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Is gaming airlines and reward programs worth it? Depends on where you’re sitting (and if you like extra legroom)

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: June 1, 2019
  • Published June 1, 2019

The term “travel hacker” is relatively new. In the old days, there were groups of people who really loved to travel and designed their lives around that passion. Some joined the military. Others joined the Peace Corps. Some just saved up for a round-the-world ticket and took off.

The travel industry has evolved, and there are more options for travelers who are hooked on seeing the world. This includes leveraging frequent flyer plans, signing up for credit cards and closely following the ups and downs of published airfares.

Some travelers (like me) get up early every morning, scan bulletins, maps and alert notifications to find the best fares.

Other travelers have their trips plotted on a spreadsheet, noting how many miles they’ve earned with their favorite airline. “Mileage runs” are a regular part of their lives — where they will take an extra trip just to earn the miles and get elite status. Again, I’m guilty of this.

So, today’s travel hacker represents the “gamification” of travel. When an airline or hotel chain asks for your frequent flyer or loyalty number, they really are asking, “Are you a player?”

Is it wrong? I don’t think so. But my friend and fellow travel columnist Christopher Elliott warns against going overboard in his recent article for The Washington Post, “Avoid these travel hacks for a smoother summer vacation.”

Elliott takes aim at Skiplagged, the popular site that documents “hidden city” bargains. If you buy a one-way ticket to a popular hub like Denver on United’s nonstop, it can be expensive: $705 one-way at the last minute. But if you buy a ticket from Anchorage to Seattle on United (via Denver), the fare drops to $183 one-way. This strategy is not for everybody. You can’t check your bags part way, and you cannot claim a refund for any unused tickets.

United is flying nonstop from Anchorage to Newark this summer. The cost is $400 each way. But if you fly Anchorage-Newark-Boston on United, the cost is $175 one-way (on June 25). There’s a two-hour layover in Newark, during which you can ponder whether or not you’d like to continue on to Boston.

All airlines, including United, maintain that hidden city ticketing is a violation of their specific terms and conditions. But it is not against the law.

An airline could, I suppose, ban you from flying on them and confiscate your frequent flyer miles.

For travelers who want to make the most of their frequent flyer plans, these are the magic words: “earn and burn.”

That means you have to earn the miles in a hurry and use them as quickly as possible. The reason is that nothing in the world depreciates faster than frequent flyer miles. In his article, Elliott maintains “the house always wins” with loyalty plans. I suppose that’s true in the long game, because the house (airline) gets you in the habit of flying on their brand in order to build more miles to use later.

Airlines, including Alaska Air, are clever to require you to re-qualify as an “elite” every calendar year. There are nice incentives, too: early boarding, bonus miles, the chance at a free upgrade and a shortcut to telephone service through a dedicated number. This is where being a player offers some benefits.

Serious travel hackers play credit card bingo. That is, they sign up for credit cards to get the frequent flyer bonus miles. This usually involves making a “minimum spend” of $2,000 to $5,000 within the first 90 days of getting a new card. Here’s the downside: if you’re late with a payment, you could get hit with expensive interest and penalty charges. You must be vigilant with the popular frequent flyer cards, since the bank is betting you’ll slip up and they’ll be able to collect some handsome fees.

Currently, I have three Alaska Airlines Visa cards, issued by Bank of America. On the last card, I received a 40,000 mile bonus and a free companion ticket (I’ll pay the takes and fees up to $141). I plan to use the companion fare on an expensive ticket to Hawaii or Mexico. That will save me about $500. I’ve already used the 40,000 miles for two tickets: one to Spokane and one to Juneau. That’s saved me about $1,000. Am I a player? You bet. Is the house winning? Well, I guess so—but I’m OK with that.

The other credit cards that I like are the Chase cards, which feature “Ultimate Rewards.” These are “flexible spend” cards, with points that I can transfer to a number of different loyalty plans, such as Hyatt or IHG (Intercontinental Hotel Group, with Holiday Inn, Kimpton and Intercontinental). There also are several airlines that accept the points on a 1:1 basis including United, Southwest, Singapore Air, AirFrance and Korean. The most expensive card, the “Chase Sapphire Reserve” card, costs $450 per year. That includes a $300 travel credit as well as a “Priority Pass” membership, valid for airport lounges around the world.

Right now, there’s a Chase “Ink” card that will yield 80,000 points after I spend $5,000 in 90 days. That works out to about $1,000 in travel expenditures, although it’s not an exact ratio because different plans value the points at a different rate. There’s a website I follow which details some (not all) the best travel bonus credit cards:

Another key strategy is to grab good fares when they appear. Typically, they don’t last long. From Anchorage to the West Coast, there are some great deals to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and L.A. Internationally, it’s a good time to fly to San Jose, Costa Rica: just $514 round trip on Delta or United starting Sept. 8.

Or, fly from Anchorage to Shanghai on Delta for $579 round trip via Seattle. There are plenty of seats for travel between Oct. 15 and Dec. 12. Pro tip: Upgrade to “Comfort +” for $99 each way. The upgrade offers extra legroom and free drinks.

Snag a cheap ticket to Seattle, then catch Norwegian’s nonstop flight to London. Between Oct. 13 and Oct. 26, the outbound flight is $175. The return flight from London to Seattle is $234 one-way. That’s a pretty good deal, even though you won’t earn Alaska Airlines miles.

So am I a travel hacker? Yes. Am I a player in the game of travel? I like to think so. Still, Elliott is right to be wary of shady travel tricks. Most of the best deals are just a few clicks away — in plain sight for all to see.