These travel hacks just don’t work (so don’t even try)

Philip Pragados thought he’d discovered a perfect travel hack: sharing his TSA PreCheck number, also called a “Known Traveler Number,” with a friend.

“She used it and was sent to the PreCheck line,” says Pragados, an IT consultant who lives in Washington.

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People probe the system every day, looking for shortcuts. If Pragados had been right, this would have been a clever insider tip. Imagine saving the $85 and application process and being able to use one of the faster lines, which allow you to avoid the invasive full-body scanners and having to remove your shoes and laptop computers.

But it wasn’t a hack. Turns out a number isn’t enough to give you a PreCheck mark on your boarding pass. Travelers without PreCheck status can be sent to the preferred lines.

“Individuals may get TSA PreCheck via other mechanisms, where TSA uses intelligence information and Secure Flight passenger and itinerary information to determine if a traveler is low-risk on any given flight,” says Bruce Anderson, a TSA spokesman.

And no, you can’t share your Known Traveler Number, the same way you may share the password to your favorite entertainment site.

When it comes to travel, everyone wants to be a hacker. Problem is, most of the hacks don’t work and may hurt travelers more than they help. Maybe we should try to be smarter consumers instead.

Bogus travel hacks are so numerous, it’s hard to know where to start. How about with this one: You can find a cheaper hotel rate by phoning the property directly, bypassing the website or online agency? Nah, says Marcy Schackne, who works for a luggage company and is a very frequent traveler.

“I’ve tried this many times,” she says. “Never works. When the property is part of a national brand, there is an immediate redirect to the reservations call center and no room to be negotiated.”

Here’s another popular hotel “hack”: bribing the front desk guy for an upgrade.

“When you present your credit card and driver’s license up front, you slip a $20 or even a $100 in between,” says Mitch Goldstone, who works for an Irvine, Calif., technology company. Truth is, the clerk will often keep the money and give you the assigned room, thinking you just gave him a tip. “And you’re left with nothing,” he says.

Renting a car? Opaque travel sites used to be a great way to game the system. But lately, that’s not where to find the cheapest inventory, Clem Bason says. He ought to know, since he’s the former president of Hotwire.com, one of the sites that offers the deeply discounted cars.

“You can now find lower prices — and know the brand before you book — at places like Costco, AAA and the direct websites of Avis and Budget,” he says.

Then there are airlines. Ah, airlines! Almost every hack you’ve heard is probably inaccurate or flat-out wrong. Among my favorites: Clear your cache to avoid high airfares, don’t use a Mac, buy 42 days in advance, book after midnight on a Tuesday.

“No,” says Charles McCool, a frequent traveler and independent trip planning coach. “I have never seen these tricks change any results.”

Pragados, the security consultant who discovered the TSA vulnerability, is relieved. He says he was more concerned about a potential security breach than finding a hack. “But it certainly puts the whole TSA PreCheck status in a different light. And sounds like a way for TSA to make money,” he says.

When you hear the word “hack,” don’t walk away — run. That’s the assessment of Anne Klaeysen, leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Many of these strategies involve lying, exaggerating or using the system in a way it wasn’t intended. All of those actions have consequences for other travelers, potentially leading to higher prices or more restrictive policies.

It’s far better to work within the rules. Instead of trying to game the system, make informed, common-sense purchases that reward the best companies with your business. Doing anything else may compromise your ethics.

“Besides,” Klaeysen says, “don’t you have anything better to do with your time than try to beat the system?”

Non-hacking ways to travel on the cheap

• Airlines. Book your ticket when most people do (one to four months before you fly), and you’ll probably find a decent fare. Don’t buy too early or wait too long. Fares tend to rise just before departure. Don’t obsess about finding the lowest fare — you’ll waste your time saving a few dollars.

• Car rental. Once you’ve followed Bason’s advice, checking Costco, AAA and the direct websites of car rental companies, you may want to check one of the opaque sites such as Priceline.com or Hotwire.com just to make sure they can’t do better. But he’s right: Often the car rental companies will have the lowest price and the most favorable terms.

• Hotels. The hotel pricing landscape is shifting under your feet. To find a great deal, check Google’s hotel search (google.com) or a meta-search site such as Kayak (kayak.com). Consult an online agency such as Expedia or Booking.com to see if they can do better, and if you find a hotel you like, click on the property’s website to make sure there isn’t a better rate.

14 thoughts on “These travel hacks just don’t work (so don’t even try)

  1. I agree.. I am all for and in favor of being a smart, educated and active consumer.. I think these folks tend to get the best deals, best service and lowest problem rate.. on the whole, I don’t think ‘hacks’ as they’re referred to, is either a sustainable nor advantageous way to operate.. in some cases, (not all, but some) using the hack requires violating company policy or the agreement/contract (adhesion or not) you agreed to at the time of purchase.. and in doing so, you’ve now given the business an opportunity to take negative action against you — if they choose to do so.

    So, hacks to me is like the old police radar gun and radar detector game.. as one moves forward, the other catches up.. and at the end of the day, I don’t either side really comes out a true winner..

    Yes, some things businesses do are things one can call anti-consumer/pro-business… but I don’t think a hack is really the solution.. to me, better and more sustainable remedies are things like choosing to take your business elsewhere.. media attention and even in the longer term, possible legislative action… these all to me help to fix the problem, and without requiring you, the consumer, to put yourself into what may be a non-complaint position and therefore vulnerable to consequences.

  2. So tell me, please, someone: Are the ideas of buying on Tuesday because fares tend to change then, or clearing cookies so the airline doesn’t know you’re REALLY interested in a certain trip complete myths? I certainly recall people in the past saying that info changed when they cleared cookies – is that info obsolete?

    I don’t really see how ethics enters into this, except I’d argue that it would be unethical were an airline to charge more to a person who keeps coming back to check a fare. Lying is unethical, of course, as is bribery. But clearing cookies or shopping on Tuesday?

    Advice such as ” Book your ticket when most people do (one to four months before you
    fly), and you’ll probably find a decent fare. Don’t buy too early or wait too long.” is not really very helpful. What it says is true but so general and vague as to be useless.

    1. buying on Tuesday is bull — airlines used to regularly load fares at certain times, but the expanse of the internet has changed all that. Fares change multiple times daily now, so just look for a schedule and fare you can live with and move on

  3. ‘When you hear the word “hack,” don’t walk away — run.’ I was a bit concerned when I read this statement. While it is certainly true that some of the methods discussed here, such as giving someone your TSA precheck number (dumb!) or bribing the desk attendant, are illegal or violate rules or are just plain stupid, most of what is listed in this article and in many other articles on “travel hacking” is not. Booking after midnight on Tuesdays may not really work, but it is certainly not violating any rules, nor is using an opaque site like Hotwire.com. Calling the hotel directly usually does not work, but maybe it will for some properties. I’ve not had it work before, but when we checked out of a property in Tulum this summer their promotions director handed me his card and promised a repeater discount if we called directly next time. Clearing your cookies probably won’t do anything, but it won’t hurt, either.

  4. “And no, you can’t share your Known Traveler Number, the same way you may share the password to your favorite entertainment site.”

    But that is exactly what he did and according to your story it worked. So you just taught thousands of others to try this.

    ““She used it and was sent to the PreCheck line,” says Pragados, an IT consultant who lives in Washington.”

    Am I mis-reading this?

  5. Anyone sharing their trusted traveler number is a fool. If the TSA checks the number against the ID of the person who provided it and found they don’t match, there’s a good chance the individual will be detained and possibly be charged with fraud.

    The person who the number belonged to may lose their privileges as well, maybe permanently if it’s determined it was done on purpose. Nobody will ever get their hands on mine.

    1. I would hope there’s more than a good chance the individual will be detained–I’d like to see a 100% chance that person AND the person the number belongs to get good, stiff sentences! This is far more serious than sharing a password to an entertainment site.

  6. I’ve only been away for a month, but has the word ‘hack’ replaced ‘scam’? What definition of hack are we using?

    I play lots of games with travel, and I like to win. But I’ll not do anything illegal or against the rules. I still believe, as I was taught, that ‘God will get you’ or ‘Karma comes around’ or whatever phrase you like to describe the concept that you should play by the rules or suffer the consequences. Who wants to be on their way to NYC for the weekend and be pulled out because of an invalid TT number? In addition to ruining your trip, wasting your time, throwing away your money, you could be in big trouble with TSA. It’s dumb, just dumb.

  7. Normally, I would agree with you, but because I live in Europe, I use a VPN. I was searching for a multi-city ticket from Merida, Mexico to Mexico City (same day) leaving Mexico City for La Paz, Bolivia on Feb 4 and then from La Paz to Cuenca, Ecuador on March 5. After checking some of my favorite sites, using a Miami location, I went back and turned off the VPN and checked again. Some of the same sites were $50 cheaper for the exact itinerary. I booked it then.

  8. Thank you for the possible explanation but this is poorly written if that is the case – it is unclear in the story what was going on.

    I have Global Entry and it is worth every penny I paid for it. I’ve never not had TSA Pre check and coming back from an international flight is a breeze.

  9. The airline I fly most often — Alaska — has a low fare guarantee. Since flights out of ANC fill up fast, I buy once my plans are firm if I can get an airfare within my definition of reasonable. If the fare falls, I get the difference. The only catch is that you have to ask for it — the airline won’t give you a credit unless you ask for it.

    And I get Pre-check all the time, despite never having paid for it or Global Entry. Maybe because I have elite status with AS, maybe because my DH holds an ATP certificate, maybe because he has a gov’t security clearance, maybe because I’ve passed a FBI background check for work several times over, maybe all of the above. I refuse to pay for something I believe I am as entitled to as any other citizen. And Pre-check is useless at many of the gates my trips fly out of, e.g. AS at BOS, and almost anywhere in Bush Alaska where the terminals are simply too small for more than one slow-moving line of Alaskans with firearms and food in coolers.

    1. TSA precheck is random. I used to get it all the time without ever requesting it. Then we bought the Global Entry Card and it was worth every penny.

  10. I don’t consider calling a hotel directly to be a “hack”. I usually do and I dont think I’ve ever been redirected to their chain line. I frequently have to have gov per diem rates, and often none show as available so I call. Many tines when that rate was no longer available, they’ve searched and given me another comparable one, such as.AARP, even though I’m not old enough. Calling directly and being humble and kind works wonders.

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