"Travel Hacking": General Introduction to Earning and Using Frequent Flyer Miles

Yes, be that guy.
A few days ago in my South America trip’s “Logistics” post I mentioned that I’d talk more about frequent flyer miles. This post is just an introduction to that whole world, since it is sort of a mini-world. I’ll include a few practices that I’ve picked up, and I’ll also include some links to good resources if you want to get more into this. I’ll do it in a Question and Answer format, to make it easier to navigate.
What’s “Travel Hacking”?
“Travel Hacking” is a semi-serious term for any techniques, practices, or skills that you can use to optimize your travel experiences. These days, some people associate the word “hacking” with people who break into web pages or do things of dubious legality online, but that’s not what it means here. Here it just means to alter or fix things so that they work better.  
How do YOU travel hack, Ryan?
When you use it as a verb like that, it sounds kind of dirty, actually. But anyhow, it’s not! When I say I’ve gotten into travel hacking, I just mean that I’ve been following websites and blogs that are dedicated to improving people’s traveling experiences. Many of them also talk about frequent flyer miles and how to use them to your advantage, in order to get free flights, hotel rooms, and other rewards.
But does it work? Or do you spend so much time trying to figure out how to build up frequent flyer miles for a free flight, that it’s not worth it? Time is money, man!
Good point, Titan of Industry! I think it’s definitely worth it, since I enjoy traveling, blogging, and looking at stuff on a computer screen all (almost) equally! For me and other travel hackers, it’s all a fun hobby. It definitely can save you money and time, but it’s not like you’ll get a free ticket just by reading a blog for a few minutes. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, but once you get into it, travel hacking can be rewarding. For example, we took our trip to South America last year, as well as our trip to Germany in 2010, using only frequent flyer miles (well, we had to pay a $30 per ticket booking fee, but for tickets that are normally around $1,000 per person, that’s a huge difference). We’ll also be taking a trip to China later this year using 100,000 frequent flyer miles I got from British Airways, and I’ve never even been on a British Airways flight –but I do have a British Airways credit card from Chase that came with a ridiculously high 100,000 bonus miles offer! So an investment of time and curiosity can pay handsome rewards down the line.
Wait, man! There’s a better way to get free flights!

What other kinds of things are travel hackers interested in?
If you start to follow some travel hacking blogs, you’ll notice that the majority of them talk about:
-Trip reports (ie, where they’ve traveled lately, and the logistics of how they got there)
-General travel tips
-Frequent flyer programs and other loyalty programs, like for hotel chains
-General airline services like flight routes, airport lounges, and airline policies
-Using credit cards to maximize miles and points (I’ll go into this a bit more in a separate post)
-How to actually redeem all the miles and points that you’ve been accumulating
Why or how did you get into travel hacking?
I believe it started when my friend Brad referred me to Chris Guillebeau’s site, The Art of Non-Conformity. Chris is a guy in his early 30s that’s trying to go to every country in the world before he’s 35 (he’s very close to accomplishing it, with something like 10 or 15 countries remaining out of 193 total). He’s a very interesting writer, person, and traveler, and his site is more focused on how to generally improve one’s life. Since much of his life is based on traveling at the moment, and since much of his travel is with free reward tickets from frequent flyer programs, he also gets into that subject at times. He even has a few pages dedicated to this topic (herehere and here, for example). 
What other travel writers do you follow?
My other favorite travel sites/blogs include:
One Mile At A Time by Ben aka “Lucky” – He’s a young guy who talks a lot about the “fancier” side of travel (he works as a travel consultant and is frequently able to fly first class and stay in nice hotels).
View From The Wing by Gary – He talks about similar topics to the first blog, but with different perspectives. He also has a service that helps people book reward tickets, so he knows a lot about how the systems work.
Frugal Travel Guy and The Points Guy – Two more general travel blogs, but with slightly different topics.
Mommy Points – I’m not a mommy, but the woman who runs this blog is. She does a really good job of making some of the weird ins and outs of miles and points less complicated, and her blog is very clear and practical.
-If you notice, some of these blogs are connected to “Boarding Area,” a forum for frequent travelers. There are many more blogs there to check out, but it may be a bit full-on for people just getting into this. Flyer Talk and Milepoint are other similar forums but to be honest, besides the blogs mentioned above, I don’t use any of the forums, since it’s simply too much information for a casual hobbyist like me to take in.
That still sounds like a lot of sites to keep track of.
That’s not technically a question, but I’ll allow it. You’re right. If you’ve not tried Google Reader, I’d highly recommend it. It’s a way to keep track of all kinds of blogs and websites that you like (I currently follow over 100 sites, including my own blogs!), while only having to go to one place to read them. Here’s what it looks like:
Google Reader, a blog junkie’s best friend. This is my “Travel” folder.
If you have an iPhone or an iPod Touch (like I do), I’d recommend “FeedlerRSS,” an app that displays your Google Reader subscriptions in a very convenient and readable format. There are other sites,  programs, and apps to help you organize blogs and sites you visit, but Google is one of the most well-known.

I’d also recommend Award Wallet. It’s a site that keeps track of your frequent flyer miles and points in all your programs. It’s got a free version, or you can also pay a few dollars to upgrade to get more information (like reminders if your points are going to expire, and more detailed historical tracking). If you’re interested, tell me; I think I can send you an email to get a free 6-month premium trial, and it’ll also give me a few months for free if you sign up. Here’s what the site looks like, more or less:

I covered the account details, but you get the point.
Oh, and the 500 miles on Alaska? Free bonus just for signing up.

There’s a lot of jargon and weird terms I don’t understand on these blogs. What if I’m confused about some of this stuff?
It can be complicated, but these bloggers are very passionate and dedicated to traveling and travel hacking; in some cases, it’s literally their job. Most seem genuinely friendly, to boot. I’ve exchanged a few emails with both Chris and Lucky, and in addition to being very quick about responding, they were also very friendly and helpful with questions I had. Most of the other people on these sites will also be like that, assuming you put in a little effort on your side, too. If you have problems, though, there’s usually someone able and willing to help. There are also general information pages like Chris’.
What are other ways to earn miles? I don’t fly that much.
Most of my miles aren’t from actual flying, and that’s the case with most travel hackers. There are some good ways to use credit cards to your advantage (I’ll talk about that in a separate post), and there are weird, random promotions. That’s why it’s good to follow these blogs: they’ll tell you when you can get 250 Starwood Preferred Guest points just by “liking” some hotel in Charlotte on Facebook, or how you can get 100 American Airlines miles for watching a 3 minute video about Bose headphones. They’ll also usually mention fare sales, promotions, and other special offers, so it’s a good way to keep your bases covered.
Also, if you’re in the market for buying almost anything, especially online, then you can also check on the site evreward first. You can put in the name of the website or store (like bestbuy.com or Barnes and Noble), and it’ll tell you of any offers related to that site and any rewards program. If you’re going to be buying anything, even a $10 book, it’s a quick way to know if you could get extra miles–and sometimes some airlines offer up to 10 points per dollar if you start off on their shopping sites. The sites lead you to the same online store (like bestbuy.com, for example), but you get extra miles just by starting at the airline’s shopping portal. Pretty nice. 
OK, I’d like to do this. So what do I do?
You should start by setting a goal. If you do that, it’ll help you focus your efforts in the right direction. For example, your goal could be to take a trip to Japan, with free flights and hotels. Or maybe you want to go on a round-the-world ticket. Or you may just want to take the whole family to visit granny in Hawaii. This obviously depends entirely on who you are and what you want to do, but when you know what you want, it can motivate you to reach it, and it’s also easier for others to help you along the way. My personal goal is to go to one new country for each year of my life. I’m 31 and I’ve been to 32 countries, so I’m OK so far, but I may have to “load up” on extra countries while I’m still relatively young, so I won’t have to work out the logistics of getting to Cambodia when I’m 80. It’s your goal, so you might as well make it amazing and ambitious!

Next, you should sign up for some frequent flyer programs, if you haven’t already. Big ones to probably consider are American, United/Continental, U.S. Airways, and possibly Delta, although the consensus on the forums seems to be that Delta’s miles aren’t as useful or valuable. It also depends on what your home airport would be, since you’d eventually be using miles for tickets, presumably. If you get thousands of miles on Hawaiian Airlines and live in Podunk, Nebraska, which is only served by AirTran, then you’ve not been doing things right. That’s why I also have Frontier miles, since they offer the only direct flight from Denver to Costa Rica, a trajectory that’s obviously very convenient for us. 

There may be promotions for signing up for some programs (Frontier and American seem to have these bonuses once in a while), so just Google the program’s name + “sign up” first. You can also consider some hotel programs like Starwood Preferred Guest (they have a good American Express card), Hilton Honors, Priority Club (which includes hotels like Holiday Inn or Inter Continental), or Best Western. Again, it also depends on your own personal location and needs.
Finally, you’ll want to start finding ways to earn miles. Follow some of the blogs above, fly, shop using an airline’s shopping portal, or apply for credit cards that have large sign-up bonuses in the form of frequent flyer miles.
Yeah, about that: what’s with all the talk about credit cards on these mile and points sites?
Good question. Many of the blogs talk a lot about credit cards because using credit cards is simply one of the fastest and most effective ways of earning lots of miles. You must be careful, though! If you have bad credit, you may not get approved for credit cards anyhow, and if you do get any cards, you should be sure to pay them off in full each month. Otherwise the points benefits will very quickly be cancelled out by late charges or interest fees.
Having said that, though, if you can sign up for a few credit cards to get miles or points, then they can be a great tool. 
That’s a whole other topic, so I’ll address credit cards specifically in the next post.
With that, I’ll end this post. I’ll be posting the credit card section in a day or two (maybe Tuesday, since Monday is Meat Loaf Monday). The post is almost done, but including it here would have made this post gigantic!
Thanks for reading, and please comment if you have any questions or if you want to share a thought or a story. Have a great weekend!
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Sitzman

Errand-Running Monkey at Sitzblog
Hey! I'm Ryan Sitzman, the person in charge of Sitzblog. If you want to know more about me, you can check out my profile on Google or go to my personal site, RyanSitzman.com. You can also click on any of the redundant little boxes to the left and it should take you to my profiles for all kinds of social networks. Thanks!

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