Is ‘Travel Hacking’ Unethical?

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I recently wrote an article about how you can self refer in order to get higher American Express signup bonuses. Most of the comments were positive, but there was some negativity too, which prompted me to think it might be time to look a bit more generally at the ethics of ‘travel hacking’.

Before we get onto that though, first of all, what exactly is ‘travel hacking’?

To be honest, I don’t really like the phrase very much. 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 is a (not terribly good) umbrella term for a variety of techniques all designed to help make travelling cheaper, more comfortable and more fun.

Why might travel hacking be seen as unethical?

The benefits of travel hacking can often seem ‘too good to be true’ and that can naturally raise suspicions.

On the face of it, allowing some passengers to fly in First Class for less than what most other passengers are paying in Economy (for example) seems like an absurd way for businesses to deliberately operate – but when you look more closely at why these situations occur, they can actually make perfect sense.

The reasons vary a bit by industry or company (indeed, the rationale for every promotion, offer or policy, even within a company, can be slightly different each time), but generally boil down to two main elements:

  • The relevant parties (provider, intermediaries, customer) have different concepts of value (‘arbitrage’).
  • Wider business/marketing/loyalty considerations.

I don’t want to spend too much time here on theory, so as a practical example, let’s return to one of the comments that prompted this post.

Are you a ‘shameless whiner’ like me?

“Have you no shame? You whine when airlines/credit cards reduce benefits/increase prices and yet you happily post ways of stealing from them. No, it’s not gaming the system, it’s just stealing from everybody else.”

Remember, this was in response to an article explaining how you can now refer yourself for American Express cards, meaning you receive both a referral bonus and a sign up bonus.

On the first point (the ‘whining’ 🙂 ), I’m not sure I need to say very much. InsideFlyer covers the changes that airline and hotel loyalty programmes make. We analyse those changes and try to explain the most important aspects to readers who don’t necessarily have the time or inclination to wade through pages of (often dry and obfuscatory) information themselves. When programmes make negative changes we report those changes, and when they make positive changes we report those changes too. The aim of InsideFlyer is to help our readers travel better for less, not to parrot the sort of corporate PR spin that insists every change is an ‘enhancement’.

The second point (stealing 😉 ) is more interesting. You probably won’t be too surprised to read that I disagree in the strongest possible terms with the view that I was promoting “stealing”. Clearly there isn’t the slightest hint of any actual illegality in anything I wrote(!), so it’s fair to assume that the commenter was getting at something more to do with ethics than law –  and I think that’s definitely worth addressing, so here’s my take:

1. Self referral isn’t some sort of cheat – the terms written by Amex and the software developed by Amex allow it (this is one of those occasions where the ‘hacking’ part of the phrase ‘travel hacking’  is perhaps unhelpful).

2. Amex is a very large, highly experienced, business – well capable of developing the marketing strategies it actually wants and publishing the terms that it intends. It is therefore fairly reasonable to assume that what they publish is intentional. If it isn’t, it’s easy for them to make changes.

3. Big companies do make mistakes though, of course, and whether you personally wish to take advantage of an offer or not, may depend on how blatant you feel that mistake is. I suspect that many people wouldn’t lose much sleep over benefiting from a credit card company being a little over generous. Regardless though, with this particular example, I’m confident it’s a deliberate policy by Amex and not a mistake.

The reason I think it’s a deliberate policy is because the acquisition cost of an existing cardholder taking out a new card is the same, regardless of whether that person is referred for the new card by a friend, a family member or themselves – Amex would still be paying out the same number of Points overall. In particular, I see no substantial difference in the business case for allowing referrals within the same household (especially spouses) vs the business case for allowing self referral.

4. Amex actively encourages the principle of self referral. For years, it’s been possible to get a cash payment from cashback sites TopCashback and Quidco when taking out any of the major American Express cards. Here are just a few of the options:

It’s a bit of a logical stretch to argue that it’s ethically sound to receive cash from Amex for referring yourself, but not Points…

5. The commenter’s wider argument rests on the assumption that if one customer is benefiting from something, they must be taking it away from other customers (or at least other stakeholders) – i.e. if you get a bigger sign-up bonus, someone else has to get less, or will have to pay more at some point down the line. Taken to theoretical extremes, there could be some merit in the argument, but reality is much more complicated than that sort of ‘zero-sum game’ way of thinking. This post is too long already, so I’ll leave that point there, but I think it’s an interesting topic and something a lot of people don’t really appreciate fully when trying to understand how/why ‘travel hacking’ works.

Bottom line

I don’t believe travel hacking is unethical (at all), but that’s not the same as saying that some travel hackers don’t sometimes do unethical things. Where each person draws that line is a private matter (well, within the confines of the law!).

I think most people would agree though, that if you spot a deal and are following the terms published by a large company (which has the resources and expertise to ensure they draft the terms as they intended to), your moral virtue probably isn’t under too much threat…

Where do you draw the line with your own ‘travel hacking’?


  1. Naomi Charlton says

    Hi Joe, I don’t feel it’s unethical at all & I think you always pitch everything perfectly right? If people want to discuss ethics, well it works both ways – so what about a Best Western hotel (in Germany) that cancels a perfectly valid booking because someone else has offered more money for the room? This has literally just happened to my friends, leaving them absolutely stranded. (Any advice on dealing with that gratefully received BTW as I would really like to be able to help them…..) xxxxx

    • Joe Deeney says

      Haha, thanks Naomi! I’m sure we don’t always get it right, but it is definitely something we think about and try to get right.

      Re Best Western – sounds like a bit of a nightmare! I’m not a lawyer (or German) so can’t comment on the legal aspect, but the ethical and practical aspects seem quite clear. If they can’t convince the hotel to reinstate the booking, I wouldn’t really want to stay there anyway, so my first step would be to explain to the hotel that simply refunding the booking isn’t good enough as prices may have gone up elsewhere since booking. I would insist that if they aren’t going to honour the booking, rather than a refund, they need to book me something comparable instead. If that fails, I’d bring Best Western (sign up to the loyalty programme first) into it, explain to them what the hotel had done, and ask them to sort it out. If that fails, I’d get in touch with the credit card provider I used to book and my travel insurance to see what their policies are on this sort of thing.

      It’s perfectly possible that the hotel could have put itself at risk of whatever the German equivalent of small claims action is, so as a last resort I’d investigate that – at least as a potential threat.

      In terms of helping your friends, I’d see if you can put your ‘travel hacking’ skills to good use and see if you can find them a reasonable alternative, perhaps using hotel points if you have some to spare.

      I hope they manage to get things sorted!

      • Naomi Charlton says

        Ah thx so much as always Joe!! Best Western issue is a v difficult one, to cut a long story short the (fairly small) town in Germany is hosting the European Triathle Championships (subset of Modern Pentathlon), both my son & my friends son are competing so as you can imagine there is not an alternative room to be had for love or money within about a 10 mile radius? This is how come the hotel have received a much better financial offer for the room (which was already 120 Euros per night) so not especially cheap in the first place…..

        I think you are absolutely right to go through Best Western & maybe ask for some sort of compensation (free night at another BW) or something as I doubt they can sort anything else out local…..

        It’s outrageous though isn’t it?! – xxxxx

  2. T D says

    Excellent article Joe. I totally agree that the term “travel-hacking” has done travel hackers no favours.

    • Joe Deeney says

      Thanks TD. Yeah, I might try and think of a better term (even if I’m the only one who ends up using it…) as I think it really is quite confusing and potentially off-putting for people who first come across it.

    • Joe Deeney says

      Cheers Sharat. Haha, sometimes it makes the planning fun, sometimes trying to find the elusive ‘perfect’ award seat feels far from fun! (can you tell I’m currently struggling to find award space… 🙂 )

      In general though, the ‘game’ element of Points/Miles is definitely part of the fun I think!

  3. Craig Sowerby says

    I think the “big companies know what they’re doing and can take care of themselves” argument isn’t the most compelling, ethically speaking. Tesco is a big company and lets you “self check-out” these days, even whilst knowing that some people will cheat – but that doesn’t mean I should just slip a few extra things in my shopping bag without paying.

    People just need to decide for themselves what they are comfortable with. I try to write about things using my own ethical code, and not judge too much if others make different choices.

    • Joe Deeney says

      It’s not a reasonable comparison though, because that clearly is stealing and is illegal – the ‘terms’ strictly and explicitly prohibit the action.

      A better analogy would be when a supermarket mis-prices something – is it for the consumer to decide when a deal is too good and is a mistake rather than a genuine offer? In the case of bigger businesses, I’d say the responsibility for that judgement generally rests with the business, but for smaller businesses I think it’s more complicated. I’d be ethically comfortable taking advantage of a ‘too good to be true’ offer at Tesco (which might have a large range of different marketing/loyalty/stock/etc reasons for making the offer so good), but wouldn’t take advantage if the same deal was being offered by the corner shop – not without checking and making sure they really do mean to sell the item so cheap anyway.

    • Joe Deeney says

      The point isn’t whether “big companies know what they’re doing and can take care of themselves”, rather that the primary ethical responsibility lies with them to do so, rather than on the consumer.

      On your general point I completely agree though, of course!

      • Craig Sowerby says

        Well, I’m pretty sure most of us know of, and perhaps even take advantage of, certain travel hacks that are a lot closer to “stealing” than Amex churning. (the old IHG bonus codes hack comes to mind…) And I suspect many people justify that to themselves with some kind of Robin Hood-esque “they’re a big company that would close the loophole if they cared”.

        Anyhow, to each their own really… I agree that travel hacking is an unfortunate choice of vocabulary. But too late to change…

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