Hack your way to the best flight deals

Want to maximize frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs by using co-branded credit cards? A few tips will save you thousands

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From the November 2015 issue of the magazine.

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Would you like to travel more for less? A recent trend called travel hacking allows you to do just that. “It’s about reducing the price of trips or even travelling for free,” explains Patrick Sojka, founder of rewardscanada.ca, a Canadian site providing information on Canadian travel rewards programs. The aim is to maximize frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs and to use co-branded credit cards to build helpful points balances so you end up paying very little for a flight or a hotel stay. “Take advantage of cards with large sign-up bonuses as well as those that waive first-year fees,” advises Sojka, whose recommendations include the BMO Rewards World Elite MasterCard and TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card.

The key is knowing the tricks that help you accumulate more travel rewards, faster. For instance, you can accumulate easy bonus points—typically double earnings—by registering for program promotions. Flying Air Canada? Check aeroplan.com for time-dated points giveaways for upcoming trips. “You’ll need to be flexible,” says Sojka. “It’s all about regular travel on the cheap.”

Globe Guide founder Tamara Elliott agrees that co-branded cards are a fast track to points plus handy travel perks. The WestJet World Elite MasterCard, she says, includes waived baggage fees and $99 companion flights in North America, while others provide airport lounge access. Hotel loyalty programs may also offer room upgrades and Internet. “One of my favourite hacks is the ‘best rate guarantees’ from hotel chains. Some match lowest prices found elsewhere but others beat them by up to 25 per cent. The International Hotels Group matches lowest prices but also gives travellers their first night free.”

Elliott says keeping abreast of terms and offers is the secret of successful hacking—as is spending your points wisely. “Redemption can prove tricky in programs like Aeroplan due to high taxes. Instead, look for reward flights from other Star Alliance partners who may not include as many fees.”

Calgary-based Pedro Villamar follows Elliott’s travel hacking tips via her website, deploying the Amex card she suggested to rack-up thousands of extra points. “It was the card with the best sign-up bonus,” he says. For Villamar, the trick is to maximize points-earning opportunities. “I put my entire wedding on the Amex. And I switched my monthly recurring bills onto the card. I’m also eligible for a platinum card upgrade—which comes with an additional 45,000-mile signing bonus.”

Right now, Villamar and his wife are debating whether they’ll take a trip to Japan or have another European vacation but adds a note of caution for hungry points-chasers. “The Amex is a charge card so I’ve been using it instead of my debit card and paying off my balance at the end of the month. It’s vital to be responsible with your payments because the interest can quickly outweigh the benefits of your miles if you don’t pay it off promptly.”

TripHackr  founder Clint Johnston adds that playing the points game remains the essence of hacking. “The key thing I tell everyone is never spend money for the sake of earning points. Responsible travel hackers earn thousands of miles while maintaining excellent credit.”

But if you’re planning to shop anyway, extra points are easy to find. “Instead of hitting your usual online retailers, go to the points portals of airlines or credit cards first. Find your retailer in their portal, shop, and get the points.” And while Johnston advocates asking card providers for retention bonuses after that sign-up windfall, he says tapping tips from experienced travel hackers keeps you on track. “Follow hackers on social media for sales, mistake fares and cheap flights. You’ll find there’s more than one way to fly free.”

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