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The Costs, Risks, and Ethics of Travel Hacking

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The Costs, Risks, and Ethics of Travel HackingAlthough I don’t blog about it often, I’ve been involved in the frequent flyer miles and points community for several years now.  Sometimes referred to as travel hacking, the miles and points hobby involves looking for innovative and lucrative ways to earn travel rewards points on the cheap to redeem for “free” travel.  There is a large and sometimes slightly secretive community of people involved in it.  There are even conferences for the truly enthusiastic (don’t miss my recap of the FT4RL conference I just attended).

The community quietly grew over the years on sites like Flyertalk, but has rapidly grown in the past few years with bloggers like The Points Guy receiving mainstream media attention.  In fact, there are hundreds of bloggers weighing in on all things miles and points many times a day.  Some now even make full-time livings from their sites.

Participating in this hobby has been so rewarding for my family, but it also occasionally gives me pause.  I thought it might be helpful to share my thoughts with others of differing experience levels who enjoy the pursuit of miles and points.

For some, travel hacking is an all-consuming hobby.  These people earn millions of miles a year.  Most of those doing the hobby at this level are engaged in manufactured spending (MS), which I won’t even begin to describe (for those of you interested in MS, Frequent MilerMiles to Memories, and the Saverocity Forums are good places to start).

Although I’m that crazy frequent flyer miles girl among my normal friends, I’m also nowhere near the level of many in community.  I acquire most of my miles and points through the low-hanging fruit of credit card application bonuses and through real spending done in smart ways.  My family earns a few hundred thousand miles and points a year, which is more than enough to make some of our travel “free.”  I’m usually quite content with that.  I follow many of the latest developments and probably know more about the hobby than I actually personally execute.  I’ve been reflecting a lot on why I’m ultimately so conservative when it comes to miles and points.

Airplane SeatsA large and obvious part of the reason I don’t do more to earn miles is time.  Job, kids, and even this blog just rate higher for me.  Based upon where I am in my life at this moment, I’d rather pay out of pocket for some of our travel than spend my rare free time finding ways to accrue miles to get that travel for free.  Time is money too.  And free travel isn’t really free.

Another reason I don’t do as much as others is simple aversion to risk.  Everyone has a personal risk tolerance line and mine is probably just set a bit lower that others.  Some of those pushing the envelope in the miles and points hobby have had accounts shut down or been banned from using a particular bank or credit card issuer.  While that isn’t the end of the world in many cases, I’d prefer not to do something that results in that hassle.  These high-risk activities often have the greatest rewards, but I’d rather have fewer rewards and less stress.

But what often puts a lid on my pursuit of miles and points is a bigger question: ethics.  Travel hacking is a hobby based upon finding and exploiting loopholes.  Some of that exploitation is simply done by being creative and smart both within the law and within the rules.  I’m often in awe of the deals some miles and points enthusiasts find even if I don’t implement their methods myself (Kenny’s presentation at Family Travel for Real Life is one such example).

Some of that same exploitation involves bending rules in ethically dubious ways or – ultimately – cheating.  There are hacks that cross a definite objective ethical boundary (this guy is one egregious case in point).  There are hacks that fall in a gray area that nevertheless cross my own personal threshold of what is ethically acceptable.

My personal threshold is lower than most.  Lying to a credit card representative to get a card approved is one thing that bothers me.  Using a corporate discount code to which I’m not personally entitled takes it too far in my opinion.  Even taking advantage of mistake airline fares is another situation that makes me ethically queasy (although I’ll admit mistake fares are still a bit of a gray area for me).  Another recent example that crossed my personal ethical line was a hack I saw for getting extra Fastpasses at Walt Disney World.  While it was quite ingenious, knowing I was taking more than my fair share of the finite supply of a day’s Fastpasses at the expense of another Disney-going family’s chance at the same would have killed the Disney magic for me.

CARES Harness Review: An Alternative to Car Seats on Planes

This cute kid travel moment was brought to you by frequent flyer miles.

Everyone has their own personal ethical line in the hobby.  I certainly understand that many people I nevertheless respect have a line at a very different point than I do.

What has worried me about the hobby lately, however, is the people who don’t stop to think whether something is ethical at all before doing it.  These people are so focused on the question “can it be done” that they forget to ask “should it be done.”  They are so focused on chasing the deal and beating the next guy that they forget to stop for an ethical gut check.  Maybe the hobby just attracts some of those kinds of people.

Because of the nature of travel hacking, the ethical questions should be front and center.  We owe it to ourselves as a community.  Ethics are essential as the miles and points hobby evolves and new opportunities become available.

The lesson I have to share with others is to think constantly about the all-important “should it be done” question.  Remember: he who dies with the most miles doesn’t win.  Getting miles and points isn’t a competition.  Do what makes you comfortable.  Miles are a means to an end to make your life better by enabling you to travel more with your kids and build memories.  Earning an extra mile isn’t worth it if it means you lose a minute of sleep at night wondering if you did the right thing.  Listen to others, but also listen to your gut.

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Tuesday 31st of March 2015

Thanks so much for this. I am in your same boat, the ethics lines are clearly fading. I follow Chris Elliott, if you don't already you'd probably like his stuff. He talks consumer advocate things but it so often dips into the travel industry. I think you'd find it interesting.

Katie Dillon

Tuesday 31st of March 2015

Amen, sister. I have opinions about this that I've never shared because I think people would find them perhaps entitled or snooty because I (like many) can pay for travel out of pocket. I do collect miles on credit cards I've had for over a decade. But so much of what people do in this arena (like flipping credit cards) isn't ethical, in my opinion, and it drives me bonkers. I'll never forget the time when I sat in a conference with head of PR for one of my fave hotel brands. Someone tried to slam her with a question about why they don't offer a loyalty program. She flat out said something like, "People who travel on points aren't our desired clientele." I get it.


Monday 30th of March 2015

Love your insight on this! And yes, the ethics line is often what keeps me from stepping into it completely. We just do a little bit with credit card bonuses and that's about it.


Monday 30th of March 2015

I never knew this was such a thing. Wow.