Travel hackers are thought to be some of the world’s smartest travelers. But they may not be as smart as they think.
Consider what happened to the Lufthansa passenger who tried one of the oldest travel tricks in the book, a strategy called “hidden city” ticketing. The passenger, booked to fly from Seattle to Oslo, skipped the last leg of the flight and traveled to Berlin from Frankfurt on a separate Lufthansa ticket instead, which reportedly saved him $2,385.
Lufthansa sued the unnamed passenger in Berlin, part of an industry-wide crackdown on hidden city hackers. A lower court dismissed the case, and the airline has appealed.
Hidden city ticketing, where you get off the plane at a stopover instead of flying to your designated final destination, takes advantage of a quirk in airline ticket pricing. Sometimes, counterintuitively, it costs more to fly to the stopover city than to the final destination.
Iffy travel advice can ruin a summer vacation, leaving you with no airline seat or hotel room, and maybe even landing you in court. And some of the most questionable advice you can receive is about creatively booking airline tickets, collecting loyalty points and choosing destinations.
Why “hidden cities” is a terrible travel hack
One of the best-known travel hacks is the one the Lufthansa passenger used. Sites like Skiplagged, which advertise “ridiculous” travel deals, allow users to plan itineraries that openly rely on “missing” the last leg of the flight.
But getting sued isn’t your only worry when you try to use hidden city ticketing, says Sean Messier, an analyst with Credit Card Insider, a website that encourages the responsible, strategic use of credit cards. Passengers who use this tactic with affinity credit cards linked to their airline loyalty programs could also run the risk of having their accounts terminated, he says.
Points hackers: don’t do this!
Another favorite travel hack: manipulating airline loyalty programs to score “free” flights or upgrades. Some travel experts encourage you to purchase points or miles in violation of your program’s terms. Buying points through a travel company is fine, though not usually a good deal. Purchasing them on the dark web or through a broker? Not fine.
For example, Delta Air Lines’ SkyMiles terms clearly state that Delta reserves the right to terminate the account of anyone “who sells or barters Mileage Upgrade Awards, or who sells or barters mileage credit, vouchers, Award certificates or Award Tickets.” Other ways to run up a mileage balance are so problematic I won’t even mention them in this column.
When a points purchase goes south, “it is horrid for both the seller and buyer,” says Randi Winter, a Virtuoso travel agent for Passionate Travel in Vancouver, B.C. “You can lose your payment if the points are confiscated by the airline or hotel. There is no insurance for illegal activities.”
Winter’s advice for would-be mileage hackers? Find a credit card that fits your lifestyle, spend normally and reap the benefits.
Legitimate travel experts avoid tricks meant to boost your mileage balance, such as transferring large balances or manufacturing spending or using cards in ways that were not intended. Eventually, the credit card companies will catch on, closing loopholes and maybe even canceling your account.
Playing the mileage game also requires that you turn a blind eye to an unavoidable truth: Loyalty programs always benefit the company more than the customer. No matter how well you play, the house always wins.
A less dangerous kind of travel hack is peddled by a broader cross section of travel experts, from travel bloggers to, ahem, travel columnists. It falls under the category of mindless contrarianism, by which I mean running in the opposite direction from the crowd without considering the consequences.
This may include booking a flight to a less popular airport without considering the inconvenience and the added cost of getting to your final destination. Or the old “book a hotel outside the city” hack.
“It’s true that hotels farther from the city center or the airport are often less expensive than hotels closer to the action,” says Calvin Iverson, a travel expert at the travel-deal website TravelPirates. But before you book one of those hotels for the low price, Iverson recommends researching transportation options, which may add to the expense of your trip. “Sometimes public transportation isn’t easy or inexpensive, and you end up paying more than you would have paid for a stay at a more conveniently located hotel,” Iverson says.
He’s right. Even the smartest travel hacking advice can have a downside. Cheap hotel rooms are in the worst part of the building. (You know, the broom closet next to the elevator and above the disco.) Bargain hotels can be miles from civilization. And no matter what a travel blogger tries to tell you, there’s no such thing as a “free” airline seat or upgrade. You will pay eventually — directly or indirectly — for the amenity.
The hackers make a valid point, though. Whether it’s the terms of your loyalty program or the complex tariffs governing your airline ticket, the travel industry’s rules are complex and ever-changing. The rules also unfairly favor the travel company.
But you don’t fix them by breaking them.