What’s so wrong about travel “hacking”?


Thank you for reading Elliott’s Email, my weekly newsletter. I’m very grateful for your support – without you, none of the advocacy work I do here would be possible. Don’t forget, you can subscribe to my daily email newsletter here.

What you need to know this week

Please support this site. I know that you count on Elliott.org for advice and advocacy. I count on you to help support the work I do every day. If you’re an individual, please consider becoming an underwriter. If you’re a company, I invite you to join Allianz, Airport Parking Reservations, Luggage Pros, Refund.me, Squaremouth.com and ShamaTravel.com as an organization that takes a brave stand for your customer. Here are the details.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage. VisitorsCoverage is one of the world’s most trusted providers of travel insurance for millions of global travelers in over 175 countries. Working with top-rated travel insurance partner providers, VisitorsCoverage’s award-winning search, compare and purchase technology simplifies the travel insurance process and finds the best deals for the coverage you need to explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at VisitorsCoverage.

What’s so wrong about travel “hacking”? I’ll tell you in my USA Today column. Please don’t forget to leave a comment and share this important column with your friends.

Away is Home is back! We’ve relaunched our travel-talk site, Away is Home. Check out our first new post on the ethics of “borrowing” from the hotel lost-and-found.

Who are the best nomadic bloggers? Here are the finalists. Don’t forget, you can still vote for the best photography bloggers, as well as the top outdoor bloggers, business travel bloggers and food bloggers.

And the best budget travel bloggers are … Here are the winners. Thanks for voting!

Become the world’s smartest traveler. Buy my new book, How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler, and you’ll never have another bad trip. (And if you do, you know where to find me, right?)

Welcome, ShamaTravel.com! ShamaTravel.com has been helping people make their vacation dreams come true for over 30 years. Plane tickets to river cruises, all-inclusive resorts to customized European tours, Mexican getaways to Caribbean cruises. No matter where you’re going, Shama will help you get there! Finding the lowest airfares is my specialty. Email your request to [email protected]. I’m very grateful to ShamaTravel for its support of the consumer advocacy on this site.

This week’s burning questions

Phrases that make travel worse. I’m working on a story about phrases that are accepted as conventional wisdom in the travel business, but actually make the travel experience worse. Among them: “Want first class? Buy first class!” “You get what you pay for” and “No waivers, no favors.” Have you ever heard these phrases used to justify receiving reduced service or no service when you’re on the road? Have you heard any other phrases like it? And is there a better phrase to describe the same concept that people should use instead? Here’s my email address.

The latest news from Elliott

New videos! I have a series of new clips from my YouTube channel. I answer questions like: Should I book my trip directly? Also, when should you apply for a passport? Find out everything you ever wanted to know about agency commissions, but were afraid to ask. Check them out!

Do I deserve a refund for this Sicilian vacation rental?
What makes Sylvia Guarino’s case interesting isn’t that she had a disappointing stay at a vacation rental.

The travel industry cracks down on smokers
Landra Osmus doesn’t smoke. So when she checked out of the Comfort Suites at Sabino Canyon in Tucson, Ariz., recently, she was surprised to find a charge on her bill.

Warning! These “free” travel offers can really cost you
The travel industry is infatuated with the word “free,” and face it, so are travelers. Don’t believe me?

Can I get a refund for my river cruise to Ukraine?
Shortly after Jack and Pat Davies book a river cruise to Ukraine, the country begins to fall apart.

Let’s talk

I’m listening. The stories you see in this newsletter are just a starting point. I hope you’ll take a minute to leave a comment, whether you agree or disagree with something I’ve written. Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google. I’m listening. And of course, I’m also here if you need me. Here’s my email address.

70 thoughts on “What’s so wrong about travel “hacking”?

  1. I don’t get why throwing away half a round trip ticket is somehow wrong. Is there some implied promise that you will show up to board the flight? (re: the hacking article)

    1. Certainly a violation of the fare rules. “Throwaway ticketing” is specifically mentioned in United’s fare rules. They could refuse to serve a passenger who they feel has deliberately circumvented their fare rules.

        1. Here’s Air Canada’s explanation:

          Air Canada specifically prohibits the practice commonly known as throwaway ticketing and itis strictly forbidden per IATA Ticketing Handbook Resolution 830A.

          These are tickets sold as round-trip excursion fares to be used for one-way travel or the purchase of a ticket from a point other than the customers actual originating city or to a point beyond the customer’s actual destination. This practice of selling a ticket with a fictitious point of origin or destination in order to undercut the applicable fare is contrary to the Industry Resolutions and applicable tariffs and fares, even if the passenger asks for such a ticket.

          It can result in:

          *The passenger being stopped by the airline and being required to pay the additional fare and/or
          *The issuing Travel Agency be debited by Air Canada for the applicable fare difference and/or
          *The Travel Agency loosing their agency appointment.

          Some passengers have found their frequent flier status (and miles) eliminated when the airline suspected them of using throwaway ticketing.

          1. Part of their demand pricing. The consider demand from the view of the endpoints and not the segments.

            I was looking to book a car rental. I played around with it and the prices were really high. Then I added a day and the daily rate just dropped like a rock. Total costs would be over $100 less, and possibly even lower if the lower daily rate was valid for one fewer day. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I booked it and then returned it a day early. I’ve heard it depends on the place and even the manager on duty. Some may in fact require that the car be returned the day it was scheduled or be charged the higher rate.

          2. I’m not questioning that it happens, but WHY. I guess they’re selling more “product” and making it appear as if they are busier than they really are.

          3. It happens because they’re trying to make the most money. Pretty simple as a concept, even if most people think it’s counterintuitive.

          4. Huh? You just said they’re making LESS money ($100) than they would if you rented for one less day. They ARE losing money.

          5. Were you referring to the airlines or the car rental?

            I was trying out car rental rates around Labor Day with a return on Labor Day or the day after. That’s a higher demand because more people are returning from vacation.

            So they charge more for those who are pigeonholed into certain days that match vacation/holidays, but charge less for those who aren’t hooked into those days because there’s less demand and they’re trying to compete for customers.

          6. I was responding to your last post about the car rental. They are, loosely stated, “cooking the books” by making it appear that the demand is higher (i.e., more days rented). Consider this example:

            I have 3 suits that cost me $300 (total). I will sell you one for $500, two for $700 (total) or all three for $900 (total). Although I make less PER SUIT when you buy more than one, I still make more profit. But if I sell you two suits for a total of $400 I HAVE lost money (vs. $500 for one). This is what the airlines do when they send me from A-B-C for less than they charge for just A-B.

      1. They can write up any rule they want, but how can they actually force anyone to use the return half of a ticket? Has there been any actual instance of someone being penalized for not using a return ticket, other than losing frequent flyer miles?

        1. They claim to reserve the right to ask for the remainder of the full fare if they catch anyone. Or they could penalized the travel agent if it was booked by one. People have gotten stranded because an airline suspected the passenger was attempting to set up a throwaway ticket. They could also blacklist passengers in the future.

          The other deal is that the most useful throwaway tickets aren’t for two ends of a two round-trips like they used to be. They’re for segments where the pricing is actually lower for a longer trip. I was looking at various “tips” on how to game the system, and one is that you should never check in bags because you can get them to drop them off in the middle of your ticketed itinerary. They’ll easily be on to the fact that you’re booking it as a throwaway segment.

          1. But what would prevent a passenger from call the carrier claiming to be sick and unable to use the return leg. If it’s the usual type of nonrefundable ticket, the standard procedure at that point is that nothing happens. And how can they tell if the pax is “attempting to set up a throwaway ticket” unless there are other reservations on the same carrier near the date>

          2. Anyone who does this often enough will likely rack up a lot of mysterious looking unused segments. Maybe they can try different airlines, but someone who does this often enough will draw scrutiny from airline auditors.

          3. oh beware the airline police !!!!!!
            This discussion is kind of stupid. Unless airlines get the power to shoot passengers who don’t use their return ticket, it’s laughable.
            We booked a large 6 bedroom apartment for 3 families based on a min 7 nights & one family actually asked what will happen, if we want to check out early.
            I said, you will be arrested & they laughed at how stupid their question was.

          4. Alas,

            The discussion is not meaningless. What happens in real life?

            1. Frequent flyer accounts closed
            2. Travel agents fined

            If you are going to violate the airline rules, you have to know how to do it, i.e. don’t use your frequent flier account and don’t ask your travel agent to make the reservations.

          5. don’t be ridiculous, airlines can’t fine anyone, they are just fricking airlines, not govt agencies or authorities.
            A travel agent can’t be held responsible for a member of the public asking for flights to be booked !!!

  2. The airline certainly has the power to penalize you if you throw away the second part of the ticket, but does the purchase violate any ethical rules.

    I submit that in general the vendor has no ethical right to tell you how to use your purchase. You can use all, part, or none as you and you alone decide.

    A six pack of soda may be cheaper than buying fewer individually, must I drink all six?

    1. You won’t get any argument from me on this but the carriers say that when you buy a roundtrip ticket, you have a contract to travel roundtrip, so by not doing so, you have violated the contract.

      1. Agreed. But it’s still idiotic. There are so few situations where the purchase of a fungible service means you must use the entire service.

        1. Again, I agree. But the 3 piece suit you bought or the 6 pack of soda you bought, aren’t considered contracts. You know lawyers….they write these contracts 🙂

          1. They are absolutely contracts. And curiously, I just bought a 3 piece suit which I wore for the first time last week..

        2. If you don’t show up on Amtrak, they cancel the entire reservation unless you call in that you have a problem and are making alternate plans to meet up for the next segment.

          1. Lately, the one way airfares seem to be exactly half of the cost of a round trip ticket. So now I buy 2 one-way tickets instead of a round trip ticket, exactly for that reason.

          2. Traditionally the throwaway tickets were used to get around the Saturday stay requirement for an excursion fare. However, more people are using “hidden city” fares where they get off in the middle (could be a connection or same plane) rather than continue. Often the fare will be cheaper than booking the nonstop.

          3. Here’s a funny one.

            Let’s say you live in San Francisco and you travel to LA regularly but the Saturday night stay was a pain. Say

            1. Monday: SFO-LAX (outbound of roundtrip ticket)
            2. Friday LAX-SFO (inbound of round trip leg)

            You missed the Saturday night stay. The trick

            1. Monday: SFO-LAX one way
            2. Friday LAX-SFO (outbound of round trip)
            3. Monday: SFO-LAX (inbound of round trip)
            Repeat #2 and #3

            Now it appears that you have the requisite Saturday night stay.

          4. While I haven’t had a client have this happen, but if you ‘get off’ at the hidden city, then your return becomes invalid, if you booked a roundtrip and the carrier may charge your credit card for current fare to the hidden city.

          5. I understand that there’s a huge risk with the hidden city trick, if the airline cancels a flight and then offers a reroute to the scheduled “destination”. So if the point is to book SFO-DEN-ORD (but the goal is SFO-DEN) and there’s a problem flying into Denver, then the passenger is screwed. They may offer a seat on a direct flight or another routing that doesn’t go through Denver.

          6. Weather delays don’t happen? And I wasn’t really thinking of the chances, but the consequences should it happen.

          7. Yes, they do, but the chance of it happening is as important as the consequences.

            If, say, it happens in 1 out of 100 flights and you save say $100 per flight that’s 10k in savings. That’s worth having to pay one walk up ticket.

          8. everything is heading towards one way fares.
            Interestingly, Canada 3000 (launch airline for Aribus A330-200) one of the 1st long haul low cost airlines (who folded after SEP11 when Canadian govt didn’t support their airliens like US govt did) when they started flying to Australia in mid 90’s I think it was, posted fares that were 2 x one way fares & every date(they only flew to SYD twice a week initially) had a different fare depending on expected demand. Much like yield management today, but this was 20 years ago. Feel they were ahead of their time.

          9. Southwest always charged separately as far as I recall. Besides that, even as far back as 2004, the Saturday stay requirement was going away.

            articles.latimes. com/2004/aug/15 /travel/tr-insider15

          10. No, everything is no heading towards one way fares. Just as you think you know, they will throw you a curve ball. I just issued some roundtrip tickets at the lowest business class fare that required a minimum 7 night stay. Lots of roundtrip fares that are lower than two one ways.

          11. didn’t say tomorrow, but LCC’s are taking over the world. Frequent flyer programmes are dying along with legacy carriers. Here in Australia, good ol Qantas is dying fast. it’s expected they will announce a AUD$1 billion loss next week, that AUD$1,000,000,000.00 loss or around AUD$2,740,000.00 a day loss. Currently AUD$1 = USD$0.93
            It’s expected by many, that Qantas International will keep shrinking until it doesn’t have any international routes flown with it’s own metal.
            Everything will be code shared or give to Qantas low cost Jetstar.
            All flights to Europe from Australia with Qantas are now Emirates from Dubai, except a few Qantas flights to London via Dubai.
            In one swoop, Qantas lost all the Jewish business to Europe.
            Why ? Qantas used to be the public service & even today, decades after the company went public, it still have staff tripping over themselves, trying to find something to do, on massive salaries.
            Unfortunately, we don’t have chapter 11 in Australia, so if Qantas sack staff, they have to pay them huge redundancy payments.
            Some pilots on AUD$500,000.00 a year & as Qantas are invariably the most expensive, people aren’t flying with them.

  3. I wasn’t quite sure what travel hacking was, so I had to read your column (nice touch!). While some things appear unethical, your conclusion in the middle that “most forms of travel hacking, however, are completely legal,” strikes me as the takeaway. As a tax attorney, I’ve come to observe that something is only a tax loophole if someone else qualifies for it and you do not. I would liken that to travel hacking for the most part, it’s only a hack if you didn’t get it and someone else did, otherwise it’s just a good deal.

    1. Chris is focusing more on ethics than legality, which is legitimate but some people have a very high threshold before they will sense any guilt. One way to view it is whether a behavior adversely affects other travelers, or could be construed as a reaction that is simply the fault of the purveyor and only hurts the purveyor, and thus it’s up to them to close the “loophole”. Chris makes the valid point that some of the behavior he calls unethical does, though legal, result in policies and changes that are harmful to other travelers. One blogger that I read suggests doing throwaway ticketing on reward seats, since this too can sometimes save miles. I don’t like that in part because you’re harming another traveler who won’t have access to that award seat which you don’t actually intend to use.

      1. Of course, it’s important to remember there is a distinction between ethics and morality. “Ethics” refers to a series of rules provided or adopted by an external source, such as society, profession, or religion, for example, while morality refers to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong. Something may be ethical within society but violate the subjective morality of an individual.

  4. To me, the solution is missing. Airlines should price flights sensibly OR give up the scrutiny. A round trip should never be less than a one way (no economic reason to do otherwise). Same for connecting flights (if flying from A-B a flight from A-B-C should be more). When airlines price flights the way they do, they’re asking for flyers to drop segments. Forcing flyers to either fly the whole route OR pay higher prices makes no sense (at least to me). After all, how does it cost them more to have me on fewer flights or for less time on the plane?

    1. I don’t defend what they do, just have to follow the rules to be allowed to sell them. So what I have to tell clients is that the ticket is a contract. If you buy a ticket from SMF to SFO to HNL and decide to just pickup the last segment in SFO (had a similar situation with a client years ago) because business has you in the city and it would save you from driving back to SMF, the carrier will say no unless you want your ticket repriced as the current fare. If you are a nonshow in SMF the rest of your itinerary will be canceled. Bottom line, is you are telling the airline that your are traveling a certain way so the price of your ticket is based on that. Want to play games? They will and can reprice.
      With this said, I did have a honeymoon couple who bought roundtrip ticket from SAN to Europe. They made these arrangements months ahead as it was summer time. One of them was given a transfer with the company they worked for and now were going to living in the DC area after the honeymoon. When new job situation came up, it was too close to the travel dates and being summer, space was booked up. I told them to tell the carrier on the return that they wanted to leave the airport upon going through customs in DC and the carrier said, no problem So sometimes being up and up with the airlines works!

      1. Thank you, but that wasn’t the point of my example. I’m referring to the instances where, for whatever crazy reason, an airline charges more for an A to B connection than they do for A to B to C. In those cases, why shouldn’t I be able to pay for A-B-C and get off at B. Or better yet, stop pricing ridiculous fares. Charging less while providing more service for me is silly.

          1. I use to work with a guy who contracted with our agency to rent a desk and handle pricing queues for agencies that paid his company for this service. He knew fares inside and out, as he use to work the pricing desk for some of the airlines. I asked him how fares came about. He said, a windowless room, pots of black coffee, books of rules for every country that allowed air flights and a good sense of humor, as they knew they would tick travelers off with the hidden city fares.

          2. I think you have the picture 🙂 Basically, at least when he was doing fares, there was no rhyme or reason except government requirements.

          3. Been to SFO many times and SMF a few times when I was staying the the Sac area. SFO isn’t close to San Francisco. SMF is extremely far away from most of the Sacramento area.

            I’ve read that some members of California’s legislature actually take Amtrak to get to Sacramento from their homes on the weekends. It’s actually more convenient than the airport. For San Francisco, Amtrak has a bus connector from several locations around downtown and Fishermans Wharf.

            There’s also an interesting deal with the bus service that Amtrak runs in California. They’re subsidized by California tax dollars, and by law the bus service can’t be booked without a reasonable train segment. There’s a lot of talk about people booking an Amtrak trip just to ride the bus and throwing away the train segment. It’s actually not a violation of Amtrak’s terms, and they might even issue credit for the unused portion of the trip. California law only says that the train travel must be booked with this bus service, and not that the passenger has to ride the train. It’s my understanding that this was lobbied by Greyhound since these connector buses would be competing with their services.

          4. Amtrak is doable, just not the most convenient way. You have train, bus, BART, so many connections if SFO is your destination. I have actually had people book the SMF to SFO flight and it isn’t cheap. When Amtrak says it leaves from SF, it is a bus ride across the bay to the train, so not exactly what many have in mind. I didn’t know about the terms of the bus. Interesting!

          5. I’ve ridden a few of these Amtrak buses. They’re nice. Really nice. They’ve got plush seating. Frankly they’re more comfortable than an airplane and there’s no security theater. A max carry-on sized bag is huge – up to 50 lbs and about the size of a checkin bag on most airlines. It took me about 35 minutes to get to SMF from Folsom (a hint to where I was working at the time) and about 15 minutes to get from the economy lot to the terminal. That’s a lot of time. Downtown Sac was far more convenient and I could pay to park in a garage for several days.

            There are a bunch of ways to get from San Francisco to Sacramento. Greyhound is a possibility. Then there’s Megabus. Amtrak is frankly pretty nice. They’ve got tables, WiFi, and food.

            Honestly though – most of the time I need to go to Sac, I’ll just drive.

          6. I found the law. California Government Code 14035.55 (c)(2):

            (c) Except as authorized under subdivisions (e) and (f), the department may provide funding to Amtrak for the purpose of entering into a contract with a motor carrier of passengers for the intercity transportation of passengers by motor carrier over regular routes only if all of the following conditions are met:

            (1) The motor carrier is not a public recipient of governmental
            assistance, as defined in Section 13902(b)(8)(A) of Title 49 of the United States Code, other than a recipient of funds under Section 5311(f) of that title and code. This paragraph does not apply if a local public motor carrier proposes to serve passengers only within its service area.

            (2) Service is provided only for passengers on trips where the
            passengers have had prior movement by rail or will have subsequent movement by rail, evidenced by a combination rail and bus one-way or roundtrip ticket, or service is also provided on State Highway Route 50 between the City of Sacramento and the City of South Lake Tahoe and intermediate points or on State Highway Route 5 between the community of Lebec in Kern County and the City of Santa Clarita for passengers solely by bus if no other bus service is provided by a private intercity bus company.

            (3) Vehicles of the motor carrier, when used to transport
            passengers pursuant to paragraph (2), are used exclusively for that purpose.

            So they have one exception, and it currently is possible to book their bus connector from Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe without booking a train segment. While they do have the law stating that most bus service is required to be booked only with a train, I can assure you that Amtrak doesn’t care if you toss away a train segment. They might however cancel the remainder of your ticket. For the San Francisco to Emeryville bus connector, they probably won’t care since it’s an “unreserved” train where your ticket is theoretically live and usable for a year for the same trip.

            I left out the earlier part (a) that was fluff about how important private intercity bus carriers were and that the state didn’t want to interfere with their ability to provide service.

            I’ve also seen a lot of these buses around San Francisco and taken a few. They are all clearly marked as Amtrak buses in the Amtrak California color scheme, so the contractor doesn’t shift around their equipment with their other operations (SFO Airporter is the contractor in the Bay Area).

    2. The Saturday stay requirement for an excursion fare is pretty much gone. Southwest had always listed round-trips as two one-way fares, although one could book together for the convenience of having one confirmation number and making sure that the entire itinerary could be complete.

      I will say that I remember one really funky reservation I made, and the best deal I ever got. I didn’t think it was a fat finger either. It was OAK-SNA on Alaska (they don’t run this any more). Left on a Saturday morning and returned on Tuesday. I played around with dates, and the one thing that changed the total fare wasn’t the return date but the departure time. If I took a flight before 7 AM it was $54 total fare. If I made it the next flight, it was $150+. I tried it with an earlier or later return flight and that didn’t change it. Now I’m not sure what might have happened had I booked the early flight and deliberately missed it to try to fly standby on the next flight. I wouldn’t do that, but I understand that a lot of people have no qualms about it. My wife has missed an Alaska flight (couldn’t get her out the door) and she waited four hours for the next flight.

    3. They do price it sensibly based on the profit motive, which is why they are in business. It’s about competition. Often the direct route A-B has no competition, while the indirect route A-B-C has competition from other carriers who offer A-D-C or A-E-C.

  5. The issue of “mistake” fares is an interesting one. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to book them. But I do think that if they aren’t honored, and there is quick notification they won’t be, it shows no class to then go running to the government, the courts, or Chris Elliott trying to force them to honor it.

    You don’t always know for sure, by the way. Companies do sometimes offer rates that seem unusually good. For instance I once booked a hotel in a small European town at $12 a night. That seemed absurd to me, but it was actually the going rate that night. The explanation I got when I was there was that this was the lowest of the low season at that destination. They figured if they could get people to stay at all there would be a certain expected revenue for food and incidentals, and at the same time they could keep their staff employed, knowing they would really need them within a few weeks, and preferring to keep happy employees, rather than constantly be recruiting new people. So my $12 a night hotel was no mistake. European and Asian air carriers, especially the LCCs, also often have fare promotions that you’d think must be a mistake, but aren’t.

  6. I don’t get the one about the credit card and then buying gift cards to get miles. What’s the difference between that and using the card for all your purchases? I haven’t thought of any yet.

    1. Many people are adept at then cashing in the gift card and getting their money back out of it, rather than using it for purchases. There are small transactional costs involved, but to the practitioner of this strategy the value of the miles is greater than the costs. Some do this very often and with substantial amounts of money. It is probably legal, but many would consider it a shady type of operation.

      1. I get it, I think. You turn the cards back in for cash? Is that correct? I did a quick search and the best return was for Target gift cards at 92%. (Kohl’s is generally the worst.) $80 per $1000 seems a bit high for FF miles. First class airline tickets in many cases are cheaper than acquiring miles this way. Depends on what the return is I guess.

        1. If you buy the gift card somewhere that you have a category bonus on your credit card, or if you’re meeting a minimum spend requirement, that can make up for the transactional loss. But the slicker operators have ways to minimize that through some of the financial services systems out there – they manage to move lots of money back and forth without actually spending much of it at all. That’s the “manufactured spend” referred to. I’m not interested, but it evidently can work very well if you know how.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: