Beginner’s Guide to ‘Travel Hacking’ – Part 1: Myths About Travel Hacking

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Simon Calder’s recent article in The Independent declaring that ‘travel hacking’ is a “myth”, has finally nudged us into producing a proper UK-focused ‘Beginner’s Guide to Travel Hacking’.

Travel Hacking
Conrad Koh Samui – £500 per night, or free if you get a Hilton credit card

We’ve been meaning to do it for a while now, but the fact that a traveller as experienced, passionate and knowledgeable as Simon can misunderstand ‘travel hacking’ to such an extent that he sees no value in it, shows just how badly we really need to get on and do this.

If someone like Simon doesn’t ‘get it’, what chance do most other people have?

InsideFlyer is all about demystifying ‘travel hacking’, and the purpose of the Beginner’s Guide is to help you travel more comfortably and more often, for less money, through simple, practical tips.

We have invited Simon to join in and read these Beginner’s Guide posts to see if he changes his mind at all (or doesn’t!) after following them for a little while. As an avowed (and knowledgeable) sceptic, we would really love to see him get involved and hear his perspective, and if you would like to hear his view too, please let him know on twitter and through other social media!

Simon’s article raises most of the common misconceptions about travel hacking, so it makes sense to go through the points made in it one by one.

Firstly though, what is ‘travel hacking’?

Straight-up, we don’t really like the phrase much at all. Unfortunately, it seems to be the one that has caught the public imagination when it comes to describing the sorts of things we write about at InsideFlyer.

The word ‘hacking’ has all sorts of connotations, both positive and negative, that just don’t really apply. Travel hacking doesn’t involve anything hugely technical or anything illicit – it’s basically just about finding ways to travel better for less.

Travel Hacking
British Airways First Class

Myth number 1: Travel hacking is a con or “myth”

To be fair to Simon, it’s the headline which uses the word “myth” and that was probably written by a sub-editor.

That said, lots of people do (understandably) believe that there’s simply no way you could legitimately fly in Business/First Class or stay at posh hotels without spending lots of money or using industry contacts – so it’s well worth taking the time to examine the point head-on.

The fact is that thousands of people in the UK alone now already ‘travel hack’ to some degree, and in the USA there is an entire industry built around it.

Check out how many Facebook followers ‘The Points Guy’ (probably the biggest US ‘travel hacking’ blogger) has – at time of writing it’s just short of 1.5 million people! Or, take a look at the forums over on Flyertalk, where just the British Airways section alone has nearly 2 million posts spread over nearly 100,000 different threads.

Travel hacking isn’t a myth, it’s not a con. In fact, it’s not even remotely secret – there are literally hundreds of blogs in the US dedicated to covering this stuff. BoardingArea features some of the most popular, and is well worth a quick look if you want to get a sense of the scale.

It’s also worth pointing out that even Simon doesn’t dispute that the blogger mentioned in his article (Daniel Gillaspia) really did fly around the world in Business and First Class and stay at nice hotels for very little money, so I think we can safely drop the “myth” label.

Travel Hacking
Singapore Airlines Business Class

With that out of the way, there are still three substantive points in Simons’s article that need addressing:

  • 1) People who write about travel hacking exaggerate the value they get from it.
  • 2) Travel hacking is really confusing and time-consuming.
  • 3) Travel hacking is all about luxury and if you don’t really care much about that, it’s not worth the effort.

Let’s now look at those points in turn:

(Sort of) Myth 2: The reality of travel hacking is nowhere near as good as the bloggers make out

One of the things that Simon really questions in his article is the valuations that bloggers put on their travels, and that’s a very fair point.

We actually totally agree that the ‘value’ some bloggers ascribe to the travels that their Points and Miles buy them is essentially fictional. If you would never pay £10,000 for First Class flights (and personally I think you’d be mad to, regardless of how rich you are!), then just because you might be able to find a ludicrously expensive ticket for a particular route that you can use Miles on instead, doesn’t mean that it’s reasonable for you to ‘value’ that ticket at the same price.

‘Value’ is hugely subjective, but it’s generally best to be quite conservative and think about it simply as what you would have been prepared to pay in cash.

Look at it this way: If you were buying an Economy ticket somewhere anyway, what would you normally pay and how much extra would you be willing to pay to upgrade to Business or First Class, if you were given the option. If you’re anything like us, your answer will vary quite a bit. For a honeymoon or a special occasion somewhere really far away, you might be willing to spend considerably more to upgrade than on a short flight for a cheap weekend break, for example.

Travel Hacking
Emirates Business / First Class onboard bar – access doesn’t have to cost thousands:

Many bloggers overstate the value they get from travel hacking, but the reality is still fantastic. Forget the exaggerated valuations – you can decide for yourself how you value things. The simple reality is that travel hacking can make your travels cheaper and/or more comfortable.


Travel Hacking
Intercontinental Paris Le Grand Suite Balcony View – pay £££ or learn how to earn and use IHG Points instead!

Myth Number 3: Travel hacking is really complicated and time-consuming

The truth is that it can be, but it doesn’t need to be.

The whole point of this Beginner’s Guide is to keep things simple and help you grab the ‘low-hanging fruit’. Even just 10 minutes a week can make your travels considerably more comfortable and more affordable.

Here in the UK, there are just four key things you should consider doing to get off to a ‘flying’ start (and none of them are time consuming or require anything more difficult than a bit of basic organisation!):

  • Apply for an airline Miles or hotel Points earning credit/charge card every 3-6 months.
  • Take advantage of free/ultra-cheap Miles/Points offers when opportunities arise.
  • Maximise hotel (and to a lesser extent airline) promotions.
  • Use a cashback site.

At InsideFlyer, we monitor and write about the best offers for all of the above constantly, so it’s easy for you to keep track. We’re currently working on a way to simplify the process of getting the best possible deals (for hotels in particular) even further – so watch this space!

The Beginner’s Guide will cover each of the above areas, and suggest practical steps to get the most value from each area, for the least amount of effort.

Travel Hacking
Singapore Airlines First Class ‘Suites’

Myth number 4: Travel hacking is all about extravagant luxury and Economy is fine by me, so what’s the point?

Travel hacking certainly can be about luxury (and that’s naturally where a lot of the focus ends up, because pictures of beautiful resorts in exotic locations are more appealing than pictures of your local Travelodge), but it really doesn’t have to be like that.

We like to think we cover both extremes (and everything in between) on InsideFlyer, from First Class to Ryanair, and from £13.50 Travelodge rooms, to luxury suites.

Travel Hacking
Sometimes a Travelodge is what you need or can afford – might as well book it as cheaply as possible.

Travel hacking can be about travelling for less money instead of (or as well as!) travelling in greater luxury. How you balance that is entirely up to you.

A practical example of how a little bit of travel hacking knowledge can save you money – even in Economy:

In his article, Simon mentions that he buys British Airways Avios Points every year direct from BA at the standard price they charge (currently 1.65p per Point is the cheapest possible direct rate). He therefore clearly recognizes that there are circumstances where having airline Miles can be useful and can save you money when travelling in Economy.

The problem is that because he just pays whatever BA charges, his savings are much lower than if he engaged in even the most basic travel hacking.

Just last week we covered how to buy Avios for ~1p each, with almost no extra effort involved – that tip alone would save him nearly 40%.

We end that article by pointing out that 1p is still actually quite expensive for Avios, and that there are considerably cheaper ways to earn decent quantities without a lot of work. 0.8p per Avios is generally the maximum price at which we would be tempted to buy Avios and even then we certainly wouldn’t be in a rush – that’s less than half what Simon pays.

Travel Hacking
Emirates First Class onboard shower. Please note that travelling in First Class does not improve your singing.

Myth number 5: Travel hacking is ‘dodgy’ somehow

Simon doesn’t make this point in his article, but it’s definitely a concern that some people have. The benefits of travel hacking seem too good to be true and that can naturally raise suspicions.

We mentioned at the beginning how mainstream travel hacking already is in the USA, so hopefully that provides some reassurance, but perhaps the thing that most people have trouble getting their heads around is how travel hacking actually works – or rather, why companies allow it to continue.

On the face of it, allowing some passengers to fly in First Class for less than what most other passengers are paying in Economy seems like an absurd way to conduct business.  The answer to this apparent conundrum varies a bit by company, but generally boils down to two main elements:

  • The relevant parties (provider, intermediaries, customer) have different concepts of value for the same product.
  • Wider marketing/loyalty considerations.

The next part of the Beginner’s Guide will explain these concepts in detail, and hopefully help you understand that there really are good business reasons why companies allow some of the apparent absurdities that come from travel hacking to continue.

Travel Hacking
Etihad First Class

Bottom line

‘Travel hacking’ is essentially a (not terribly good) umbrella term for a variety of techniques all designed to help make travelling cheaper, more comfortable and more fun.

A little bit of knowledge and effort can make a very large difference – so if that sounds good to you, hopefully you’ll find this Beginner’s Guide useful!

If you have any questions about travel at all, please do not hesitate to ask in the comments below or on the forum. The whole point of this is to help beginners, so there really is no question too obvious or too silly to ask!


    • Joe Deeney says

      Haha, do you mean to say you wouldn’t really have paid £26,500 for the flights Ian?

      Headline aside, I think your article is actually a great example of what ‘travel hacking’ can get you. I (assume) you would never have paid cash for First Class, but with a bit of knowledge you got to share that experience with your family at a price you could afford – what a treat!

      • Ian Perry says

        No way, £25,000 is my absolute budget for transatlantic travel 😉 instead I spent less than a tenth of that, which is still less than economy would have cost. Mr Calder can stay cramped up in the back if he wants, but in exchange for a few hours’ work over a year with credit card applications and tesco clubcard conversions I get to lie back and relax as I get a little drunk on £150/bottle champagne. Who’s the mug, Simon?

  1. Ian Macky says

    I’m pretty content with mainstream media portraying our hobby/pastime/obssession as a myth. Most of the opportunities that come our way and that are in anyway sustainable only are so because of the relatively small number of people who could be bothered to look beyond the surface.

    Any ploys or methods that become entirely obvious, are too easy or are widely advertised, immediately die a death in my experience.

    Keep it a myth I say 🙂

    • Joe Deeney says

      Ah – but you haven’t read the next post yet Ian! There’s some very sound economics and good business sense behind companies ‘allowing’ many of things that people think of as travel hacking to continue. That’s certainly the case for anything likely to ever feature in a Beginner’s Guide.

      I certainly agree though that at the more advanced level the situation can be different.

      Either way, I wouldn’t worry too much about our impact just yet – not until we’ve overhauled The Points Guy’s 1.5 million FB followers anyway! (currently scheduled for early January, but I’m not entirely sure what year…)

  2. Scottydogg says

    Let people think it , it everyone got in on the act then it would be harder to get bonus points and redemption seats

    • Joe Deeney says

      Fair point about redemption availability if it became truly mainstream. There’s actually a decent case for raising standard bonuses though if there was a higher level of engagement (if more people were ‘into’ Points/Miles, more companies might use them to incentivise consumers, which could push up bonuses due to competitive pressure – take a look at the US credit card bonuses for example), though some of the really tasty/mistake bonuses we still occasionally see would indeed get snapped up quicker.

      For all that, given how tiny the Uk ‘travel hacking’ market still is (relatively speaking), I don’t see us having a huge impact even using the wildest growth projections I can think of!

  3. Eddy Taylor says

    One thing Puzzles me, a lot of this is done with credit cards etc, the article even mentions to change them every 6 months or so to take advantage of point/miles etc.
    I’m in Australia and, I think the rules for credit cards would be the same, we have to have and prove certain earnings to obtain said credit card. A lot of bloggers etc do not have regular jobs, a lot of us are pensioners and, sadly, cannot show the income required to obtain the lowest credit card, even though we can pay it off immediately. So, it does become somewhat difficult for some of us to take advantage in our own situations.
    Having said that, I did just manage to score a lot of points on a credit card and a fly buy’s membership, also topped my Hilton points up with info from another site re an app.
    I for one love reading on this site, I have learned so much, thank you, and keep up the great work.

    • Joe Deeney says

      Hi Eddy,

      Yeah, certainly in the UK credit cards are an important and easy source of earning Miles/Points – if you meet the requirements.

      Most bloggers have day jobs, apart from the lucky few who earn enough through blogging so that becomes their day job.

      As regards retirees, it’s an issue the credit card companies are becoming more aware of I think. American Express recently loosened the income requirements here in the UK, presumably to account for people who may have relatively low incomes but relatively high disposable income (like some pensioners). A single pensioner who owns their own property and has some savings is likely a much safer investment for the credit card company than a single-earner family with a big mortgage, even if that person currently has a high income (they could lose their job or have health issues or whatever) so it makes sense for credit card companies to be more flexible.

      There are, of course, plenty of other ways to earn Points/Miles too, but credit cards do make it easier

      Many thanks for the kind words!

  4. Zoe says

    Hi Joe
    as a newbie, I am a really grateful for the info you share, it might be helpful to file “newbie” posts under a beginners category as I am struggling to locate all your beginners posts…not a critiicism just a friendly suggestion, thanks again!

    • Joe Deeney says

      Hi Zoe,

      Many thanks! – totally agree and it’s one of a few things we are currently looking into to try and improve the navigation of the site for readers. As regards more beginners posts, it’s something I’m really keen on, and I’m hoping to get back to publishing more installments in the next couple of weeks, so keep your eyes peeled!

  5. Maria says

    Hi Joe

    Another newbie here, and after reading this article I have to say “travel hacking” is definitely not a myth, or a con! We have a trip to Washington DC, Charleston SC and Philadelphia this month, travelling BA Club in both directions, using Avios. These flights alone, without Avios, would’ve been c£7k. Have used two reward nights at The Westin Phil for a grand total of £48! Have used Nectar rewards for other hotel redemptions through Expedia. Needless to say, having calculated what our trip SHOULD cost, and what it is ACTUALLY costing, there is a saving of over 60%, without really trying. And this is all before I have recently discovered Amex and their very generous sign-up bonuses and 2-for-1 vouchers and the myriad of travel points sites with a wealth of knowledge. This is a whole new world to me, and with that extra bit of know-how, time and effort, the rewards are there to be had!

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