher bonuses and free checked bags? Well, we’re paying for it – the cards cost more (if we don’t get rid of them after the 1st year free, which, as you suggest, we ought to do). And if you travel business class, you get the free checked bags already.

It’s absurd to endorse them and their system when they are simply gouging us all. You should be using your platform and influence to lead the charge with them to let them know that we (the previously-loyal customers) aren’t going to stand for it anymore.

I’m clearly not going to change your mind, but let me give you my point of view.

While I agree pooling doesn’t work for everyone, it’s something that many people (families) have wanted for a long time. It’s much easier to make a redemption when a family of 4 is collecting points together instead of individually.

You’re right that there are other options besides Air Canada and you could take your business elsewhere, but we’re talking about loyalty here. If you look at all the other airline loyalty programs in the world, Aeroplan is actually one of the better ones. They have tons of airline partners and ways to earn points. Plus, as a Canadian, it’s easier to use your points on Aeroplan since there are more flights as opposed to say British Airways. That said, I certainly understand that Air Canada may not be the best option for everyone.

My route to Florida was just an example. Remember, Aeroplan now prices dynamically, sometimes redemptions will be a good value, sometimes it won’t. You need to compare the value of your points vs. the cash price. With Aeroplan, it’s not hard to get a value of 2 cents per point these days. Although that’s about the same as the previous version of Aeroplan, there are more flights available.

I already made it clear that the cost of flights under the new Aeroplan have gone up, so your argument there is valid. That said, the price of flights in general and operating costs have also gone up. All loyalty programs eventually raise their prices. Aeroplan hadn’t done so in 7 years, so we were due up for a devaluation. The exact same theory applies to any loaytly program. Look at Tim Horton’s and McDonald’s, their loyalty programs have been devalued. That’s just standard business practice.

Yes you are “paying” for it for the credit card, but if you’re getting more value than the fee, then it’s worth it. You said you read my hacking guides. If so, then you’ll know I encourage people to cancel every year and get a new card to maximize their benefits.

I’ve advocated against tons of different business practices with my platform, and let me tell you, they don’t care. When it comes to loyalty, it’s my job to share the sweet spots and “hacks” so people can maximize their returns.

If you’re frustrated with Aeroplan, you can definitely take your business elsewhere. I prefer to earn my points and take advantage of what I can. I actually tried to use WestJet more when Aeroplan was going through changes, and their loyalty program does not offer much so I came back to Aeroplan.

Thanks for responding to my comments. Yes, all plans evolve – usually not for the customer’s benefit – especially Aeroplan. While I am annoyed and frustrated with Aeroplan, I am not with you! I enjoy reading your hacking guides/emails/lists and your e-book.

You make a lot of good points, and I’ve been hacking that way for years (with credit cards). It’s nice to get the updates on the various programs and alternatives that you put out.

Thanks for letting me vent – keep on hackin’!

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Key takeaways

  • Travel hacking can help you score free or discounted flights, hotel stays and more by strategically using rewards earned from credit cards.
  • To get started, set a travel goal for yourself and investigate various airline rewards programs. You'll then want to choose a travel credit card based on factors like your credit score, interest rates and the ability to transfer rewards to partner programs.
  • Using shopping portals and dining rewards programs is another way to score extra points, along with taking advantage of card-linked offers from programs like Amex Offers and Chase Offers.
  • Stay on top of "mistake fares" by signing up for notifications from airfare deal sites, and consider booking travel during award sales or off-peak travel seasons.

Over the last decade, travel hacking has become a mainstream phenomenon. That’s largely thanks to social media, with influencers showing off exotic destinations on Instagram, reached through the clever use of rewards.

And the appeal is widespread. Families can significantly bring down the cost of a Disney vacation , while the aspirational crowd can book first-class tickets for pennies on the dollar.

As someone who has been travel hacking for over a decade, I’ve seen and done it all. It’s a rewarding hobby that can open up a world of travel opportunities. By hacking flights and hotels, you can save substantially on these expenses.

What is travel hacking?

Travel hacking typically refers to the variety of ways you can earn points and miles toward future travel, often without flying or staying at hotels. It involves strategically using credit card points or miles, or those earned with airline and hotel programs, to score discounted (or free) travel and other perks.

How to start travel hacking

If all of that sounds exciting and you’re eager to get going, here are some tips to help you get started:

The first step in your travel hacking journey is to set a travel goal. Earning points without knowing what you’re working toward can be an exercise in futility. When I started back in 2011, I made the mistake of mainly accruing Delta SkyMiles and American AAdvantage miles for a trip to Europe. I learned pretty late that American Airlines had a weak route network to Europe at the time, and that United MileagePlus miles would have been a much better option back then.

Think about where you want to go well before you start focusing on how you’re earning points. Then, research the best rewards programs to get you there. Bankrate’s travel toolkit highlights a variety of credit card, airline and hotel rewards programs to help you make the best choice.

Find the right rewards credit card

The easiest way to boost your points balance is with a rewards credit card . After you sign up and get approved, you can typically earn a welcome bonus of 50,000 or more points after completing a spending requirement over three or more months. While welcome bonuses are a significant draw, you can also take advantage of category bonuses and annual spending bonuses to maximize your everyday spending long-term.

Those ongoing rewards should be an important factor in your travel rewards card decision . Most people will benefit from credit cards that earn transferable rewards like these:

  • American Express Membership Rewards
  • Citi ThankYou points
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Capital One miles

These currencies offer flexibility because you can transfer them to several airlines or hotel programs at a 1:1 ratio. If one transfer airline doesn’t have award space on your desired travel dates, then you can transfer them to one that does. You’ll have options and stay protected against possible program devaluations as well.

Once you have a general sense of which credit cards to apply for, make sure you qualify and prepare to meet any application requirements. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Your credit score . As you might expect, the best travel rewards cards require good credit . To incorporate credit cards into your travel hacking strategy, you’ll need a score of at least 700. If you’re still working on it, consider waiting to apply when you have a better chance of approval.
  • The application rules . Every bank has its own rules pertaining to credit card approvals. Chase has the infamous 5/24 rule that restricts welcome bonuses if you’ve applied for five or more credit cards in the last 24 months. Amex’s once-per-lifetime restriction means if you’ve earned a welcome bonus for one card, you likely won’t be able to earn the same bonus again. There are many more credit card application rules to be aware of. Knowing them before you hit “apply” improves your chances of being approved for a travel rewards credit card.
  • How much you’ll pay . If you struggle with paying your credit cards off every month, travel hacking with credit cards is probably not for you. That’s because the interest rates on these credit cards are generally high and will negate any rewards you earn. If you’re not confident you can pay off your balances, you’re better off skipping these credit cards and using alternate methods to earn points and miles .

Use shopping portals

Shopping portals are the way to go if you want to further maximize your points and miles earnings. Nearly every major loyalty program has a shopping portal you can earn rewards with, whether it’s your card issuer or your airline of choice. You’ll earn at least one extra point per dollar spent, plus the points from your credit card.

You can even more easily ensure you’re earning the most points possible with a shopping portal aggregator like Cashback Monitor . Type the name of an online merchant, and you’ll get a list of shopping portals alongside their earn rates.

Many shopping portals also offer spend-based bonuses around the holidays and right before the school year starts. These can be pretty lucrative and help you reach your travel goals faster.

Sign up for dining rewards

Dining reward programs are similar to shopping portals in that they require minimal effort to earn extra points. You can join one of seven airline and three hotel-affiliated dining programs to earn up to 8 additional points per dollar spent, including:

  • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Dining
  • American Airlines AAdvantage Dining
  • Choice Hotels Eat & Earn
  • Delta SkyMiles Dining
  • Hilton Honors Dining
  • IHG One Rewards Dine & Earn
  • JetBlue TrueBlue Dining
  • Spirit Airlines Free Spirit Dining
  • Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Dining
  • United Airlines MileagePlus Dining

These programs can even offer first-dine bonuses and extra points when you write reviews or meet certain spending thresholds every year.

You can join all of these programs, but since they’re all part of the same network, you can’t register the same credit card with more than one program at a time. That shouldn’t be too challenging, even if you only have one credit card. Simply register your card with the program of your choice, earn the first-dine bonus and repeat with the other nine programs until you’ve earned them all. Don’t forget to use a credit card that earns bonus points on dining to maximize your earnings.

Get creative with earning rewards

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of maximizing your everyday purchases, it’s time to get creative. What else can you charge to your credit card while still maintaining a balance that you know you can pay off at the end of the month? I once convinced my boss to let me pay a $35,000 supplier invoice with my credit card. I’ve earned thousands of points on rent and mortgage payments through Plastiq . I’ve also used retail arbitrage to flip dresses worn by Kate Middleton and earn spending requirements.

Think outside the box and you could be well on your way to discovering new ways to boost your points.

What are the best travel hacks?

There are countless travel hacks out there, and the best ones are top secret (for good reason). But if you’re just getting started and want to keep things simple, here are the most valuable hacks to know:

Card sign-up bonuses

Credit card sign-up bonuses are by far the best way to get a lot of points within a short time frame. You may even piece together a luxury vacation by strategically applying for credit cards .

Just make sure you’re aware of any issuer rules that take into account how many cards you’ve applied for in the past. You should also be careful when applying to more than one card in a short time frame. Not only will you need to spend even greater amounts to get more than one bonus, but you can hurt your credit score and make yourself look risky to potential lenders.

Double (and triple) dipping

Double- or triple-dipping is one of the best travel hacks out there. Stacking travel hacking methods can help you earn significantly more miles. For example, let’s say you’re in the middle of a home renovation project — you’ve got expenses, and they’re big. If you can do some shopping online for your project, you can double-dip by earning rewards on your credit card and through an online shopping portal.

If you happen to have an Amex card, you could triple dip by taking advantage of Amex Offers . I’ve managed to do this for large expenses like travel bookings and furniture purchases. Before you buy, think about all the possible ways to earn points and find opportunities to combine them.

Mistake fares

There’s more to travel hacking than just earning and redeeming points. One of my favorite ways to hack travel is through mistake fares. Sometimes airlines mess up and publish fares well below market value. I’m talking about a $450 round-trip business class ticket to Shanghai or a $120 economy class ticket to Abu Dhabi. Over the years, there have been dozens of great mistake fares that travel hackers have taken advantage of.

In most cases, airlines have honored these mistake fares, which has been great for savvy travel hackers who managed to book them. Just know that you may need very flexible travel plans and dates to take advantage. A great way to stay on top of mistake fares is to sign up for alerts with Airfarewatchdog and The Flight Deal . These sites parse the web for amazing deals and share them on social media and their websites when they come around.

Maximizing award redemptions

When you’re ready to book that dream vacation you’ve been saving for, there are three types of awards you should look into: Sweet spots , off-peak award charts and award sales. Sweet spots, in particular, can help you save significantly on award flights.

Many airlines and hotel chains offer peak and off-peak award pricing. By being flexible with your travel dates, you can stretch your hard-earned points further.

How can I travel for free?

Despite what travel influencers like to put into their photo captains, there’s no such thing as free travel. You will almost always pay a fee to earn or redeem points. Whether it’s your credit card annual fee, award flight taxes or resort fees , there will always be costs.

But by leveraging credit cards, points and loyalty programs, you can book incredible travel experiences at a fraction of the cost.

The bottom line

Travel hacking can allow you to travel further and in bigger ways than booking with cash. From hotel, airline and transferable points currencies, you can travel for little to no relative cost by using credit cards to pay for your everyday expenses.

If you’re thinking about opening a travel rewards credit card, keep in mind your travel goals, the card’s sign-up bonus and benefits and how you plan to redeem the rewards you earn. From there, you can try more advanced methods of earning points such as through shopping portals or dining programs.

Don’t forget the responsibility that comes with credit card usage. Travel credit cards have higher interest rates, so be sure to pay your card off in full each month as often as you can.

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Bankrate's Travel Toolkit

The Independent

The reality behind the ‘hack’ to not sit by anyone on a plane

A woman shared how she prevents people from sitting next to her on an airplane with a simple hack.

The hack originated from the travel TikTok account for The Upgrade (@ theupgrade_ ), a news website that produces travel content . The website describes itself as “a world-leading indie travel news source, providing the most up-to-date and relevant news for travelers across the globe, since 2017.”

In a now-removed video , that received 6.7 million views as of Monday, a woman showed how she ultimately finessed a flight without anyone sitting beside her. Set to the popular sound of Kim Kardashian saying, “Because it’s iconic and I love to do iconic s***!” the woman can be seen in the clip guiltily grinning and holding a hand to her face as the overlaid text said, “When I buy 3 refundable seats and cancel 2 at the last minute.”

Kashlee Kucheran – founder of The Upgrade – explained to the Daily Dot that they removed the video because it was “satire and joke” that was misconstrued.

“The video was born when our social media manager, Ivanna, just by chance had an entire row to herself and made it into a fun parody for TikTok,” she told the outlet. The social media manager defended her video, saying: “Everyone dreams about having a row all to themselves, and I was lucky enough to realise that dream on my last flight. The video was a cheeky spin on my experience that day.”

Kucheran added, “We have removed the video in good faith to ensure people don’t take a social media parody seriously.”

The video proved divisive before the outlet took the video down, with one person writing at the time, “That’s not iconic. There are people who need seats to see loved ones and your selfishness prevent [sic] them from doing that.”

Others chimed in that the hack would never work in reality, since there are usually passengers on standby.

“As a family that flies standby regularly – my kids and I will be thrilled to have those seats!” one person wrote, while another added: “As a flight attendant who flies standby, I hope I’m on all your flights!!!”

“Doesn’t work if there’s a standby list,” another viewer chipped in.

However, there were some people willing to take a chance on the hack. One person commented, “If there is no cancellation fee then this a great lifehack.”

The Independent is the world’s most free-thinking news brand, providing global news, commentary and analysis for the independently-minded. We have grown a huge, global readership of independently minded individuals, who value our trusted voice and commitment to positive change. Our mission, making change happen, has never been as important as it is today.

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'Skiplagging' your airline ticket might be legal, but it comes with major risks

Jordan Waller

  • Skiplagging (aka hidden city ticketing) refers to a way some travelers try and save on airfare by booking a ticket with a connection point that they use as their final destination, throwing away additional segments of the trip.
  • While this practice isn't illegal, it is very frowned upon by the airlines and can lead to problematic consequences, as experienced by a teen flying American Airlines recently.
  • Risks of skiplagging include unexpected bills from the airline, forfeiture of frequent flyer miles or even a ban from the airline.

"Skiplagging" is a hot topic in travel right now. So what exactly is this and is it worth the risk?

This week, American Airlines temporarily detained a U.S. teenager after he allegedly used a flight hacking technique known as skiplagging (also known as "hidden city ticketing") to book a cheaper flight to his destination.

According to Carolina's Queen City News , the teenager was scheduled to fly from Gainesville, Florida, to New York City, but he planned to disembark during a layover in Charlotte. His North Carolina driver's license reportedly raised red flags for gate agents about his true final destination, so he was reportedly escorted to a secure area where he was questioned. His ticket was ultimately canceled, and his family was forced to pay for a new, more expensive flight for him to get home.

With that cautionary tale in mind, here's a breakdown of what skiplagging is — and why the risks might not be worth the potential rewards.

Related: Nonstop vs. direct flights

What is skiplagging?

Broadly speaking, skiplagging is the art of exploiting certain flight routes by booking a multistop flight where one of the layovers is your intended destination rather than booking a more expensive ticket directly to that destination. Upon reaching the stopover airport, you end your trip there by just getting off the plane and walking away, skipping the following legs of the itinerary. You may have heard of the website which allows regular folks to book these tickets.

For example, a passenger might book a flight between New York and Las Vegas with a layover in Dallas. In this instance, Dallas would be the intended destination and where the passenger would vacate, cutting the journey short and not continuing to Las Vegas.

So, why would a passenger do this?

It's counterintuitive, but in certain instances, this controversial tactic can bring notable cash savings. This is because flight pricing doesn't always follow the logical assumption that a longer trip should be more expensive. Instead, the cost of a journey is often based on how popular the destination or route is — especially if it's nonstop — and the price at which the airlines have decided people will buy tickets.

At face value, skiplagging also known as hidden city ticketing may seem like a smart strategy to save money while taking advantage of illogical airfare pricing, but it is not without risk.

As we've seen this week, the money saved might not be worth it if you get caught — a real risk as some airlines crack down on the practice as they increasingly employ technology to help identify suspicious itineraries.

Is skiplagging illegal?

Skiplagging is technically legal, but this doesn't mean it doesn't bring potential risks.

You may not face criminal charges for skiplagging or hidden city ticketing, but it's a violation of most airline policies. If an airline catches you skiplagging, in most scenarios it will punish you as per the terms and conditions of the ticket you're flying on. The punishments could range from financial penalties to restrictions on future booked travel.

In some instances, skiplagging passengers have been taken to court by the airline. In 2019, Lufthansa sued a passenger after they paid 657 euros for a business-class ticket from Oslo to Seattle via Frankfurt.

On the return flight, the passenger skipped the Oslo leg, flying on from Frankfurt to Berlin on a different ticket instead. Lufthansa claimed the ticket should have cost 2,769 euros and demanded a repayment of 2,112 euros plus interest.

The court ultimately sided with the passenger but, notably, agreed the airline's case for suing was valid. Lufthansa lost due to the technical details of the new price calculation, which the court viewed as lacking transparency. The case could have easily gone the other way. Courts in Spain have reached similar conclusions in cases involving Iberia .

This current precedent puts the law in favor of the passenger. However, it's not clear cut, and court battles can see ramped-up legal fees that most passengers can't afford to challenge. Moreover, even if you aren't breaking the law, the airline can decide it doesn't wish to serve you as a passenger any longer, wipe out your frequent flyer accounts. You could forfeit all your hard-earned points.

It could even ban you from the airline.

In short, skiplagging isn't breaking the law. However, if you're caught, airlines will not be happy that you are costing them money and could opt to try to penalize you or challenge you in court. Regardless of how you'd fare in a court challenge, getting to that point could be both lengthy and costly.

Can you save money by skiplagging, and is it worth it?

In certain instances, you can save considerable amounts by skiplagging, but it won't be possible for all routes, and the amount you save depends on the flight.

For example, TPG found you could save $659 by using skiplagging to fly from John F. Kennedy International Airport ( JFK ) to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol ( AMS ).

In this example, booking a one-way flight from JFK with a final destination of London City Airport ( LCY ) and a layover at AMS would cost $458.

hack definition travel

Booking the same flight but with Amsterdam as your final destination would cost $1,117. This is a considerable difference, making it easy to understand why this hidden city sort of ticketing might seem appealing.

hack definition travel

By comparison, on other routes, the savings can be much less.

For example, flying from Newark Liberty International Airport ( EWR ) to Los Angeles International Airport ( LAX ) would cost $160, whereas flying from Newark to Salt Lake City International Airport ( SLC ) with a stopover at LAX is $147. By booking the multileg flight, you'd save $13.

Whether these savings are worth it depends on the risks you're willing to take — which, in our view, are likely not worth the reward.

Sure, a savings of $659 is a lot of money, but if you get caught and must buy a new ticket that covers the full fare, you'll end up considerably out of pocket. Even worse, the airline you're flying with could ban you.

Related: 22 great tips for traveling on a budget

There are plenty of other effective ways to find ways to save on airfare that don't carry any risks. The savvy use of points and miles , for one, could save hundreds of dollars on your flight and open up premium cabins that may not have been within your budget if you were paying with cash.

Being flexible with travel dates and destinations can also help. Using travel tools to help you find the best (legitimate) flight deals is also a good idea. Additionally, you might consider rail or bus options instead of flying if you're traveling domestically.

What are the risks of skiplagging?

Skiplagging may not be illegal in the eyes of the law, but it can be damaging for the passenger doing it, the airline and, to a lesser extent, other passengers.

If you're caught, it could cost you. According to American Airlines' terms and conditions, this might involve:

  • Canceling any unused part of your ticket. If you're booked on a round-trip flight, this would void the return part of your journey, even if it's an open jaw from a different city.
  • Refusing to allow the passenger to fly without the option of a refund — even if you booked an otherwise refundable ticket.
  • Being charged for the full actual cost of your ticket.

In other instances, airlines have also been known to blacklist passengers from future flights and cancel their frequent flyer numbers or points and miles accounts — wiping their accrued balance or elite status benefits.

Those are just the financial implications. Skiplagging can pose other risks too. For example, you won't be able to check your luggage as you won't be at the final destination to collect it. And sometimes, customers are forced to check carry-on bags when the overhead bins fill, so having to check a bag can be out of your control.

Another risk: If your flight is rerouted without your planned stopover due to delays or cancellations, you could find yourself stuck with few good options. Or, if your original itinerary is canceled and the airline rebooks you on a nonstop flight that skips your intended connection point altogether.

In those circumstances, you could find yourself on a flight to a destination you never wanted to visit without accommodations or the option to reach your destination beyond booking another last-minute flight.

Skipping a leg of your journey can also affect other passengers and the airline you're flying with. According to an American Airlines spokesperson, "If a customer knowingly or unknowingly purchases a ticket and doesn't fly all of the segments in their itinerary, it can lead to operational issues with checked bags and prevent other customers from booking a seat when they may have an urgent need to travel."

In short, "Intentionally creating an empty seat that another customer or team member could have used is an all-around bad outcome."

Related: Best credit cards for earning airline elite status

Bottom line

Skiplagging, or hidden city ticketing, might seem like a smart and financially savvy way to cut your travel costs. But, it carries with it some very real risks.

You can end up with an unexpected last-minute bill from the airline for the cost difference or, worse, blacklisted from the airline and losing out on a haul of airline miles you've spent years accruing. So while we love a good saving tip, this is one we're going to skip out on.

In short, please don't do it!

Related reading:

  • When is the best time to book flights for the cheapest airfare?
  • The best airline credit cards
  • What exactly are airline miles, anyway?
  • 6 real-life strategies you can use when your flight is canceled or delayed
  • Maximize your airfare: The best credit cards for booking flights
  • The best credit cards to reach elite status
  • What are points and miles worth? TPG's monthly valuations

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Travel Hacking 101: How to Save Thousands on Your Next Trip

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Travel Hacking 101: How to Save Thousands on Your Next Trip travel-hacking, travel

I became a travel hacker back when I was working a desk job and it was a total game-changer for me! In this travel hacking 101 guide, we will be covering what is travel hacking , whether or not travel hacking is worth it, how to get started travel hacking , and much more.

If you’re not familiar with the travel hacking term, it isn’t as nefarious as it sounds and is essentially just finding ways to maximize your ability to earn and redeem airline miles through frequent flyer programs, most often through credit card based travel hacking opportunities.

Travel Hacking 101: How to Save Thousands on Your Next Trip travel-hacking, travel

By taking advantage of credit card travel hacking I have saved thousands in cash on booked flights, both internationally and domestically, and thousands more on hotel stays. I’m not a hardcore mileage hacker at all (like those people who rack up millions of points), but I do it casually when good opportunities present themselves because it is SO easy to do, requires little extra effort, and offers up HUGE rewards.

If you like to travel (even just once per year) and aren’t travel hacking, then you are spending too much on your travels. That’s the bottom line. You’ve got to learn how to travel hack!

Don’t miss the FREE printable travel hacking tips at the end!

If you love to travel but haven't started travel hacking, then you're spending way too much to travel. Get started today with this travel hacking 101 guide.

Travel Hacking Success Stories

I booked a “round trip” flight from Seattle to New York City (with a five-night stop) and then a flight from NYC to Medellin, Colombia for two of us for just $198… What’s more, on that same trip I also used my hotel rewards points to book five nights in Manhattan ( in the Financial District near the World Trade Center ) for absolutely nothing. The going rate at the hotel was over $450 per night, for what should have been a total of $2,400 for five nights… This hotel definitely wasn’t a dive.

Travel Hacking 101: How to Save Thousands on Your Next Trip travel-hacking, travel

So, all five nights in Manhattan cost less than a New York bagel (oh, and the hotel included breakfast every day — with bagels, haha — and we had an in-room kitchen). So, for both of us, I scored one domestic flight, one international flight, and five nights in one of the most expensive cities in the world for just $200… Not bad!

Travel Hacking 101: How to Save Thousands on Your Next Trip travel-hacking, travel

Using travel hacking, my cousin took a family vacation to Hawaii for the five of them (the parents and three kids) for just $55 round trip. That’s $55 for everyone, not per person. You can imagine how much that would’ve cost to book outright … at least $500 per ticket.

While I was living in Medellin, Colombia , my mom was able to come down for a visit on two separate occasions (I’m sure she never in her wildest dreams imagined she would be traveling to Colombia ) by using her frequent flier miles, which for one of them only ended up costing her $104.50 in taxes and 47,500 miles for a round trip flight. Later on, she flew down to visit us in Santiago, Chile for again just about $100. So that’s three big international trips for her, each only costing around $100 per trip.

Travel Hacking 101: How to Save Thousands on Your Next Trip travel-hacking, travel

Myself, I’ve flown back and forth from Colombia a few times now for around $100 each time. Normally those flights go for around $600-700. My biggest success story for those flights was when I did the return trip to Colombia all in first-class (the journey was three flights). That’s the definition of a cheap first class ticket , for sure.

This also meant I had access to the first-class lounge at each airport (Seattle, Chicago, and Miami) along with all the amenities that entails, like free food, free drink, even a shower at the Chicago airport after a long, red-eye flight from Seattle. And of course, first-class flights means bigger and better seats, and better food and drink while in the air. Out of pocket, my expenses were the same ($100), it just cost me marginally more air miles. It was totally worth it, except it kind of ruins traveling in coach forever.

I’ve talked to other friends and family about doing this, and some have just dismissed the opportunity outright. I honestly cannot understand why anyone wouldn’t want to take advantage of the opportunity to fly for practically free instead of paying sticker price for an airline ticket.

Is travel hacking worth it? You better believe it… It has the biggest reward for the smallest effort of any other travel tip or trick.

Travel Hacking 101: How to Save Thousands on Your Next Trip travel-hacking, travel

Who Should Use Travel Hacking?

The biggest rewards are offered by the best travel credit cards in the United States, but that doesn’t mean people in other countries can’t benefit from similar strategies, just that they can’t rake in a ton of rewards so easily. 

Mileage hacking is only to be used by those with good credit, no ongoing problems struggling with debt , and who don’t have any difficulty paying off their credit cards in full every month.

The basics are that you can sign up for a new credit card and then meet the minimum spend (more on that in a minute) within the first three months and you will be rewarded with a large sign-up bonus which you can redeem for free travel. Credit card companies offer these bonuses to entice new customers to sign up, not out of the goodness of their hearts.

There are many other worthwhile new credit cards to pursue beyond the airline mileage cards, including some that provide straight cash bonuses or hotel loyalty credit cards that offer up to a week of free stays in top of the line resorts anywhere in the world . You can easily do both airline cards and hotel cards, although you will want to stagger the initial sign up period for different travel hacking credit cards so you can ensure that you meet the minimum requirements for each (more on that in a minute).

Travel Hacking 101: How to Save Thousands on Your Next Trip travel-hacking, travel

About Travel Hacking 101

So, enough about how awesome it is and who it applies to… If you’ve made it this far and are still with me, then you’re probably wondering how you can get started travel hacking with a new credit card.

Step 1: Find a Good Offer

The first and most important step is to find a current promotional credit card offer. Offers are constantly changing, so it can be tough for me to recommend a specific offer, but these are some of my favorite new credit card offers.

But here are a few that stand out to me:

  • Barclay’s American Airlines – Get 60,000 miles after paying the $95 annual fee and making any single purchase. This is as easy as it gets, and is enough for a few domestic flights and at least one international flight for a very small price.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred – Get 60,000 flexible miles for spending $4,000 in three months. These miles can be transferred to partners like United or Marriott at a 1:1 rate. The Chase Sapphire Reserve card is another popular alternative but a more premium credit card, perhaps not best for someone just starting.
  • Marriott Bonvoy CC   – Get 100,000 credit card points for spending $3,000 in three months, which is enough for a number of free nights depending on the hotel category. It’s enough for three free nights at that NYC hotel I mentioned above. They also give you a free night every year which you can use at upscale properties as I did at the Medellin Marriott Hotel , which pays for the annual fee by itself.

I’d also recommend you check out my guide to the best travel credit cards for further discussion of each of these cards, their credit card rewards and benefits, and some additional suggestions.

Once you’ve found an appealing card online, make sure to analyze the details about what requirements you will need to meet in order to receive the miles and how difficult that may or may not be for you.

Travel Hacking 101: How to Save Thousands on Your Next Trip travel-hacking, travel

Travel hacking credit card bonuses range from cold hard cash (I’ve signed up for cards to simply get $200 cashback on a $500 spend , and then I actually used part of that money to start my website) to 50,000 or even 75,000 in airline frequent flier miles—the latter of which is enough for a round trip flight almost anywhere in the world.

Anything over 50,000 miles is an offer that is definitely worth taking a closer look at. I don’t generally bother with anything less than 40,000 miles (though that is still enough for a round trip domestic flight or one-way international flight — maybe even a roundtrip international).

Read More: The Best Travel Hacking Credit Cards

Step 2: Meet the Minimum Spend

Nearly always you will need to meet some minimum requirements in order to receive the mileage bonuses, typically it is meeting a certain level of spending within a limited amount of time—for instance, $3,000 dollars within three months. And typically these cards carry an annual fee of $80–95 per year that is waived the first year for new customers.

Travel Hacking 101: How to Save Thousands on Your Next Trip travel-hacking, travel

Promotions do vary though, and some can be extremely easy to fulfill. I received 60,000 miles for signing up for a card with an annual fee (not waived), but which awarded the miles with the first purchase of anything (I just bought a drink from Starbucks) — it’s that Barclay’s card I mentioned above. An amazing deal that is much easier to achieve than the minimum spend cards, and in the future, I’ll get a flight or two out of it for a small investment.

Spending all that money within a short period of time seems like a hard pill to swallow, but thankfully there are a number of tactics and strategies which make it within the reach of most normal people (ie cheapskates like me) without spending more than they otherwise would.

Read More: How to Meet the Credit Card Minimum Spend

3. Collect Your Miles

Once you’ve met the minimum requirements of the card promotion, the miles will be posted to your account within a few weeks. Congratulations! In total, the process of getting your card points can take a couple of months in total (3-4 months), which is why I recommend that you get started sooner rather than later.

For instance, if you have a credit card with a minimum spend of $3,000 in three months, but can only manage to spend $1,000 per month, you will spend a week or two to get the credit card, then three months to meet the minimum spend, then another couple weeks for your statement period to close and your bonus miles to post to your account.

Once you’ve collected the miles or points, they are yours to keep. 

4. Stay Organized

To keep you organized and on top of the dates for minimum spend and the annual fee, I would recommend Google Calendar (free) which allows you to quickly and easily create reminders that will alert you via the smartphone app, as well as by email.

To keep track of your credit cards and how much you’ve spent toward your minimum spend, I highly recommend , a free service that helps you stay on top of all your accounts (savings, checking, credit cards, investments).

Tracking your income and expenses and truly understanding where your money is going every month is also the best way to help you meet your financial objectives, reduce spending where possible when it doesn’t serve your travel goals, and identify problems before they escalate (either in unexpected fees and charges, or identifying areas where you spend too much).

Travel Hacking 101: How to Save Thousands on Your Next Trip travel-hacking, travel

I’ve been using for many years, and I truly credit it with helping me get a grip on my money and not waste it (as much) on things that are unimportant to me.

Like for personal finance, there are also a number of websites to help you keep track of all your points and miles across a variety of accounts. I use to help me stay on top of all my rewards accounts. I also really appreciate the email notifications when the miles have posted to my account.

5. Avoid the Annual Fee

If the card has an annual fee (which is often waived the first year), be sure to put a note on your online calendar for 11 months later to call the credit card company if you want to cancel the card before that year is up, or better yet, you can give them a call and have them downgrade the card to one with no annual fee (downgrading the card), thus keeping that line of credit open and not negatively impacting your credit score.

Travel Hacking 101: How to Save Thousands on Your Next Trip travel-hacking, travel

Often when you call and speak to them, they will offer to waive your annual fee for the second year. They’ve spent a lot of money to gain you as a customer, and they don’t want to lose you. You can decide whether to keep the card open in that case, or not—but if you do keep it open, put another note on your calendar for 11 months later.

Just to clarify, once the miles have posted to your account, you are no longer beholden to the credit card company. The miles are yours to keep and have already posted to your frequent flier account, which is separate.

There are some travel credit cards that are super valuable and might are worth keeping in subsequent years for future travel. I retain some cards, like the Chase Sapphire which offers transferrable points, and I cancel others like the airline-specific cards. The Chase Ultimate Rewards points are particularly valuable since they can be redeemed for travel directly through the Chase portal or transferred to airline or hotel partners.

6. Finally, Travel!

Of course, this is the point of the travel hacking, and the points can be used at any point after they’ve posted to your account.

Points are very easy to redeem, just by going directly through the airline or hotel website and searching for available options. You should see an option to book using award travel as you search and can redeem points just as if you were booking a flight or hotel with cash.

Travel Hacking 101: How to Save Thousands on Your Next Trip travel-hacking, travel

Like ticket prices, you will find that the redemption cost in points will vary depending on dates, so if you have flexibility, you will likely be able to find cheaper rates in points so you can maximize your travel.

Traveling cheap with travel hacking is one of my secrets for how to afford to travel much more than you otherwise could.

Travel Hacking 201

I’m a follower of the 80/20 approach, which dictates that 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts. Thanks to this travel hacking 101 course you’ve got all the info you need to take advantage of credit card hacking and get that Big Win that provides 80% of the results with very little effort.

For more details about the ins and outs of travel hacking (manufactured spending, credit card churning, portals, etc), as well as a number of other tactics that will save you big money while traveling, don’t forget to check out my book Big Travel, Small Budget .

It’s gotten rave reviews from hundreds of people on Amazon and has helped thousands of aspiring travelers to actually get out there and do it a little cheaper.

Big Travel, Small Budget

If you’d love to travel to more far-flung destinations or just want to save big bucks on the travel that you already are expecting to do (or maybe have to do), then I cannot recommend strongly enough that you get started travel hacking as soon as possible.

I hope you enjoyed this intro guide about credit card travel hacking. It is an extremely rewarding and awesome experience to pay pennies on the dollar for your flights (especially for international flights). 

Read Next: How to Travel the World on a Budget

Did you enjoy this travel hacking 101 post? Then please take a moment to share it on Pinterest, Facebook, or Twitter. Thanks!

What is Travel Hacking and How Is It Done?

Get Started Travel Hacking

Travel hacking is quite simply the best way to reduce your travel expenses, travel on a budget, or even just to take a free vacation every year.

Travel Hacking Credit Cards

  • Best Travel Credit Cards
  • Chase Sapphire Credit Card
  • Chase Marriott Card

Stay Organized

  • Google Calendar
  • Award Wallet

Learn More About Travel Hacking

  • What is Travel Hacking?
  • Big Travel Small Budget


  • You should already have a good handle on the fundamentals of personal finance , including not carrying a balance on any consumer debt before you get started. Free travel via travel hacking ONLY makes sense if you aren’t paying high interest to get it! Review my article about conquering debt if you need it.
  • Identify your travel goals and timeline, including whether you are targeting free flights or free hotel stays to start with, what airline network best services either your local airport or your dream vacation.
  • Find the best credit cards for travel hacking that will help you meet your goals. I love the Barclay AAdvantage , Chase Sapphire , and Chase Marriott Rewards cards.
  • Apply for your new credit card before any big expenses (existing travel, electronics, auto repairs, taxes, etc) and put all of your recurring bills or other expenses onto the new card. Read more about credit card minimum spend tricks .
  • Put a note on your calendar 11 months from now about the upcoming annual fee, this will ensure that you can call to either cancel or downgrade the card before the fee hits if you want. I use Google Calendar for this.
  • Sign up for (free) to track your spending on this new credit card to ensure that you meet the minimum spend. Mint is also a great way to help manage your personal finances in general.
  • Join Award Wallet to keep track of your points and miles across all loyalty programs to ensure that you don’t forget about them and accidentally let them expire.
  • Keep maximizing your point earnings by joining airline dining programs, using the airline shopping portals, and double-dipping on points by buying gift cards for upcoming purchases.
  • Enjoy your travel hacking lifestyle and the ensuing free vacations! WARNING: it will make you NEVER want to pay full price again in the future. 

I hope this helped you get started travel hacking! I know it can be confusing when you are just getting started, which is why I started writing so extensively about it!

If you have any questions about travel hacking, budget travel, or anything else shoot me an email at [email protected].

(I love getting questions! That is how I get ideas for my blog posts and what to write about!)

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Please let me know with a comment on the blog below or reach out to me on Facebook or Instagram. Feel free to share a photo on Instagram with the #desktodirtbag hashtag once you put this into action!

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Those hotel stays and flights aren’t actually free though because when you are forced to spend $3,000 or $4,000 in 3 months on things that you don’t find necessary in life it’s still a cost in the end. (unless you are scamming the cc company with gift card and prepaid visa cards to buy.) Also at this time you’re not going to find an international round trip for under $400 from the United States. I’ve checked all dates and it just doesn’t happening because flights are getting more expensive. I look at those points that I’ve earned like money and they have a value so I’m still spending $600 when I’m using 60,000 points and that’s usually the minimum to get a decent good priced one-way trip overseas right now.

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That’s why it is important to plan credit card sign ups around known or existing purchases. The very basis of the idea is not spending on things you don’t need or want and never paying interest payments. I don’t make a lot of money, I don’t buy a lot of things, but I’m still able to take advantage of this and travel frequently. In terms of points and the mile per dollar, it really depends on your destination and your flexibility.

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Nice dude. I’ve yet to dive into this since I have a great card that gives me great points now. But I plan to try Southwest Airlines card. I fly with them a lot since I’m a climber and I take trips with lots of luggage for my gear, and they don’t charge bag fees. So they’re always the best deal and I plan to sign up for their card and get lots of SW points.

If you’re aggressive you can get the SW companion pass too which is a huge value! I’ve yet to pursue that one because you really need to be based out of the US to take advantage, but worth looking into…

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A Beginners Guide to Travel Hacking Jargon

12 February 2018 by Craig Sowerby

hack definition travel

Some links to products and partners on this website will earn an affiliate commission.

Although we do our best to avoid using travel hacking jargon, acronyms or abbreviations without explaining ourselves, the main contributors to InsideFlyer UK sometimes slip into bad habits – habits we probably picked up on Flyertalk… As much as we hate to admit it, you can’t really be a miles and points blogger without taking advantage of the group-sourced deals, tricks and other gems that are often found over at FT. (oops… I did it already…)

I thought it might be worthwhile to put together a glossary of some of the more inscrutable jargon that might baffle the novice. Here we go…

*A – Star Alliance

*G – Star Alliance Gold. The highest possible level of elite status with a Star Alliance airline, even though each will call it something different.

Airline Codes – Every airline is assigned a two-letter code. If you want to really be unpopular on Flyertalk, use VA to refer to Virgin Atlantic (nope… it should be VS) or CP to refer to Cathay Pacific (not quite… try CX).

Airport Codes – Those three letter IATA codes that refer to specific airports worldwide. If you don’t know where EZE, LEI, YYC, SAW, etc. are located, you’re not alone… Google can help!

CW (or CE) – Club World / Club Europe. Business Class on British Airways .

DONE4 – A round-the-world ticket in Business Class on Oneworld airlines such as British Airways . The number refers to the number of permitted continents.

DYKWIA – An acronym for “Don’t You Know Who I Am”. This refers to over-entitled behaviour exhibited by an air passenger or hotel guest.

Ex – The airport from which a flight itinerary departs.  For example, we might say that a great Qatar Airways fare that only departs from Oslo, Norway would be an “ex-Oslo” fare.

Ex-EU – Often used most specifically with British Airways . In a foreshadowing of Brexit, this abbreviation usually refers to a British Airways itinerary that starts somewhere in continental Europe (or Dublin) and connects in London to a long-haul destination.

F, J, C and Y – F means First Class. J means long-haul Business Class. C often means short-haul Business Class. Y means Economy Class. (based on the standard fare codes for fully flexible tickets in those cabins) Yet somehow Premium Economy ended up as PE or occasionally Y+.

FTer – Flyertalker. Somebody who contributes regularly to Flyertalk forums.

Gate Lice – Not my favourite term, but definitely not my favourite people. It refers to Economy class passengers who stand around the boarding gate waiting for their boarding group to be called, in the process blocking the way of us DYKWIA elites who have been called to board the plane. 🙂

GGL – Gold Guest List. InsideFlyer UK contributor Nick is one of the rare British Airways Executive Club members who has reached the lofty heights beyond mere Gold.

Hard Product – Refers to the physical characteristics of the flight experience – airplane type, seating, recline, etc.  Soft product refers to more subjective elements, such as service, food/wine, etc.

Hotel Hopping . Moving from one hotel to a different hotel (in the same city) each night, merely to pick up stay credits for elite status purposes.

HUACA . An acronym for Hang Up and Call Again. If you call an airline or hotel chain and you don’t like how the conversation is going, you can HUACA to try and reach a more amenable, well-trained, etc. agent.

IRROPS. Irregular operations. Something has gone wrong (weather, technical problems, etc.) and a flight delay has resulted.

Lounge Dragon . The receptionists at airline lounges or hotel executive lounges who determine whether you are truly allowed entry.

Lurker . Somebody who reads forums, blog posts, etc. without ever contributing or commenting.

Mattress run . The practice of checking in to a hotel merely for the elite status and points credit, usually without even spending the night.

Metal . (i.e. BA metal)  The actual airline operating the flight. (you might be booked as a codeshare, which is when a partner airline sells seats on a flight it isn’t actually operating)

OLCI – Online check in.

Op-Up . Operational upgrade. That wonderful feeling when your booked class is oversold and the airline decides to upgrade you to a better cabin…  A double upgrade is like winning the lottery, jumping from Economy all the way to Business or First Class, skipping Premium Economy altogether.

OT . Off-topic. The hijacking of a thread or the comments section of a blog post to discuss something other than the main subject.

OTA . Online Travel Agency.

OW . Usually refers to Oneworld, not “one-way”, which is abbreviated as O/W.

OWE . Oneworld Emerald. The highest elite status across the Oneworld alliance – i.e. BA Gold.  Also OWS for Oneworld Sapphire, which is the mid-tier elite status.

POUG . Pro-active online upgrade. Usually refers to British Airways offering discounted upgrades through the “Manage my Booking” section of their website.

SSSS . An acronym for “Selected for Secondary Security Screening”. You are going to have a really unpleasant time at security screening in the US when SSSS is printed on your boarding card.

TATL . Transatlantic. Usually refers to flights between Europe and North America, even though flights from say Africa to South America also cross the Atlantic Ocean.

TP Run – A series of flights intended mainly to earn Tier Points from British Airways Executive Club.

UUA . Upgrade Using Avios.

YMMV – An acronym for “Your Miles May Vary”. This refers to the fact that one person’s experience – for example earning miles or points you aren’t officially entitled to – may differ from somebody else’s experience. Bloggers love adding a YMMV to our posts when we aren’t quite sure whether a tip or trick will really work for everybody.

YQ – Fuel surcharge. A fare component that is often added to the amount charged to members when issuing award tickets.

Wow…  This list ended up even longer than I intended, and surely I missed a bunch. But if you’ve ever come across a term that you couldn’t figure out, leave us a comment below and we’ll try to explain it for you…

About The Author

hack definition travel

Craig Sowerby

A full-time travelling nomad, Craig enjoys elite status with two airlines and five hotel chains and can often be found in airport or luxury hotel lounges drinking complimentary champagne. He manages his travelling lifestyle – for less than the cost of renting a flat in London- with points, miles and an array of tips and tricks that he shares here on InsideFlyer.

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12 February 2018 at 4:29 pm

I used to work in IT and my favourite acronym was PEBCAK – Problem Exists Between Chair And Keyboard 🙂

For Europe, C is also commonly used to denote Biz class, e.g. on the LH (!) FT forum, probably more so than J.

hack definition travel

12 February 2018 at 5:08 pm

You’re right. Short-haul Business Class more commonly ends up as C, with J used more for long-hauls.

Some readers might be old enough to remember Belgium’s Sabena – Such A Bad Experience Never Again…

hack definition travel

12 February 2018 at 7:49 pm

What about OWE and OWS under OW?

Obviously no one ever bothers mentioning OWR…

13 February 2018 at 6:14 am

Cheers. I will be dropping to OWS this autumn and haven’t gotten around to checking how much worse it will be. 🙁

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1. Travel Hacking Basics: How We Got Started and You Can Too‪!‬ Points Talk with the Travel Mom Squad

  • Places & Travel

Welcome to the FIRST ever Travel Hacking Mom Show!  We are Alex, Pam, and Jess! A trio of Moms who love to travel the world for nearly free, thanks to credit card points and miles. Now we are on a mission to help you and your family do the same! (Without spending more money.) Maybe you may have seen us on a viral clip on TikTok or Instagram with a quick hack or maybe this is the first time you’ve heard of us! Either way, we are so glad you are here. We've earned millions of credit card points that allowed us to travel the world and take our families on amazing vacations. As you can imagine, there is only so much you can share during a quick video on social media versus a deep-dive conversation. That’s why we started this show! This podcast has been a long time in the works, and we couldn’t be more excited to share even more #TravelHackingTips and hacks you need to know. We believe that anyone and everyone (not just moms) can Travel Hack.  To start things off right, we want to debunk the myth that you must be Traveling Hacking for years or spend a bunch of money to earn points before going on one of your dream trips. This is 100% a myth and we will prove it! In this episode, we share what travel hacking is, how we got started, and our favorite trips using points and miles.  By the end of the episode, you’ll be ready to bust out a vision board and start planning all the trips you never thought you could go on. We will give you a look into our favorite trips to Scotland, Greece, Italy, Hawaii, and other amazing places. The best part? Some of these trips cost less out of pocket than a meal at a fast-food restaurant…not even joking.  What are you waiting for? Hit play to learn more!  PS: Check out the links below to connect with us!   More Of What’s Inside: What is travel hacking? How we got started, Travel Hacking Why you need to experience business class A look into the Marriott’s overwater bungalow in the Maldives Our favorite trips using points and miles The only thing that makes travel hacking even more fun Interesting facts about the Singapore economy Why Alex goes to Hawaii every year Pam’s couponing blog in the early days of the internet  How Jess took her kids across the EU And much more! Links:  Free Gifts and Resources To Start Your Travel Hacking Journey: Free Webinar: How to Start Traveling for Nearly Free Award Travel Academy: Award Travel Academy Our Website: Connect With Us: Newsletter signup: Instagram: Alex + Pam + Jess | Points & Miles (@travelhackingmom) TikTok: travelhackingmom's Creator Profile Facebook group: Travel Hacking Mom Group | Facebook Episode Minute By Minute: 0:02 What's inside today's conversation 0:48 Our definition of "travel hacking" 1:35 How we all started Travel Hacking 3:36 How Alex sold her mom Pam on the idea 7:38 We started The Travel Hacking Moms 9:19 Our favorite trips we've taken on points and miles 23:27 Bonus Tip: How we save even more money on food while traveling 24:12 This isn't too good to be true, you can do it too!

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Definition of hack

 (Entry 1 of 7)

transitive verb

intransitive verb

Definition of hack  (Entry 2 of 7)

Definition of hack  (Entry 3 of 7)

Definition of hack  (Entry 4 of 7)

Definition of hack  (Entry 5 of 7)

Definition of hack  (Entry 6 of 7)

Definition of hack  (Entry 7 of 7)

  • contend (with)
  • cope (with)
  • grapple (with)
  • indentation
  • cliche
  • commonplace
  • stereotyped

Examples of hack in a Sentence

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'hack.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Middle English hacken, hakken, going back to Old English *haccian (Class II weak verb, attested in the prefixed forms ahaccian "to hack out, peck out [eyes]," tohaccian "to hack to pieces"), going back to West Germanic *hakkō- (whence also Old Frisian tohakia "to hack to pieces," Middle Dutch hacken, haken "to cut with repeated blows," Middle High German hacken ), of uncertain origin

Note: This West Germanic verb is conventionally connected to the etymon of hook entry 1 , which is manifested in a variety of vowel grades, on the assumption that hacking or chopping might be done with a hook-shaped implement.

Middle English hak, hacke, noun derivative of hacken "to hack entry 1 "

short for hackney entry 1

from attributive use of hack entry 3

verbal derivative of hack entry 3

verbal derivative of hack, noun, "board on which a hawk's food is placed, state of partial liberty under which a hawk is kept before training," of uncertain origin

Note: The noun has been taken as a derivative of hack entry 1 , on the assumption that "hacked," i.e. chopped, food was placed on such a board; this appears to gain credence from a passage in a fifteenth-century manual of falconry (British Library MS. Harley 2340): "se hym euer to hackynge … and till he flyethe fro tre to tre, he woll come to hackynge; then he woll not come, but thu moste hacke and leue his mete opon a borde in his neste" (see A.E.H. Swaen, " The booke of Hawkyng after prince Edwarde Kyng of Englande and its relation to the Book of St Albans, " Studia Neophilogica, vol. 16 [1943], p. 26).

perhaps sense development of hack entry 3

13th century, in the meaning defined at transitive sense 1a

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

1571, in the meaning defined at sense 2a(1)

circa 1734, in the meaning defined at sense 1

1846, in the meaning defined at intransitive sense 1

1873, in the meaning defined above

circa 1914, in the meaning defined above

Phrases Containing hack

Articles related to hack.


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Dictionary Entries Near hack

Cite this entry.

“Hack.” Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, Accessed 8 Feb. 2024.

Kids Definition

Kids definition of hack.

 (Entry 1 of 5)

Kids Definition of hack  (Entry 2 of 5)

Kids Definition of hack  (Entry 3 of 5)

Kids Definition of hack  (Entry 4 of 5)

Kids Definition of hack  (Entry 5 of 5)

Old English -haccian "to cut with repeated blows"

a shortened form of hackney

Medical Definition

Medical definition of hack.

 (Entry 1 of 2)

Medical Definition of hack  (Entry 2 of 2)

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Beginner Travel Hacking: Lingo Breakdown

Travel hacking, like most hobbies- can come with its own lingo. Whenever you start to talk to people in the points and miles word it can quickly feel like they’re talking in a foreign language. So when you’re a beginner in travel hacking, it can feel like you’re behind before you’ve started. We’re here to translate that for you: We’ll be doing 5 travel hacking episodes during Summer School so this is the first installment. Here we break down commonly used travel hacking terms and phrases. While there are many different layers to travel hacking, we believe that these are the ones you HAVE to know to get started. If you aren’t familiar with these, you won’t be able to read travel hacking blogs, listen to the podcasts or even talk it through with someone, without feeling overwhelmed. So here they are, the most used travel hacking lingo:

hack definition travel

Redemptions – the most used and exciting word. This is just how you can or are spending your earned points and miles. This can be through a portal (not usually recommended), statement credits or through company loyalty programs (like Southwest Airlines, Hyatt, etc). Even beginners in travel hacking can get great travel without “great” redemptions. Hey- free travel is free travel, right?

Cent Per Point – often written as cpp , this is how much value you’re getting from a redemption. For example- capital one purchase eraser gives you 1cpp so 10,000 points is $100 of value. That is the bare minimum I would ever look for in a redemption. You can get as good as 5 or even 10 cents per point on an awesome redemption. I don’t get too far down this rabbit hole, but thepointsguys have a guide they regularly update that shows what you should expect as the minimum on cpp redemptions (see, I’m already using the lingo!). 

Player 1 and Player 2 – Usually a married couple, this refers to who in your household can open cards and can combine points. Technically this could be a friend, but tread lightly. You don’t want to be stuck with a wallet full of credit cards that really only work with another person’s wallet.

Transfer Partners – these are companies that pair with credit card companies so that you can transfer your credit card miles and use them as loyalty points in hotel and airline companies. For example- you can transfer both capital one and chase points into JetBlue. When you do that, you usually get a better redemption rate (your CPP) than erasing or buying through a portal. Frequent Miler has a great list of transfer partners for each card. 

So why would you want to transfer instead of just getting a statement credit, like on Capital One? Or using the portal, like with Chase? Here’s a few of our best examples of great transfers. 

Portals – these are where you can book flights, hotels, rental cars, etc through the credit card rewards portal. I would almost never suggest this unless you can have a credit to use or you get an amazing deal. The only time I would suggest using a credit card portal is if your credit card comes with a travel credit- like the Capital One Venture X- and even then, I would only use it on rental cars or hotels. You want to be able to have control over your plane tickets in case something goes wrong at the airport, and when you book through a third party, you lose that control. 

Flexible Currency – credit cards that offer multiple transfer partners- these are like Chase, Capital One, AMEX, Citi, Etc.

Fixed Currency – These are branded cards- like Southwest, Hyatt, etc. They only earn points/miles with that specific company but usually come with other benefits, like status or free checked bags.

Status – the level of consumer you are to that company. Historically it was from spending a lot at the company, but now you can earn status from certain cards, promos and status matching- which is when you have status with one company and another will give you the same level of status to entice you to spend money over there. 

For Example- our Marriott card gives us automatic silver status- which isn’t much, but it also comes with a 15 night credit, so we only need 10 more nights to hit Gold, which gives us late checkout, upgrades, and the ability to earn points faster. So if I plan on staying at a few Marriott properties this year, it would be a good card to have. 

Minimum Spend – the money you need to spend to get the points bonus. DO NOT MISS a points bonus. The #1 way points and miles people accumulate points quickly is through signup bonuses. Missing a sign up bonus is one of the biggest fails for a beginner in travel hacking (right behind paying interest!).

I know that’s a lot in a short amount of time. But keep this list handy and you’ll be well on your way to using points and miles like a pro. 

If you’ve been able to use any of this- you HAVE to let us know. Or even better- join our exclusive Facebook community and share tips and tricks or ask questions to fellow travelers. We’re there to help each other make travel dreams a reality. Hope to see you there! 

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How to Use Travel Hacking to Get Free Flights

Written by Dan

Updated on October 31st, 2023

Lufthansa a319 - lufthansa a319 - lufthansa a3.

Is travel hacking worth it? Let’s see the best ways to get free flights and the websites that will let you travel hack your next trip. Here’s our guide to hacking our travel.

This article may contain affiliate links. We earn a small commissions when you purchase via those links — and it's free for you. It's only us (Becca & Dan) working on this website, so we value your support! Read our privacy policy and learn more about us .

Table of contents

  • What is travel hacking?
  • How does travel hacking work?
  • How to get started with travel hacking?
  • What are some ideas to hit the minimum spend for the credit card bonuses?
  • What is credit card churning?
  • Does opening too many credit cards hurt my credit score?
  • Understand the features of a credit card
  • Can you do travel hacking without a credit card?
  • How can I learn more about travel hacking?

Since 2016, we’ve taken countless (okay, if we had to count, probably more than 50) flights. Some of these flights were quick legs from Prague to Lisbon. Other legs were a bit more extreme, like flying from Hanoi, Vietnam, to New York City. Some were red-eye flights or flight with long layovers.

Whenever Becca and I travel, we maximize our value and optimize our cost per day as much as we can, within our control. Flights can sometimes be the biggest line item on the trip, and the cost of a flight can push the total trip cost to a figure that is more than our budget.

What if I told you that there was a way to travel for free?

This is travel hacking. In this article, I’ll explain what to know about travel hacking, and how you can realistically apply it to your regular set of habits and tricks when you book trips.

A group of airplanes parked at an airport.

What is travel hacking?

Travel hacking is a way to exchange credit card sign-up bonuses and incentives for airline miles. You can use those airline miles (or frequent flyer miles ) to buy discounted (and often free) flights to destinations of your choice.

Depending on the credit card you choose to go with, you can also exchange a miles or points bonus for hotel stays and rental car deals.

The wing of an airplane.

How does travel hacking work?

As much as possible, we take advantage of credit card sign-up bonuses and build out our frequent flyer mile programs on a few select airlines (more on this below).

When we’re ready to book a flight, we will first evaluate the cost. If the flight is $200-$300, it’s usually better to pay in cash and accrue more miles for the flight that we take.

When the flights start getting above $500, we look to our airline frequent flyer accounts and evaluate which airline can give us the best deal. We base this on the amount of miles or points in our travel bank for each airline with which we have an account.

This thought process and system above is the essence of how travel hacking works.

Some airlines will exchange 1 mile for 1 penny. So for $1000, you’ll need 100,000 miles.

Other airline programs have more of a value system. With United, for example, 35,000 miles doesn’t necessarily mean you need to spend $350 to get to that amount.

The points and value exchange can get a little complicated, and I’ll cover more details about that below!

A person holding a passport in their hand.

How to get started with travel hacking?

I want you to leave this article with a solid base on how to get started with travel hacking. I became fascinated with the topic back in 2016 when I got my first real travel credit card.

I got the Chase Sapphire Reserve, with the 100,000-mile bonus, back when the annual fee was $450 with a $300 travel credit. Those were the days. I talk more about this card in our money guide to international travel .

I was able to take advantage of the $100 Global Entry credit as well. This was an incredible benefit.

I continued to book my travel with this credit card and got 3x points on travel purchases, as well as 1.5x redeemable points in the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. The Chase Ultimate Rewards portal allows you to book travel like regular flight purchases, with your points, in a sort of online marketplace. It’s surely one of the best websites for travel .

This exact deal and situation is a little different now, but let’s go over the basics, first!

A woman sitting at a bench with a laptop.

Open a credit card with a sign-up bonus

The very first step that you need to do is open a credit card that has some type of sign-up bonus attached to it. There are a lot of great credit cards to choose from that offer a variety of great features and benefits.

The actual credit card that you choose will depend on your preferred airline, spending habits and features that are important to you.

Here are my top credit card picks for travel hacking

These are the cards that I use and they’ve been beneficial in helping me fly free to a lot of different destinations.

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve
  • Chase United Explorer
  • JetBlue Mastercard
  • Capital One Venture X

A person is eating a bowl of soup with chopsticks.

Hit the minimum spend limit

After you are approved for a credit card, you’ll need to meet the minimum spend limit of the card, in order to get the bonus. Every card is different and the rules for this incentive are typically easy to find on your credit card terms page.

If you don’t meet the minimum spend, you won’t be able to get the bonus. And, you’ll need to cancel the card and wait up to two years before you can apply again and get the bonus.

Make sure that you’re in a position to hit the spend limit before choosing the card. For example, a spend limit could be $3000 in three months, or, it could be $10,000 in six months. After you hit the spend minimum, your bonus points will be awarded in your account.

Wait until your points are posted to your account

After you’ve hit the minimum spend limit, you’ll be eligible to receive your points bonus. The bonuses are usually distributed after your pay cycle. If you got the card and spent the minimum spend limit on the first day, you can expect your bonus in about 30 days.

Every credit card might be a little different. If you are trying to acquire your points for a specific occasion like booking a flight by a specific date, I recommend calling your credit card and asking them when the points will be available.

A man holding up a credit card in a hallway.

Redeem your points for a travel credit

Now that you have a points balance, you can redeem these credits for travel. Every credit card will have a different method for redemption. Here are a few examples from the providers that I have the most experience with.

Chase Ultimate Rewards

If you have a Chase card, you can redeem your points in the Ultimate Rewards portal. In the portal, you have access to almost every airline. You can use a combination of points and cash to redeem your travel.

You can book entirely on points if you have the balance for it! Sometimes, we’ll still buy flights on the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal even if we don’t have enough points to cover the whole quoted cost. We pay the balance in cash, and pay it with any credit card.

Keep in mind that Chase is booking your travel and partners with an airline to fulfill the order. In 2020, Becca and I had travel booked with Chase. The itinerary was canceled and we had a hard time going back and forth with the airline and Chase trying to figure out how to get a refund.

When booking directly through United, you can choose your flight to be booked with points or dollars. You can’t combine points and dollars on the same itinerary if you don’t have enough points.

You can buy additional miles if you are a little short and need a few extra points to bump up your balance. Historically, this is never a great deal, though.

For flying domestic, I really enjoy flying JetBlue. I’ve generally had good experiences with JetBlue and the extra legroom and free snacks make the flight more comfortable and enjoyable.

Booking on JetBlue is similar to United, whereby you can either book with JetBlue points or dollars, but not both.

What is unique about JetBlue is that you can pool your points together and have a shared balance. Becca and I share points and we are able to accrue points twice as fast, together. We use a family ‘pool’ of our points so that we can share them. We used this method for a trip to the Dominican Republic !

To use JetBlue’s family sharing system for miles, JetBlue will want to prove that you are really family members, not just friends who want to hack the system.

Enjoy your trip!

Have fun! Hopefully, you were successful in getting a free trip with your credit card bonus. You can check out how to upgrade your flight as well. Some people use the bonus opportunity to find first-class tickets as a highly-discounted (and mostly free) price!

A view of a city from the wing of an airplane.

What are some ideas to hit the minimum spend for the credit card bonuses?

On a day-to-day basis, Becca and I are very frugal. We cook at home, rarely go out, audit our monthly subscriptions, stick to a budget and more. We talk about it in our guide to living in NYC on a budget .

So with our level of frugalness, it can be daunting to try and spend thousands of dollars on minimum spend limits to get a credit card bonus.

Well, we’ve been through it several times, and we want to share some of the ways that we’ve been able to meet the minimum spend on our travel credit cards!

Pay your rent

We’re lucky in that we can pay our rent with a credit card. We weren’t able to do this before now. The downside is that we need to pay a 3% fee in order to do so.

The Capital One Venture X card has a $10,000 minimum spend, and there’s no way that we would be able to spend that, normally. The cost of credit card fees was worth the very high miles bonus, so we are okay paying the fees in this scenario.

Pay a medical bill

As for recurring medical bills, a doctor visit or a prescription to fill is usually a great way to hit your minimum spend for your credit card sign-up bonus.

If you are in a situation in which you don’t have any of these, ask your close family if you would be able to pay for them, and they can pay you back. (Becca did this once with an expensive dental appointment.)

Pay off a loan

If you have any student loans, car loans or other loans that you are paying off, consider paying them with your credit card.

But please, make sure that you pay off your credit card balance in full and that you don’t accrue more debt by using this method. Seriously, the bonus isn’t worth the debt!

Ask family if they have large expenses coming up

Talk with your family and ask if they are about to spend a big sum of money on something. Maybe you know someone who needs a new fridge. Or maybe (if you’re really lucky) someone is remodeling a room in their house or apartment.

You can pay for the item or service on your new credit card and this family member can pay you back. Be very careful and make sure that you trust this person and that they understand why this is a favor for you.

If it’s the holiday season, consider buying all of your gifts using your credit card, and opening it a few months before to make sure you have the physical card in time.

Don’t spend more than you were already going to, though! That would not be the point of this hack.

Donate to charity

Donating to charity is always a great way to support a cause. Almost every charity can accept credit card payments, and it’s an excellent way to push you over the final edge to your minimum spend.

If you’re looking for a unique charity, check out Charity Navigator and the charity ratings. Generally, 3 stars and up are ratings for good charities to support!

Also know that when you donate to a charity, they usually need to pay for the credit card processing fee. And, it’s typically 3%! Your $97 charitable gift is usually closer to $100 in total, with the offset of credit card processing fees.

Upgrade your tech

I upgraded my laptop and used a new credit card to hit my minimum spend. It was a perfect use case because I was able to hit my limit instantly.

I knew that I needed to buy the laptop and I shopped around for a card that had a good bonus to use on the purchase.

A man with a beard working on a laptop.

What is credit card churning?

Travel hacking and credit card churning are like peanut butter and jelly. It’s a sweet deal, but sometimes you get into a sticky situation.

Jokes aside, they really do go together nicely.

Credit card churning is when you cancel a credit card and then re-apply after two years or so, to get the bonus offer (like 50,000 miles), again. There’s a lot more to it, regarding how it impacts your credit score and other rules with certain banks.

Does opening too many credit cards hurt my credit score?

This is a common question that I hear after talking to people about travel hacking. Because a big part of travel hacking is opening and closing credit cards, your credit score is a concern.

Opening a credit card

From what I’ve seen on my own, opening a credit card will temporarily “ding” your credit score after a hard pull on your credit report.

After a few months, the score will return back to normal.

Having more credit cards actually improves your credit score. Because you have a higher credit line, you will be lowering your utilization ratio, which is a positive thing.

If you are still concerned, check out Investopedia’s take on having several credit cards.

Closing a credit card

Churning your credit cards is when you close your account after receiving the sign-up bonus. You wait a certain amount of time (usually two years), and then apply again, and receive the bonus just like the last time.

Closing credit card accounts (then reopening them) is usually bad for a few reasons. You’ll be increasing your credit utilization ratio, your credit is hard-pulled when you apply for a new card and your credit history might be shortened (depending on the card you’re closing).

If you already have a strong credit score with plenty of old credit cards, this strategy shouldn’t do any long-term harm.

If you are in the market for applying for loans, like a mortgage, I would stay away from this strategy in that term, to keep your score as high as possible.

Understand the features of a credit card

When shopping for credit cards that pay out in great bonuses for travel hacking, there are a few considerations to look for in the features category.

The annual fee is the feature that you’ll be the most surprised by every year. Or, at least it’s always surprising to me when I need to pay it. It’s also the catalyst for my choosing to close a card. If I don’t want to pay the fee, I say goodbye to that card!

The annual fee is the end of the bargain that the credit card company gets. They have travel partners that pay you in credits. You pay the credit card company money every year. Most of the travel credit cards with the best sign-on bonuses also have the highest annual fees.

Usually, or at least for cards worth keeping, the annual fee is worth it when you consider the exchange for other value services.

For example, the Capital One Venture X is one of many credit cards that provides an annual subscription to Priority Pass. On its own, Priority Pass is worth anywhere between $99 and $429.

You can read about Priority Pass in our best apps for travel .

A good credit card will provide multipliers on spending categories (more on this below). The privilege to receive more points on the things on which you spend can often add up to more than the annual fee.

For example, if you spend $20,000 per year and receive an average of 1.5x points on your money, you’ll have 30,000 points. This would generally be worth $300 in travel rewards. If this is worth more than your annual fee, then the card pays for itself.

Foreign transaction fee

Having a card with no foreign transaction fee is absolutely critical for you if you travel internationally. Some cards will charge 2 or 3 percent of each transaction that you spend internationally.

This means that if you’re traveling to Portugal and put a $500 hotel on your credit card, you might pay up to $15 extra on fees.

If you travel a few times per year or spend a lot on one international vacation, the fees can really start to add up. Remember that avoiding fees can help you save more money while traveling .

Becca got the Chase Freedom credit card last year and thought that it had no transaction fees just like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve. She was wrong, and in her first few days of traveling in Guatemala , she noticed that she was being charged 3% of every restaurant bill put on this card. Be a savvy traveler and take note of the card’s terms!

The APY is the interest that you’ll pay if you carry a balance. I personally never consider the APY when applying for a credit card because I make sure to always pay off the balance in full.

This is a good habit for anyone who likes staying organized, and avoiding debt! Always put the card on auto-pay.

I wouldn’t recommend ever spending more than you can afford, as a guideline.

Point multipliers

The point multipliers are the credit card company’s way of incentivizing you to spend in various categories. You’ll often see a 5x multiplier for categories like gas and grocery. It’s common to see a 2 or 3x multiplier for travel.

These point multipliers help accelerate your goals. If you spend a lot in one category, like dining, or gas, this can help you make a decision for a specific type of credit card to go with.

Other credit card benefits

There are so many more benefits that credit card companies can offer. I think that Global Entry fee reimbursements are great incentives if you don’t have Global Entry or TSA PreCheck already.

Other airline-specific credit cards can give really high point multipliers when buying flights on their cards. With JetBlue, you can get all the way up to 15x points per $1 when booking JetBlue flights using their card. It’s more typical to see 3x and 6x, though.

Other credit cards offer benefits with Lyft, DoorDash and other airline lounges . I encourage you to shop around and see which benefits exist and which would be beneficial for you.

Can you do travel hacking without a credit card?

Yes, you can do travel hacking without a travel credit card. “Travel hacking” in its true sense means paying less for travel or hacking some sort of system so that you’re getting a better deal. To get a better deal on anything, you need some tips!

Use debit or a prepaid card to buy a flight

A few ways to travel hack without a credit card might be to buy a flight with a debit card or prepaid gift card, and still get those miles to your account. You don’t need a credit card to do this. Just make sure you’re signed up for frequent flyer programs with each airline.

Try basic economy

Flying basic economy is like a way to get a flight somewhere by paying less than the standard cost of a flight. With basic economy, you’ll be giving up a few frills you’d normally find in standard economy class, but you will get to your destination and that is what matters.

Get Global Entry and TSA PreCheck

Want to hack your time in the airport when going through security or coming back to the US from abroad? Never wait in long lines again by applying for Global Entry , which is good for five years for US citizens.

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How can I learn more about travel hacking?

To learn more about travel hacking, check out our guides to things like how to make your vacations longer by working remotely while traveling and learning more about websites and apps that can help you travel better .

To learn some hacks we’ve used, check out some features like this podcast we were on and this epic guide of ways to save money while traveling .

We hope you think travel hacking is as much fun as we do!

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Zero to Travel

  • Travel Hacking

A Beginner’s Guide To Travel Hacking : Earning a Free Flight In Under 15 Minutes

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by Jason Moore

How To Earn a Free Flight In Under 15 Minutes

Disclosure: Zero To Travel has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Zero To Travel and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. We appreciate your support.

* This article will help you avoid wasting time visiting a million different websites and provide all of the nuts and bolts of travel hacking so you can get started today.

A free flight in 15 minutes? You probably think I’m full of horse doo doo.

Just another idiot dude on the internet with some outrageous claim that can’t possibly apply to my life.

Not so fast!

Well ok, I do act like an idiot sometimes. But nobody is perfect, right?

But here’s the deal – it’s entirely possible to earn enough points for a free flight in under 15 minutes.

Before we dive in, a little education on travel hacking is necessary to provide a game plan that fits your lifestyle and current financial state.

There will be plenty of juicy nuggets along the way including a resource below that can take your game to the next level, so stay with me.

What is Travel Hacking?

Travel hacking involves working within the existing rules set up by airlines, credit cards, and hotels, and using them to your advantage to earn free travel including flights, lodging, and other upgrades.

Travel hacking is not a new thing. According to Wikipedia, the first frequent flyer program was created in 1972 for United Airlines. Loyalty programs have existed for decades.

Heck, I earned my first free flight about 14 years ago.

Travel hacking certainly is a hot buzz word of the moment. It seems like there are more people attempting to hack travel than there are people traveling.

The term ‘hacking’ in general, is overused…sort of like the plot-line to those Rocky films (blasphemy coming from a Philly guy, I know). Hacking implies some kind of matrix unauthorized access.

The truth is that travel hacking is completely legal and much less complex than an NSA spy algorithm.

Although travel hacking sounds sexy and dangerous, in actuality it’s pretty simple to earn free flights on a most basic level.

Is it hard to become a travel hacker?

Getting into travel hacking doesn’t require skeleton keys, retina scans or super-secret knowledge possessed by those lucky few with enough money and time to play the game.

It’s relatively simple to earn free flights and hotel rooms without much disruption or increased difficulty added to already complex lives.

For people who want to jump right into the game without having to weigh the countless options available or do hours of research, the following offers a basic plan to get started immediately.

If travel hacking becomes a hobby, it’s good to follow a few select resources dedicated to the subject. Since credit cards, airline rules and promotional offers are constantly changing, it makes sense to pay attention to maximize mileage and rewards points earning potential. These resources are provided at the end of this article.

For now, let’s keep it simple.

The Beginner’s Guide To Earning Free Flights

Do you know that story about the tortoise and the hare? In Aesop’s legendary tale the tortoise wins due to persistence. The hare could easily win due to his speed, but he becomes overconfident and takes too many risks.

Sometimes speed doesn’t matter as much as consistency over time.

Just like this classic fable, the race to earn free travel can take two approaches.

The difference is, implementing both strategies is key to racking up free travel. Becoming both the tortoise and the hare allows for optimal rewards points hoarding.

The Tortoise Travel Hacker: Earning Rewards Points Over Time The Old Fashioned Way

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is now.” -Chinese Proverb

This is true for most things in life, if not all. Whether it’s starting a business, getting in shape or earning free travel, if you haven’t gotten started yet then now is the time.

Here is an easy two-step process to Tortoise Travel Hacking

Step 1 – Sign up to join all rewards and frequent flyer programs

All of these programs are free. Don’t waste time signing up for every airline and hotel right this second. When you stay at a new hotel chain or fly a new airline, make sure to sign up for their program at that time to earn credit. Never take a flight or stay in a hotel without earning some type of points or miles.

To go a step further, you can always check the hotel or airline’s website before you book and see if they are running any promotions that can earn you bonus miles/points.

A List Of All Airline Websites

Over time you’ll end up with many frequent flyer and hotel rewards accounts. To track them all join Award Wallet , which is a service that helps to manage personal loyalty program accounts.

Here is a partial screenshot of my account.

A Beginner's Guide To Travel Hacking : Earning a Free Flight In Under 15 Minutes Award Wallet

The reason why I suggest joining Award Wallet is that it will help you track everything in one place. Plus, they will alert you when points or miles are about to expire.

I have foolishly lost miles in the past (pre Award Wallet) because I simply couldn’t keep track of my accounts. With Award Wallet’s help, I’ve been notified and was able to purchase small amounts of miles and points in order to avoid losing them all.

Step 2 – Be a repeat customer

Fly the same airline and stay in the same hotel chain as much as possible.

Loyalty programs were created for this specific reason, and it works. Find the companies you like and stick with them. It’s not always possible due to cost or availability but try your best to be a repeat customer. Over time these points add up to earn you free travel and hotels.

Again, this is the slow boat to earning free travel. To really kick things up a notch you’re going to have to get into the travel rewards credit card game.

Before covering that topic, if you want to dive deep into all things travel hacking and are willing to invest a little time – listen to this podcast I did with Travis from Extra Pack of Peanuts.

This show will blow your mind – I get emails about it all of the time. Here is just one:

A Beginner's Guide To Travel Hacking : Earning a Free Flight In Under 15 Minutes

I consider myself a pretty savvy traveler and frequent flier. I have booked hundreds of thousands of miles worth of frequent flier tickets. I even used to work at one of the credit card companies which offers frequent flier miles as part of a co-branded card, so I thought I knew it all. This one podcast totally changed the way I will redeem miles and plan travel forever.

Subscribe to the Zero To Travel Podcast For More Travel Advice

Now, let’s put you on the fast track to earning a free flight anywhere in the world.

The Hare Travel Hacker: Credit Card Travel Rewards

I’ll admit, it’s sort of boring to read about credit cards (yuck!). Why is it important? This is, by far, the fastest way to earn free flights, hotel rooms, and other travel-related goodies.

If you want to get off to the races fast, the only way to earn tens of thousands of miles for free flights without having to sit on hundreds of hours of flights is to sign up for credit cards that offer bonus miles or points.

Here is a list of the Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards .

Credit card companies get a new customer, and you get free flights or rewards.

In my opinion, earning free travel via credit card rewards is not a game you should be playing if you cannot figure out a way to do these 2 things:

1. Pay your credit card bill in full every month and carry absolutely no credit card debt.

Are you fiscally responsible?

If you carry credit card debt does it make any sense to get another credit card and go into more debt? I would say no. I’m not a professional financial advisor and don’t pretend to be, but part of active travel is not running yourself into a financial hole!

If I were dishing advice, and I guess I am, then I would only take on new credit cards if I had the ability to pay my bill in full monthly, and no existing credit card debt.

When it comes to credit card spending, start conservatively. Earn a free flight or two and make sure the extra responsibility of added credit cards isn’t a burden.

After that, you can step up your game. After all, what’s the point of earning all of this free travel if you can’t afford to take the trips!

2. Ability to meet the minimum spend requirements to earn the points.

When you sign up for a travel rewards credit card you must meet their minimum spend requirements in order to earn the points bonus. For example, my favorite travel rewards card is the Chase Sapphire Preferred . This card requires you to charge $4000 in the first 3 months but you will receive 60k points. You can learn more about this card here!

That’s a lot of freakin’ money!

I know..but don’t worry.

Notice it’s charge $4000, not necessarily spend. Charging on your card is not the same.

More on that shortly, first…

What Are You Waiting For?

The bottom line is this; if you are currently carrying a credit card and it doesn’t earn you any rewards points you are wasting a huge opportunity.

Living in the United States, options are nearly unlimited when it comes to rewards credit cards.

If there is a card in your wallet that gets used and does not benefit you in some way, it’s time to pay it off, cut that sucker up and sign up for a card that actually benefits you.

Travel hacking with rewards credit cards can get complicated due to the sheer volume of choices in rewards credit cards. Not to mention keeping track of all the rules, minimum spend requirements, balance due dates and more.

However, by signing up for multiple credit cards, spending and transferring points you can rack up hundreds of thousands of miles and save big time money on flights, consumer goods, hotels, sports tickets, and pretty much anything you can think of.

You could google search travel hacking right now read every blog post, review and website on the net to find out which credit cards are the best but I’ll save you the time. They all reach this conclusion:

Credit Card Travel Hacking Simplified: The Best Travel Rewards Card To Get

(see this article for a more complete list with expanded options and current rewards/availability), option #1 the consensus choice for travel rewards credit cards.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve card offers the best overall deal for personal cards. Earn 50,000 point bonus upon signing up and spend $4,000 in the first three months. Learn more!

  • Earn 50,000 point bonus upon signing up and spend $4,000 in the first three months.
  • 3x points on travel and dining
  • $300 annual travel credit
  • The fine print:  $450 annual fee

The Chase Ink Business Preferred is the best overall deal for business cards. Learn more!

  • Earn 80,000 bonus points when you spend $5,000 in the first three months.
  • 3x points on travel and shipping, along with certain utility and advertising purchases.
  • The fine print:  $95 annual fee

Both cards allow you to easily redeem points via Chase Ultimate Rewards for flights and hotels, among many other things

If you are going to roll with one or two cards, then check these out and see if they will work for you & your needs. Avoid the annual fee by canceling before the end of the first year, if you wish.

Option #2: The Hotel Rewards Card with Miles Transfer Opportunities

Runner up according to popular opinion, blogs and the like is the Marriot Bonvoy Boundless Visa Signature for the opportunity to book some higher-level lodging and ability to easily convert and transfer points to a designated frequent flier account and earn even more miles in the process. Learn more!

Earn up to 100,000 bonus points for signing up and meeting the minimum spend of $5,000 in the first 3 months.

Cardholders will also enjoy an additional free night award (up to 35,000 point value) after each account anniversary.

The Fine Print

$95/year annual fee

Note: The Chase Ink Preferred is a business card. If you don’t have a formal business you can apply as a sole proprietor which is essentially just claiming that you are a business. It may require calling the credit card company and explaining to them what you do. Having a small side hustle could qualify you for a small business card like owning a blog or selling on Etsy for example. Learn more!

Check out How to Start a Sole Proprietorship (note you don’t need to fill out any legal papers) Consult with a tax professional for more details. If you apply as a sole proprietor your Tax ID number is your social security number.

Option #3: Choose a Card Based On Your Local Airport

If you live near Philadelphia, that airport it is the hub for US Airways then it may make sense to keep your eye on US Airways cards deals if you love flying that airline.

List of Hub Airports

The reason why I prefer Option #1 and #2 is because it’s easy to transfer points to many different airlines so why limit to one card that is dedicated to only one airline?

Keep It Simple

But we are keeping it simple. Want to test the waters with credit card travel hacking? Move forward and:

Learn more about the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Able to handle another minimum payment and want double points? Jump in and:

Learn more about the Chase Ink Business Preferred Card

When applying, I spread out my applications to avoid the burden of spending massive amounts in a short time.

If you like Option #2 or want to add more cards into your rewards portfolio go ahead and:

Learn more about the Marriot Bonvoy Boundless Visa Signature Card

After Signing Up

Track all cards and rewards programs.

Sign up for Award Wallet

Meeting the Minimum Spend

This can be tricky, but as I mentioned earlier think of this as a charge. There are ways to charge this money without actually spending your own.

How is that possible?

Check out this article on meeting the minimum spend for your travel rewards credit card and it will make sense.

10 Creative Ways To Meet the Minimum Spend Requirements

Another very basic way to avoid stress with minimum spends is to just time your rewards card applications with a big purchase you need to make.

For example, planning on buying a new computer? Snag a rewards card before that purchase so it goes towards the minimum spend.

There are plenty of other creative ways to meet the minimum spend so don’t let this seemingly large obstacle intimidate you.

Earning a Flight In Under 15 Minutes

Circling back to my promise at the beginning, here is how I earned a flight in under 15 minutes.

First I applied for a Chase Ink Business Preferred Card , which took about 10 minutes.

Secondly, did you know that you could pay your taxes with a credit card?

Since I paid virtually no taxes during the year I owed a lot of cash money to the feds.

Thankfully, the money was set aside. Once the Chase Ink Business Preferred card arrived, my federal taxes were charged on it and the balance was paid off immediately.

Even without owing taxes the same principle can apply by again, timing rewards card applications with a big purchase.

Where To Pay Taxes With a Credit Card

Travel hacking with credit cards isn’t complicated, and certainly nothing to be intimidated by. Start with one card, and get going. For more advanced strategies:

Listen to the Zero To Travel podcast on Travel Hacking, featuring a short interview with Travis Sherry from , a fantastic resource for all things travel hacking.

Check out for up to date offers.

The Final Word

It’s worth noting that when rewards points are used for miles for ‘free’ flights you may still be responsible for paying taxes and fees. However, this cost is minimal.

Sure, all of the tracking, spending and applying for cards or mileage points can be a bit tedious when the time comes to book a flight and rewards points

But when the time comes to book a flight and rewards points land you halfway across the world for virtually nothing, the minor effort is more than worth it.

Sit back, smile and enjoy your free flight. Safe travels my friend.

What do you think about travel hacking? Do you have any tips or strategies? Leave comments below.

Want to save thousands of dollars on travel? Tune into the Zero To Travel Podcast, with over 3 million downloads worldwide you’ll discover plenty of new and affordable ways to explore the world.

Subscribe to the Zero To Travel Podcast Now

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*Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed,  approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.  Zero To Travel has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Zero To Travel and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

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Cambridge Dictionary

  • Cambridge Dictionary +Plus

Meaning of hack in English

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hack verb ( CUT )

  • cut Ouch, I've cut my finger!
  • chop He was chopping vegetables to make a stew.
  • slice Slice the mushrooms and fry them in butter.
  • snip She snipped the corner off the soup packet.
  • slit He slit open the envelope with a knife.
  • carve He carved her name on a tree.
  • score something out/through
  • shave something off/from something
  • sheep shearing

hack verb ( KICK/HIT )

  • 18-yard box
  • football boot
  • football player
  • football pools
  • football pyramid
  • premiership
  • professional foul
  • the Football League
  • the Premier League

You can also find related words, phrases, and synonyms in the topics:

hack verb ( INFORMATION )

  • administrator
  • back someone up
  • live streamer
  • user interface
  • vectorization
  • virtualization

hack verb ( MANAGE )

  • addressable
  • attend to someone/something
  • be all over it idiom
  • beard the lion (in his/her den) idiom
  • have it out with someone idiom
  • hold on idiom
  • I/I've got this idiom
  • ill-prepared
  • tend to someone/something
  • to get a handle on something idiom
  • to have a handle on something idiom
  • tough something out

hack verb ( HORSE )

  • barrel racing
  • bridle path
  • endurance rider
  • high-spirited
  • pony trekking

Phrasal verb

Hack noun [c] ( writer ).

  • ambulance chaser
  • breaking news
  • bury the lede idiom
  • citizen journalism
  • correspondent
  • hit the headlines idiom
  • hot off the press idiom
  • investigative journalism
  • investigative journalist
  • photojournalism
  • photojournalist
  • the Associated Press
  • the Press Association

hack noun [C] ( POLITICIAN )

  • anti-capitalism
  • anti-capitalist
  • anti-communism
  • anti-communist
  • anti-fascism
  • interpellate
  • interpellation
  • interventionist
  • party politics
  • statesmanlike
  • stateswoman
  • subsidiarity

hack noun [C] ( HORSE )

Hack noun [c] ( driver/car ).

  • bus captain
  • designated driver
  • dispatch rider
  • motorcyclist
  • race car driver
  • racing car driver
  • racing driver
  • Sunday driver
  • taxi driver

hack noun [C] ( HELP )

  • advice Let me give you some advice.
  • help I didn't know who to turn to for help.
  • a piece of advice Let me give you a piece of advice.
  • counsel I will miss his wise counsel.
  • guidance Young people don't always appreciate the guidance offered by their parents and teachers.
  • counselling UK Victims of abuse usually need expert counselling.
  • band-aid solution
  • be at the bottom of something idiom
  • clear (something) up
  • holding operation
  • iron something out
  • irresolvable
  • surmountable
  • talk something out

hack | American Dictionary

Hack verb ( computing ), hack noun [c] ( person ), hack | business english, translations of hack.

Get a quick, free translation!


Word of the Day

(of a person) very intelligent and skilful, or (of a thing) skilfully made or planned and involving new ideas and methods

Everything’s getting on top of me: talking about stress

Everything’s getting on top of me: talking about stress

hack definition travel

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  • Dictionary +Plus Word Lists
  • hack (KICK/HIT)
  • hack (INFORMATION)
  • hack (MANAGE)
  • hack (HORSE)
  • hack (WRITER)
  • hack (POLITICIAN)
  • hack (DRIVER/CAR)
  • hack (HELP)
  • hack (COMPUTING)
  • hack (PERSON)
  • Business    Verb Noun
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Just What Is a Hack?

Of several meanings, one matters most..

by Leo A. Notenboom

Sereotypical Hooded Hacker Image

The word hack , as perhaps you’ve surmised, can have any of several different meanings, depending on context.

I’ll run through the ones that most commonly relate to computing and technology, including the one you need to understand above all.

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What's a hack?

  • The most basic hack is unauthorized access to an account or data.
  • Hack can also refer to a clever solution to a problem.
  • An obscure or lesser-known shortcut to a desired goal can also be referred to as a hack.
  • Individuals using clever techniques to gain unauthorized access to things are referred to as hackers .

Account hack

Perhaps the most important definition is the most common. In short, it simply means unauthorized access to a resource . A “resource” might be data, an online account, or something else.

Put a different way, an account is said to be “hacked” if someone who isn’t supposed to have access to it gets access. Data is said to have been hacked if someone who isn’t supposed to be able to access it, can. Your computer is said to be hacked if someone unauthorized has access to it or can sign into it.

It’s pretty simple. A hack is all about someone having access to something they shouldn’t.

It’s probably the most important definition since it can affect us all.

Clever hack

Originally, 1 a hack was an obscure, clever, or unique way of solving a particularly complex computer problem.

For example, at the lowest level, you can multiply a whole number by two in several different ways:

  • Multiply it by 2. 9 × 2 = 18.
  • Add it to itself. 9 + 9 = 18.
  • Shift the binary bit pattern representing the number one bit to the left. 9, represented as 1001 in binary, shifted left one position becomes 10010, which is the binary representation of 18.

In most computers, each successive technique in that list is generally faster or less resource-intensive than the preceding. Adding is usually faster than multiplying, and shifting is faster than either.

That shifting by one bit might be considered a clever way to solve the problem. Some might call a hack.

More generally, this kind of hack might be an inelegant shortcut eliciting the comment, “It’s not pretty, but it works.” 2

Shortcut hack

You’ve probably heard the terms life hack or growth hack .

Much like shifting a binary number being quicker than the work of actually multiplying it, people often look for or identify shortcuts to life: ways to accomplish things — be it something in life or approaches to their own personal growth — more quickly than normal.

These shortcuts — an obscure, clever, or unique way of solving a problem — are often referred to as hacks of some sort.

Search the internet for either, and you’ll find there’s a whole industry of life hacking or growth hacking or who-knows-what hacking available.

This type of hack — a shortcut or a clever or obscure solution — is neither good nor bad. That comes down to how you use it.

Hackers and hacking

Hackers hack by using hacks.

By that, I mean hackers generally gain unauthorized access to resources (the first hack I describe above) by employing clever or unique ways of using or abusing the systems they’re targeting (the second hack I describe above) so as to gain access. That usually comes in the form of exploiting a vulnerability in the underlying system.

Hence their name: hackers.

Hacker culture is built around this ability to discover and exploit hacks of various forms so as to do things that weren’t necessarily meant to be done — like access your account or breach a company firewall to get at their data.

Related Questions

Why are tips called hacks.

Tips are often called hacks because they’re typically obscure, clever, or unique ways to accomplish something. For example, a tip to improve your commute to work by listening to podcasts might also be referred to as a life hack or just hack .

Is hack a bad word?

Hack in and of itself is not a bad word. As with so many words that have multiple meanings, it’s how you use it that makes all the difference. Hacking an account to gain unauthorized access would generally be considered a bad thing. Hacking your life to be more productive, on the other hand, might be considered good.

Why do hackers hack?

In the past, hackers hacked mostly for bragging rights and bravado. That has since morphed into two common directions. The first is to target attacks at specific individuals for some purpose — usually revenge for perceived injustices. More common of late is, of course, money. Hacking computers to place ransomware might be the most obvious example of the latter.

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Footnotes & References

1 : Well, in technological terms, at least.

2 : Though left shift by one seems both elegant and pretty –to me at least.

12 comments on “Just What Is a Hack?”

We have White Hat hackers who gain unauthorized access to systems to find the flaws and help companies improve security. I remember a time when some were using the term “cracking” to refer to gaining illegal access to a computer, system, or website.

“That usually comes in the form of exploiting a vulnerability in the underlying system.” In most cases that vulnerability is in the component sitting in front of the computer typing on the keyboard or clicking the mouse. I read Kevin Mitnick’s book, and I was surprised to learn that most of the time, he didn’t hack the computers. He hacked the people who controlled access to the computers. This is called “social engineering”. The most common forms of social engineering are Phishing and tricking people into installing malware. That’s why the first line of defense in protecting against malware is vigilance and common sense.


The problem with education is that it’s not something you can shove down people’s throats or inject into them. The target must be open to learning and accept that there is someone else more knowledgeable. The target must also be willing to exert some effort. These premises are no longer operative in today’s world for many people. But thank you Leo for continuing to educate and not giving up.

Absolutely, Mark. When one drills down into the reports in the media about organisations being ‘hacked’ it more often than not turns out to be an employee opening a dodgy attachment or accessing a fake website.

A few points in reply here:

1. I loathe the term, “ social engineering “; that makes it sound far too respectable! Instead, call it what it really is: trickery .

2. The important point to remember about “White Hat Hackers” is that, if they’re at all sensible, they will have contracted with the company they are “breaking in to” (or, failing that, will at least have asked permissuon first), and will have that contract, permission, release, or waiver, signed and in writing . A “White Hat” Hacker sans permission is just a plain ole hacker , period.

3. In my opinion, “ cracker ” is a better, and far more descriptive, term. Unfortunately, the word encroaches upon a racial epither used in the South, and so never caught on. :(

Thank you Mark Jacobs (Team Leo) for including the label “Cracker”. It is sad that the term ‘Hacker’ has become nearly universally misconstrued to replace the term ‘Cracker’. When your account is broken into, it is cracked. When a website or a company’s data is stolen, the website’s security is cracked, or the company’s server’s (containing the company’s data) security is cracked. A hacker is someone who experiments with code to find different (and often more efficient) ways to get specific jobs done. A hacker may also examine source code to discover coding errors or security vulnerabilities.

If the true definition of a hacker is used, a hacker is computer enthusiast who wants to understand how things work under the hood, and to perhaps find better ways to make them work. In this endeavor, they sometimes find security vulnerabilities or coding errors which they report to the code’s developers.

True hackers are NOT criminals. They just get the bad reputation from the activities of the real criminals who should properly be identified as crackers. Leo, I am genuinely disappointed that you either did not know the existence of the second term (crackers). or that you have adopted the common identifier of the uneducated by lumping the good guys in with the bad ones, and calling them ALL hackers, or that you simply did not do enough research on the subject before writing your article.

You usually do better,

More importantly, the majority of my readers encounter the term hack or hacker, not the crack variations, and it’s important for them to understand how those terms are being used, even if technically that usage is considered incorrect by some.

That name change probably comes from movies. It’s incredible how movies get so much wrong about computers and the IT world. I could fill a book with what Hollywood gets wrong. I got into a kind of hardware hacking. I was already a software developer but a hobby was making older computers last way beyond their expiration date and attaching hardware that wasn’t supposed to be attached. I called that hacking. The proper term for most “hacks” would be social engineering. OK, I got off topic, but I’m watching a series where they get so much wrong. You’d thing they’d hire an IT consultant like they do with police and military consultants. Hey, if any movie producers read this, I’m available. ;-)

I wholly agree, and will add that crackers are cracked… in the head .

Leo, you quoted:

“It’s not pretty, but it works.”

Uh-uh: that’s not a “hack,” that’s a “kludge.” :o

There is meaning of hack that you all have missed but being a Norfolk Boy (English county) may I add, Hack within the activity of equestrianism commonly refers to one of two things: as a verb, it describes the act of pleasure riding for light exercise, and as a breed (Hackney/hack), it is a type of horse used for riding and pulling carriages. The term is sometimes used to describe certain types of exhibition or horse show classes where quality and good manners of the horse are particularly important.

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FBI director Christopher Wray

China hacking threatens US infrastructure, FBI director warns, as Volt Typhoon botnet foiled

Chris Wray tells House committee there has been been far too little public focus on a sleeper cyber threat that affects ‘every American’

US officials say they have disrupted a state-backed Chinese effort to plant malware that could damage civilian infrastructure, as the head of the FBI warned that Beijing was positioning itself to disrupt daily life in America were the US and China ever to go to war.

The operation disrupted a botnet of hundreds of small office and home routers based in the US that were owned by private citizens and companies that had been hijacked by the Chinese hackers to cover their tracks as they sowed malware.

Their ultimate targets included water treatment plants, the electrical grid and transportation systems across the US, official said on Wednesday.

The comments align with assessments from outside cybersecurity firms including Microsoft , which said in May that state-backed Chinese hackers had been targeting US critical infrastructure and could be laying the technical groundwork for the potential disruption of critical communications between the US and Asia during future crises.

At least a portion of that operation, attributed to a group of hackers known as Volt Typhoon, has been disrupted after FBI and justice department officials obtained search-and-seizure orders in Houston federal court in December. US officials did not characterise the disruption’s impact, and court documents unsealed on Wednesday say the disrupted botnet was just “one form of infrastructure used by Volt Typhoon to obfuscate their activity”. The hackers have infiltrated targets through multiple avenues, including cloud and internet providers, disguised within normal traffic.

The FBI director, Chris Wray, told the House select committee on the Chinese Communist party that there had been far too little public focus on a cyber threat that affects “every American”.

“China’s hackers are positioning on American infrastructure in preparation to wreak havoc and cause real-world harm to American citizens and communities, if or when China decides the time has come to strike,” Wray said.

Jen Easterly, the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, voiced a similar sentiment at the hearing.

“This is a world where a major crisis halfway across the planet could well endanger the lives of Americans here at home through the disruption of our pipelines, the severing of our telecommunications, the pollution of our water facilities, the crippling of our transportation modes – all to ensure that they can incite societal panic and chaos and to deter our ability [to marshal a sufficient response],” she said.

The US has in the past few years become more aggressive in trying to disrupt and dismantle both criminal and state-backed cyber operations, with Wray warning on Wednesday that Beijing-backed hackers aimed to pilfer business secrets to advance the Chinese economy and steal personal information for foreign influence campaigns.

“They are doing all those things. They all feed up ultimately into their goal to supplant the US as the world’s greatest superpower,” he said.

Complicating the threat is that state-backed hackers, especially Chinese and Russian, are good at adapting and finding new intrusion methods and avenues.

US officials have long been concerned about such hackers hiding in US-based infrastructure, and the outdated Cisco and NetGear routers exploited by Volt Typhoon were easy prey because they were no longer supported by their manufacturers with security updates. Because of the urgency, law enforcement officials said, US cyber operators deleted the malware in those routers without notifying their owners directly – and added code to prevent reinfection.

“The truth is that Chinese cyber actors have taken advantage of very basic flaws in our technology,” Easterly said. “We’ve made it easy on them.”

On Wednesday, US officials said allies were also affected by Volt Typhoon’s critical infrastructure hacking but, asked by reporters, would not discuss any countermeasures they might be taking.

China has repeatedly denounced the US government’s hacking allegations as baseless. Beijing has accused the US of “almost daily” intrusions against the Chinese government, with Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, saying last year “China is the biggest victim of cyber-attacks”.

But Gen Paul Nakasone, the outgoing commander of US Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, said “responsible cyber actors” did not target civilian infrastructure.

“There’s no reason for them to be in our water,” Nakasone said. “There’s no reason for them to be in our power.”

  • US foreign policy

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