Is travel “hacking” smart – or unethical?

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Strictly speaking, “hacking” is the act of illegally breaking into a computer system. But lately, the word has been used to define a skill that helps you travel on the cheap — as in “travel hacking.”

I’m all in favor of smart travel strategies, but there’s a difference between being an enlightened passenger and being a liar. If you’re old-school, like me, then hacking is wrong.

Many travel hackers spend their time finding erroneous airfares and hotel rates, discovering loopholes that let them collect loyalty points without entering an aircraft, and unearthing codes and other shortcuts that entitle them to discounts meant for someone else.

In every case, there’s a clear line between right and wrong.

In travel hacking, there’s plenty of “wrong” to go around. One popular hack is to use the “Dr.” honorific from the pull-down menu when making a hotel reservation, regardless of your degree. Hotels are less likely to cancel an M.D.’s reservation, so a little fib can ensure a problem-free stay, hackers say. Similarly, you can save money on your airfare by using only part of your ticket, called “throwaway” ticketing.

These “hacks” address endemic industry problems. Hotels shouldn’t arbitrarily cancel their reservations without assisting guests. But they do. Airfares should be sensibly priced, and the only reason throwaway ticketing works is that a round-trip airline ticket almost always costs less than a one-way flight.

“There’s a lot of deep-seated resentment and anger on the part of consumers toward travel suppliers,” says Tim Winship, editor of FrequentFlier.com. “The feeling is, ‘Well, you’re in business to nickel-and-dime me to death, and by God, if there’s anything I can do to stick it to you, I will.'”

Most forms of travel hacking, however, are completely legal. “I can’t think of a single instance where pursuing some sort of deal or opportunity would be contrary to a law,” says Ryan Lile, who sells travel-hacking seminars online. Lile dislikes the term “hacking” because it implies something shady or illegal, neither of which his strategies are.

But just because something isn’t illegal doesn’t make it right.

Consider erroneous airfares, some priced as low as $1, which can be the result of a data entry mistake. Travel hackers are delighted to discover these wrong prices and spread the news online. When an airline finds the mistake, it may try to void the tickets. But in a mistaken belief that two wrongs do make a right, deal-seekers sometimes try to enlist my help to shame the airline into honoring their purchase.

Taking advantage of a travel company by any means necessary is flat-out wrong, says Steven Zussino, who runs the website CanadianTravelHacking.com. “It’s unethical,” he says.

Another well-known hack involves signing up for a credit card that allows you to collect frequent-flier miles and then buying items such as gift cards only for the bonus points, known as “manufactured spending.” Then you convert the the item back into cash and pocket the points.

Again, it’s totally legal — and totally wrong. The cards are meant to reward real spending. Exploiting these payment systems only forces the companies offering them to tighten their rules, which can affect all cardholders.

“Most people I speak with have a problem with the manufactured spending,” says Brad Barrett, who runs RichmondSavers.com. “It crosses an ethical line.”

Discount codes are another hacking opportunity. These electronic keys, available on websites and forums, can shave 20% or more off your car rental, hotel or theme park reservation. Problem is, they’re often not meant for you but were intended for a company’s employees. A few days ago, I heard from a reader who used such a code when he rented a car from Avis. The company’s security department contacted him after his rental, accusing him of “fraudulently” using a code and deleted his discount.

You can’t be too angry at the proponents of travel hacking. After all, the travel industry’s relentless focus on squeezing every last penny of revenue from customers through hopelessly complex yield-management systems, Ponzi-like loyalty programs and bait-and-switch advertising has set up this cat-and-mouse game. Yet even if airlines, banks, and hotels don’t play fair, it’s no excuse to sink to their level.

Travel hacking is ...

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How to spot a hack

Are you hacking or just a really good deal-hound? Here are three questions to ask:

Do you need technology to get the deal? Getting frequent-flier miles or cheaper flights by exploiting technical flaws in the booking system would be considered “black hat” hacking, says Mat Gangwer, a security consultant at Rook Security, IT security and consulting company.

What does your gut tell you? Even if you think the big, bad airline or credit card company deserves to be hacked, you’ll still feel a little remorse at your actions. That could be a sign that you’re doing the wrong thing.

How did you find out about the deal? If it’s a prominently advertised airfare or hotel rate, then you’re safe. But if you found it on a forum that specializes in “secret” or “slick” deals, or on a blog that hawks rewards credit cards, you might be treading into ethically troublesome territory.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Bill___A

    There seem to be a few things at play here.
    Exploiting a mistake such as a $1 fare put in a system in error is unethical.
    So is using someone else’s discount code..
    However, I don’t see anything wrong with buying a return ticket and throwing away the return portion if it is cheaper, but then again, the airlines shouldn’t be creating that problem in the first place. Flying return should be more expensive than one way but less expensive than buying two one ways.
    It should not be cheaper to fly from A to B to C than from A to B.
    What the consumers in this case are doing is sometimes wrong, but also what the travel industry is doing is also sometimes wrong.

  • PsyGuy

    So if the airline (travel industry) manipulates the system too get an extra $100 out of me, and I manipulate THEIR system to get a $100 in savings out of them, then it’s no longer a myth, two wrongs do make it right.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I don’t think we can paint this with such a broad brush.

    If we want to call an action unethical, then we should be able to identify the ethical precept which is being broken.

    In the case of a fat finger fare, we are taking advantage of someone else’s honest mistake. Opportunistic behavior, i.e. lack of integrity.

    Using an incorrect rate code is a form of lying solely for your own benefit. The use of a code is tacitly stating that you fit the articulated criteria. Lying by omission. Another ethical precept is violated.

    But I must disagree with saying a throwaway ticket is unethical. The airlines try to claim that when you buy a ticket, especially a nonrefundable ticket you agree that you will travel as stated on the ticket. Hardly true. If you change your mind and don’t travel at all, that’s perfectly fine. You just lose the value of the ticket. No one would suggest that would be unethical. So the airline’s claim is demonstrably false.

    Airlines like other businesses, price goods and services in a way that seeks to maximize their profits. Good for them. It doesn’t mean that I must meekly follow their pricing strategy.

    If you’re not using a FF number, then buy those back to back, throwaway, and hidden city tickets. (but don’t use a travel agent when you do)

  • PsyGuy

    I think any action you can take that is legal is perfectly fine when it comes to the travel industry.
    First, legal standards are ethical standards, legal standards are the lowest standard of behavior that society will allow, and thats the point they the society allow it, if they didn’t allow it they would make it illegal. If society has not criminalized that behavior then they must at some level support it if not condoning it.

    Second, we didn’t make these policies, or write these adhesion contracts, we didn’t get invited to the negotiating table, we weren’t consulted, the travel industries came up with these policies and programs all on their own. We the public are just operating passively participating within the frameworks they constructed. The airlines made the round trip tickets cheaper, not us. The car rental agencies created the discount codes, they could of done something else, like required an id validating membership in whatever organization is eligible for the discount, they didn’t have to produce discount codes at all. Hotels, affinity credit cards, cruise lines, they are all the same. The programs and rules were all created unilaterally by them to benefit them, why blame the public when a few people demonstrate intelligence higher then the corporate lawyers and marketing departments.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I must respectfully disagree

    For example, lying is often legal, but rarely ethical. A salesperson describing wares in superlative terms, when he knows he would never let his friends and family buy the junk is ethically dubious. I do however agree about the adhesion contracts, affinity cards etc. I don’t feel bound by their pricing models, particularly ones that try to determine whether I am traveling for business or leisure.

    I must also respectfully disagree about the discount codes. Whether or not the codes are validated has no bearing on whether their use is ethical. That merely factors whether you will get away with it. It’s still a form a lying. Lying by omission. The ethical course would be to refrain from using a code that you know you do not qualify for.

    However, if you believe that lying is ethical behavior then you would of course have a different perspective.

  • mikegun

    The other point to consider on the hidden city trick is the airline is ultimately focused on getting you from point A to C, your ticket just happens to route via B. (This is usually a result of a hub and spoke system and increased competition on the New York- Dallas route)

    If I purchase a New York to Dallas ticket via Chicago, and plan to deplane at Chicago, what happens when a delay or cancellation on the New York to Chicago flight causes the airline to change me to the nonstop to Dallas? How do I get the routing back to go via Chicago? (not really looking for an answer, just food for thought)

  • mikegun

    I’m legally allowed to perform marriages in my state. I was lucky enough to be asked to perform a marriage for friends several years ago, but they wanted to know if I could become ordained in order to call myself a Reverend to satisfy one parent’s wish of a “church” wedding. I signed up at the Universal Life Church and become ordained online. It’s certainly legal, but not everyone’s definition of a “true” church. (And yes, they are definitely legally married, even if I wasn’t “ordained”)

    I still have an ID card that identifies me as “clergy” and now wonder if I used that title on travel reservations if I would get treated any differently. (Similar to using “Dr.” in the reservation as noted above.)

  • SnowWheet

    I think Carver articulated my thoughts on this quite well…There is a difference between blatant lying (or exploitation of another’s mistake for your own benefit) and purchasing something which you have no obligation to use (like the round trip fare). Once I pay for my ticket, I am not required to step into the plane. I see it as similar to buying in bulk at the store…it is cheaper to buy more, but I’m not required in any way to use more than the amount I actually want or need.

  • leelaurino

    If you can suggest a company i can PAY to use my FF points to my advantage, please let me know. the hours and days it will take to do this myself exceeds the benefit of the ‘free’ airfare! I have heard there are 2 or 3 professionals doing this as a business, but prefer a recommendation if you have one. And i earned EVERY point for the past 15 yrs, and now taking that end of life RTW trip before they wont let me on a plane because i am too old!

  • milespert

    If there were more ethical disclosure form the industry such as allowing customers to know the load factors and occupancy rate so we could better understand the flawed yield management pricing model used, that would be ethical. The customer used to be king now we are made to buy based on partially disclosed information which may or may not be correct, and then held to an ethical standard the industry isnt, hardly seems fair. Maximizing profits at customer expense is one thing stealing is unethical. Until the industry plays fair it is unethical to attack those who try to manage a system we did not create

  • The Original Joe S

    Don’t get on the airplane. I guess then you might be a no-show and lose the money, right?

  • The Original Joe S

    Certainly, Reverend! :-Þ

  • Frank Clarke

    When the going gets tough, the tough get automated.

    No, using a computer to unearth lower fares or discounts is no more unethical than using a computer to price fares based on one’s personal on-line profile. If it’s unethical for me, it’s unethical for them (and vice-versa).

  • jim6555

    The courts have ruled that lying is ethical behavior. Police are allowed to tell lies to coerce a confession from a suspect. The confession can be entered as evidence in a criminal trial and cannot be challenged on the grounds that the suspect was misled..

  • tomg63

    If you make a mistake and book a ticket for the wrong day then realize it and want to change it a few days later, the airline will want to charge you $200 for the privilege. If an airline lists a great fare (such as business class for a coach level price), the consumer should book it. If the airline made a mistake, they should deal with it, just like consumers are expected to when they make a mistake. Airlines and hotels have sales all the time, how is the consumer supposed to know what is real and what is a mistake?

    Also, if a bank offers a sign up bonus of frequent flier miles for opening a credit card account and the consumer accepts the offer and meets the terms of spending for the bonus without getting on a plane, how is that unethical at all?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The courts ruled that lying by law enforcement can be legal behavior under those circumstances. The court does not rule on ethics.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Yes, that $2 night for the Ritz Carlton was a sale.

  • Howard

    Unfortunately we do not and will not ever live in a completely ethical world. Only a schmuck would pay more over using a throwaway ticket. If you needed to fly from DC to NYC next week and you found airfare that looked too good to be true, should you opt to book the more expensive fare? Airlines are extremely unethical businesses. They’ll take mug you and your mother if it was legal. And these hacks are a way to “fight the man.” If I find a discount or promotional code online, no where on the sites does it say these codes must pertain to me. It only has a box where you can enter a code. These travel companies would be elated for you to pay full price, but they’d rather you fraudulently use promotional codes than use a competitor.

  • MarkKelling

    The price of one way tickets vs round trips depends on the airline. For most domestic flights within the 48 states, the one-way penalty no longer applies. (Your results may vary depending on airline, dates, cities and option chosen, of course.)

    Just for fun while drinking my morning coffee, I picked a few city pairs for the same dates two weeks out and priced round trips vs 2 one way tickets. I picked the absolutely lowest prices offered on each airline’s web site to the general public (i.e. I did not log into my FF plan) regardless of desirability of the flight times or number of connections, the one way flights were the same days and direction that the round trip segments would be for. The one way flights may not be the exact same flights as the roundtrip since I was aiming at price. I was surprised what I found. Southwest, Delta and Frontier were the exact same price for the 2 one way vs the round trip. American was actually an average of $2 LESS for the two one way flights! United does still have the one way penalty. All the UA options I looked at cost 30% more for the one way options.

    International flights were a completely different story. Delta and American both wanted at least double for one way tickets to London and back than the round trip cost. United was over 3 times the cost! There is no logical explanation for this, no matter what the airlines might claim.

  • MarkKelling

    Like anything else where you gamble – sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. If your flight gets rerouted and you don’t stop in the connecting city where you really want to go then you lost the gamble. Also, your return tickets will most likely be cancelled if you don’t fly your full original route.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    A very timely topic, Chris. I observe so much behaviour today that goes against my values; the credit card bonus points is a good example. American society is (was) based on ethics, morals and values. It’s no longer true, people seem to think if it’s legal it’s OK. That’s often wrong. I remember a friend buying an expensive dress for a wedding years ago, then returning it. I was dumbfounded that she didn’t think this was unethical. I’ve collected my share of credit card bonus points, but I always use the card and allow the bank to earn something. Otherwise, I’m just stealing the points from them, aren’t I?

  • MarkKelling

    As long as you are prepared to pay the difference, lose your reservation, or be banned for doing business with the company if they catch you violating their rules then go ahead and do what you want.

    I use discount codes all the time. I buy lower priced travel whenever I find it. But the codes I use are ones I fully qualify for, not some I find on a random web site. The prices I pay are within believable ranges. Have some of those prices been fat fingered mistakes? Maybe, but I didn’t scan questionable web sites to find them.

  • MarkKelling

    Stealing points? Not really, they gave them to you. :-)

    I have noticed that the credit card offers have changed from “Get XXXXX bonus Points when Approved” to “Get XXXXX bonus points after spending $xxxxx within 6 months” which seems to address your concern about getting the points for nothing.

  • Cybrsk8r

    And since the points remain the property of the airline, what would she be stealing?

  • Arielle

    You aren’t stealing anything from anybody. The credit card company is making you an offer based on years of financial analysis and marketing research. They are free to change their terms to prevent unprofitable spending at any time. And when it comes to points cards, while the travel points may be of great value to you, they are worth very little to the companies involved. Travel companies sell their loyalty points for pennies on the dollar to credit card companies, because they are a great marketing tool.And unless a hotel or flight is always sold out, most of what is being given away they have to pay for whether someone on an award ticket/stay is traveling or not.

  • Arielle

    How exactly is manufactured spending unethical. Is it unethical to sign up for a credit card that the company has marketed as having bonus categories or a high sign up bonus. Certainly they have teams of analysts whose whole job is to comb over the T&C and protect the companies interests. Is it unethical to buy a gift card with my credit card as long as I pay my bill. I usually pay $4-6 to those same companies for the privilege of turning my cash into a much less liquid form of money. Then since it is my money and is held on a debit card or prepaid reload. As long as it’s an acceptable way to pay for money orders, or load a card that has a bill pay or ATM function what is unethical about doing so. Again these cards are often owned by the same companies that make the cc, and the gift card.And while paying my balance in full is not very profitable for the company I think you would hard pressed to find someone who would argue that their conscience requires that they only make minimum payments so that the cc company can get their full 30% APR. Of course the companies policies are set up to take advantage of non rational behavior, but I have absolutely no obligation to let myself be taken advantage of. As for the multinational companies we are dealing with, they are big boys, they can more than take care of themselves.

  • mythsayer

    I agree… I don’t see an issue buying gift cards. I bought something… It’s just intangible. That’s an easy loophole to fix… No points on gift card purchases. There. Fixed. But if it still available, well… I don’t see an issue.

  • MarkKelling

    If you are buying a gift card as a gift, then I agree that there is no problem. But what many of those attempting to scam the system are doing is buying lots of gift cards and then cashing those cards to pay the bill. If they buy $10000 in gift cards (getting the points for the purchase) and then pay off the bill using the cash from the gift cards they really haven’t bought anything but they still have the points. On the other hand, if you purchase the same amount on merchandise and then return it, the net impact is zero points accumulated.

  • pauletteb

    Cheating is cheating! Those who try to game the system are the first ones who scream when they get gamed by someone else.

  • disqust101

    Yes, just like $1200 a night over New Years isn’t gouging…

  • Arielle

    What if I purchase an item, and resell it. Wouldn’t I be entitled to the points then even though I got my money back. The only difference between doing that and a gift card, is I can guarantee my merchandises price and resell value. But the credit card gets the same swipe fee on a gift card as on any other purchase. If I buy a gift card and then buy a money order with it, those are two separate purchases going to two separate companies. Everybody gets paid their fees as the money goes round the merry go round.

  • mikegun

    That would happen with any ticket you buy,

  • bodega3

    A free market allows for charging $1200 a night. It doesn’t allow for charging higher prices in emergency situations. Prices are set at what the market will bear for New Year’s and other special events. I had a room booked for a client in Vegas for $99. The Tyson fight was reschedule to that day and the rates quadrupled. The $99 was honored as I had booked it just hours prior to the rescheduled announcement.

  • MarkKelling

    There are business credit cards that award points. Depending on the business, the majority of the items purchased on the credit card could be resold in one form or another and the money received from those sales could be used to pay off the card. The business gets the points for those, so I don’t see any issue with a person buying a few things and reselling them to keep the points.

    Even in my earlier gift card example, the credit card company might be OK if it happened once or twice. But there are situations reported where cardholders had their accounts canceled and points confiscated by churning money through the account. Money laundering possibilities are at the top of the list that banks look for and purchasing of massive amounts of gift cards, regardless of what the actual use of the funds is for, sets off those alarms.

  • MarkKelling

    It isn’t gouging because you are free to choose a different hotel with a more reasonable rate. It is only gouging if done during an emergency situation. Like during the recent Hawaiian storms where places were trying to charge $50 for a 24 pack of bottled water that normally sold for around $5. .

  • PsyGuy

    HaHa, a lawyer lecturing us on ethics. Okay so your client kills his wife, the detective asks you if he did it. Say yes and good bye career, say no and that’s a lie, say you can’t answer that and it’s a lie of omission by your previous post and example.

    Lawyers always want everyone else to “play fair” and be “ethical”, all the while so that they can lie, deceive etc, because it’s not technically illegal.

  • PsyGuy

    Would it have made a difference if you scanned a website like FT to find them, codes are codes, and taking advantage of an error is still taking advantage. “Take what you can, give nothing back. The idea isn’t to fall on your sword for your principals but make the other guy fall on the sword for his.”

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    What Bodega and mark said :)

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Silly ad hominem aside, a refusal to answer is not a lie of omission. Two very different concepts.

  • Fishplate

    Why is scarcity due to one event any different than scarcity due to another?

    And if you buy all the available water during an emergency and leave none for me, how does that help?

  • MarkKelling

    There was no scarcity of bottled water in the Hawaii hurricanes. The local bottlers kept pushing out product until the power went out and started up again as soon as the power came back. The retailers jacked the price up just because they thought they could get away with it.

    And there is no scarcity for hotels during certain holidays. Just scarcity at low prices.

    The difference of scarcity brought on by a disaster situation vs regular events is that most people caught by the disaster have no other option while those wanting to attend a New Year’s party have multiple choices including not attending the event.

  • Pete

    There are NO ethics in the modern travel industry. Airlines, hotels and rental car agencies will screw you over in any way they can, and not think twice about it. There’s nothing unethical about playing defense.

  • Pete

    Translation: lying is OK only when it benefits a corporation.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    ??.

  • Pete

    Sounds like you’re referring to airlines!

  • spysea007

    All is fair in the airfare game these days…. anyway to save $$$ is OK buy me my friends and my company’s travel department.

  • Mark Carrara

    Strictly speaking hacking is thew same as tinkering, only with electronics. The media has corrupted it to mean something illegal. Travel hacking as in working the system is perfectly moral. I needed to fly ABQ to MSP. I had enough miles for a one-way ticket from DEN to MSP on Delta. I flew Southwst ABQ to Denver, Delta DEN to MSP. Returning I flew Frontier to DEN and Southwest to ABQ. That is travel hacking.

    This was back in the Independent Frontier days.