6 Ultimate Travel Hacks to “Game” the Airlines

What I am going to tell you about today is real. It will open your eyes and while some of it reveals reasonable travel hacks, some of it boldly borders on the illegal. That is something you will have to decide for yourself when you’ve finished reading.

6 Ultimate Travel Hacks to "Game" the Airlines

Gaming the airlines has become a lifestyle for many who need and want to travel and they do so at the highest levels. The players involved are people just like you and I, with one major difference. They’ve taken the art of saving money and upgrading their travel experiences to an entirely new level. You may love them or hate them, but they are real and may be costing you money because they’re so good at it.

It’s a fact that air traveling has become more and more expensive over the past 2 decades, so much so that everyone from students to business executives have invented new ways to beat the system. They even incorporate in their techniques some of the industries own stimulants that encourage you to spend.  These gamers have figured out new ways to beat the system using many of the basic tools we all use when we travel. They “game” the system and here’s how they do it!

1. Flight Bumping

Flight bumping is a practice that the airlines began using years ago, when they routinely were overbooking flights to make sure that they would fill all of their seats and maximize their profits. The funny thing about it was that they were doing it so often that their unhappy customers that were “bumped” from flights filed class action suits and won the right to be compensated and rewarded whenever it would occur.

Today, because of the glut of information available online, the gamers are able to research which flights are most popular. When they can, they book them in the hope that they will be bumped. They then exercise the right to volunteer to be bumped and receive a free ticket on the next flight available or a monetary voucher, or occasionally even both. Thus their flight turns into a free ride or even a profit maker. If it’s the last flight out, their compensation may even include a hotel stay at the airport that night. These travelers are so adept at planning these activities that they may actually want to stay over and leave on an early flight the next morning and thus score a triple bonus in all! They don’t feel sorry for the airlines or anyone else who travels who doesn’t play this game and in the end, the airlines have full flights and you may be paying for all those freebies through increased airfares.

2. Apology Vouchers

Have you ever been on a flight where there was some creature comfort or basic thing you need and use that just didn’t work properly? It may be something is broken or dirty? I’m talking about a seat tray that wouldn’t quite set upright, or a seat belt that didn’t function. It might even be the window shade doesn’t fully close or has a crack in it that doesn’t block out the light.

Here’s where the players have come up with a 2nd rule of the game, apology vouchers. When they discover something not quite right they make sure to complain, sometimes vigorously about it. They bring up this remedy and almost always receive an apology voucher after making the verbal complaint followed up with a written one to the airlines noting date, time and personnel they spoke with. In a few weeks they get in the mail some kind or remuneration which can be discounts on travel or free drinks or upgrades to first class seating. There is undocumented gossip among the players that not all the things they complain about are real. They may have been “helped along” by their own doing and greatly exaggerated upon discovery. All apparently is fair in love, war, and travel!

3. Fuel Dumping

For this one to succeed, you really have to be an expert player. It’s a booking technique that confuses the online algorithm to deduct the cost of fuel charges from the final ticket prices used mostly on international flights. I’m not a expert so I can’t advise you on all of the specifics. My investigation of this practice is that it is pretty secretive (and I’ll probably get hate mail from hackers who use this for even mentioning it) as it involves some codes that can be applied to the ticketing procedure which subtracts this specific charge. I include it here just so you know that it does exist and some people who are in the game know how to do it. Again, who’s paying for it on the bottom line? Probably you and I.

4. Hidden City Ticketing

This one is fairly easy to do and has been since Skiplagged was created by computer whiz Aktarer Zaman a few years ago. It is the art of booking the layover city on your trip as your final destination. It simply is this:

Booking your flight from point A to point C and getting off at point B

Business travelers often use this because it is almost always the cheapest fare to travel by and it almost always involves main travel hubs like Atlanta, Chicago, and New York. These business centers allow day trips or overnight trips that require no checked baggage and they can deplane and go on their way easily. The website finds the best one way tickets and lowest fares to point B.

The airlines sued Skiplagged but eventually the cases were either dismissed or lost which sounds like a win for the air traveler. It may not be.

There are downsides to this kind of travel if you’re willing to risk them. First, airlines can change the layover stops after you purchase tickets and then you wouldn’t be able to get off where you planned. Secondly, you can’t check any luggage. Third, you will be delaying all others who are traveling through because they will be looking for you when the plane re-boards. Does that bother you? In the end, it will eventually cause the airlines to raise their prices (if they haven’t already) to offset the players causing them to lose the airfare income. Oh, and as a final note, if you get caught doing this you will probably be thrown out of the frequent flyer program they offer since it is against the policies. To some though, this is a challenge and the gamers are saving money!

5. Manufactured Spending

This is the art of using airline or hotel credit cards to purchase what amounts to cash, like gift cards or money orders  for example, to earn rewards and/or travel points. Then liquidating the purchased cards/or spending the money orders on expenses you would have ordinarily paid for anyway. It is even better when combined with a new credit card that offers bonus travel miles and/or cash when you open them. Liquidating your gift cards is important so that you will have the ability to do this over and over again. Some players have accumulated hundreds of thousands of travel rewards and cash in very short amounts of time.

6. Mileage Running

To do this, make sure you have a frequent flyer card and always purchase the most discounted tickets so you accumulate the most reward points available. It helps to travel very early (as early as 5 am) or very late (as late as midnight) to get the lowest fares Some players actually find such cheap fares to places that they make trips that they don’t really need to make and rack up bonus points that save them money in the long term.  This plan of attack ultimately leads to making your frequent flyer status into an elite card holder. That gives you double reward points and based on miles, it really adds up.

The monkey wrench in this is that airlines have gotten wise to the game and some have changed their programs from miles-based rewards to fare-based rewards. By doing this, they’ve cut the rewards potential down. For example, a flight from New York to San Diego might net 6,000 miles (12,000 miles if an elite card holder) which can transfer into hundreds of discount dollars on future airfares. If the airfare rewards are based on a discounted price of $300 round trip, you would earn just 1,500 points (3,000 points if an elite holder), a decline of 75%.  The players still try and capitalize off the best discounted fares and get their points. They shoot for cross country trips that have layovers in hub cities more often now. In fact, that New York to San Diego trip might look like this:  New York City to Chicago, Chicago to Atlanta. Atlanta to Miami, Miami to Dallas and finally Dallas to San Diego. Then return the same way.  A really knowledgeable travel hacker would never actually leave the airports on his round trip excursion to scam the system.

So there’s the not-so-secret world of air travel hacks. The gamers are doing it every week and they’re succeeding for the most part and probably costing you and me in the form of increased airfares.

Do you think it’s a great idea or are you appalled at what may be over the line, morally and/or legally? Are the airlines so greedy that they deserve it? Would you ever try playing this game when you fly?

Image courtesy of Fuzz at pixabay.com (with changes)


  1. I’m not sure I’d play any of these games, expect #5. I wouldn’t necessarily manufacture spending, but certainly looking for ways to pay for everything on my rewards card that I normally pay with cash to maximize rewards. I wish there was a good way to pay my mortgage with my credit card to gain the reward and than pay it off the card with cash the same day.

  2. Emily @ JohnJaneDoe

    Not that we fly much, but it bugs me (not necessarily #5, but #2 in particular). It reminds me of folks who know a lane is closed but zoom down the road anyway and wait until the last minute to merge, slowing everyone who was more considerate and drove more safely, putting everyone else at greater risk for a wreck.

  3. Lynne

    These “tips” require a lot of effort and are not guaranteed to work. I find it best to use an airline rewards credit card and use that for most of my purchases (including utilities when possible, etc.). I will also cancel that card before the 2nd annual fee is due and open a new one to get the 50,000 bonus points. That said, here’s my opinion:
    #1 is great if you are not in a hurry (like us retired folk). Just be prepared with your favorite reading material. And it helps to only have carry-on bags (which means no restricted items). This actually leads to my personal favorite tip: If you’re traveling on an airline that charges for every checked bag, only bring carry-on sized bags. When you’re ready to board, if there isn’t enough room in the overhead bins, they’ll check your bags for free. When you exit the plane, your bags will be waiting for you (no need to wait at the baggage carousel).
    #2 – No guarantee of success here, and do you really want to break your tray table on purpose? And then waste your energy being obnoxious and loud? Don’t be a .
    #3 – This is really hard to even find. I tried 1 search and it took over 5 minutes just to get the flight details (and did not find a dump). Go ahead and spend 20 hrs booking a flight; it’s your life.
    #4 – This is sometimes necessary. It’s insane that if you buy a ticket from A to B, it can cost twice as much as A to B to C. The risk is, the airline can blacklist you if they catch you at it. They are allowed to refuse to sell you another ticket. But if you don’t fly that route very often, it’s definitely worth it at least once.
    #5 – I’m missing the point here. You buy a gift card with your credit card to get reward points, and then use that gift card to pay off your credit card? This isn’t making any sense to me. Unless you need to spend more in a short time than you normally do. E.g., $3000 in 3 mos on a new airline card in order to earn flight points.
    #6 – Well, you still have to travel to get the rewards. I guess if you load your Kindle with a few dozen good books, you can spend your weekend hanging around airports and flying to nowhere.

    1. Lynne, thanks for your detailed comments! I never thought anyone actually read through everything I wrote. 😉 You make several good points. But keep in mind that there are just some people who will go to any extreme if it can get them something for nothing. Their time obviously is not valuable. As for #5, manufactured spending is just what you mentioned, used primarily to get bonuses for spending like $5,000 in 3 months on a new card without having to actually spend that money.

  4. I only fly Southwest (I will get enough points to fly somewhere for free, dangit!)…and I can tell you that their vouchers are nothing to write home about. We almost got stuck in Mexico last summer (my heart would have been broken, let me tell you) when they renumbered our flight and we couldn’t check in. After going round and round with customer service, we finally got it straightened out and were promised compensation. Two $50 vouchers arrived in my inbox a few weeks later. I’m still not sure we’ll actually use them, as we tend to book vacation packages and these are only good on flights. Oh well. I’m all for travel hacking and credit card churning, but some of these rub me the wrong way – mainly because I know the cost will get passed on to me and other customers.

    1. I too have a story about vouchers that I received from an airline that no longer exists. We volunteered to be bumped (not planned) because we had the luxury of not rushing to our destination. We received vouchers for a free flight each. Unfortunately, by the time we went to use them, the airline had gone out of business. I guess no good deed goes unpunished.

  5. Wow! I’m all about saving money on airfare but had no idea people took it to these extremes! I haven’t been doing that much traveling recently so wouldn’t consider trying any of these things. BUT I can understand why frequent travelers might try to play these games. The cost of airfare is ridiculous.

  6. Mrs. CTC

    It’s good to know that these hacks exist, not necessarily to use them ourselves but more to understand how things work. I think I would be too embarrassed to apply most of what you’ve written 🙂

  7. The only one of these I’ve ever done is the first one, and like you, it wasn’t planned. But when I was single, I did go up to the desk before they even announced it was overbooked, preemptively volunteering. Got a few free flights that way. Now when I travel with kids… Not worth the hassle haha. When I first started getting credit cards for the rewards, I planned on manufacturing expenses, though I didn’t know that’s what it was called and I didn’t know it was considered a shady practice. Right after I opened my first account, the gift card I was going to use banned credit card purchases. I guess they got wise. That’s when I learned it wasn’t allowed!

      1. Haha I actually had zero experience when I was considering manufactured spending. Didn’t even end up doing it. Was just following what I read on a travel hacker’s blog. But I did volunteer to get bumped. Don’t feel bad about that one really because I just booked regular flights that I would have anyways, but for a few years there I was getting bumped about 50% of the time. I also was traveling for leisure at that period in my life so my schedule was very flexible.
        Some of these other ones I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing for sure.

  8. Kelly @ Brainy Chick Finance

    These are some great ideas. I am always having the conversation with my family about saving the money versus convenience. At what point do you just say hey I need to book the flight and my time is more valuable spent doing something else versus looking and finding hacks to get me the best flight?

  9. Miss Thrifty

    Wow! I don’t even get mad about the fact that people are using these strategies because they’re just so damn clever!

    The closest I’ve come to gaming an airline: when trapped at a hub for hours and hours on a delayed (then repeated canceled) flights, I would go to a different counter every few hours and complain and get a meal voucher. I ate like a queen!

    I was so annoyed about that delay (of over 48 hours) that I emailed the airline and followed up with phone calls. Eventually, I got a refund (through Expedia) for $80. Not much, but worth my couple of hours of complaining.

    1. I guess some people can justify (in their own mind) anything that they do, like the apology voucher. When I was in retail, I had someone tell me that “a friend” would take back their coffee carafe from a Mr. Coffee set anytime it broke, and say that it arrived that way from the store in order to get a new one. This went on for years.

  10. I’ve never heard of fuel dumping, which is interesting… and questionably legal. I’m going to Hawaii with my best friend this summer and am trying to figure out the best way to hack as many of the costs as possible – mostly through travel rewards with new cards though.

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