Travel hacking to challenge your ethics


The speaker was talking about a particular product, and was asking the crowd how many of this product the members of the audience had. A show of hands.

One person in the crowd asked: “Isn’t that product limited to one per person?”

The speaker responded: “Well, technically. But you can get it for anyone you know. Your spouse, your family…your dog. After all, the terms don’t state that the entity holding the account needs to be human.”


I think I may have been the only person in the room who squirmed.

Learn, earn, and burn

I attended Frequent Traveler University in Seattle this past weekend. It was, in the words of Gary Leff, “a Star Trek convention for points junkies.” By this, he means a place where it’s okay to nerd out on something that most people just don’t understand. In this case, travel and how to do it.

For me, it was a no-brainer to pay the $100 ticket fee and head up to Seattle for the weekend. Many of the authors of the blogs that I read on a daily basis would be there, and I knew it would be nice to be around people who not only know what the ITA Matrix search engine is, but also know the advanced routing codes. This was my kind of place.

And, make no mistake, it was awesome. I met some really cool people, learned a ton, and had a ball.

But there were moments when I confronted a fair amount of personal ethical difficulties.


I feel ridiculously fortunate to have the travel experiences I’ve had, but I know I’m only a guppy in the travel hacking pond. The people at this conference were pros. And by this I mean that while I take advantage of a promo here and there, these were people who worked the system on a daily basis.

And yes, I mean daily basis. For example, there is a tactic called “manufactured spend.” This is the process where you find ways to charge things to your points-earning credit cards without actually having to buy things.

In some cases, there are situations where you can charge something, and eventually pay off the card using what you purchased, reaping points and miles in the process.

But wait; doesn’t that sound like money laundering?

That is what I mean by ethics. The tactic might be legal and might be allowed, but is it right?

And what does “right” even mean?

An ethical quiz

Here are some situations that arise in the travel hacking world. Read them and see how you would respond if you were in that situation. You can use any of the following responses:

  • a) Acceptable
  • b) Questionable but fine
  • c) Fine depending on the benefit/risk
  • d) Okay for others but not for you
  • e) Not acceptable for anyone
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You don’t need to tell me these answers, but just take a minute to think. What would you do in the following situations?

  1. A given promotion is eligible only to those who live in a certain country. You can change your address to that country in your account.
  2. You can sign up for a given product once per email address. You have the ability to make as many email addresses as you want.
  3. You can order a product, keep it for the entire trial period, and cancel it right before the trial period is up and you would have to pay.
  4. You can order multiple versions of the same product and get the “one-time bonus” each time.
  5. You can pay people and get a bonus for it. You pay your friend, who then gives the money right back to you.
  6. You can take advantage of a promotion by impersonating someone else. You can do this online, without having to pretend to be someone else in person.

And some modifiers for all of the above:

  • Would your answers change if the tactic was legal or illegal?
  • Would your answers change if the tactic was legal but expressly forbidden by the terms and conditions?
  • What if the tactic is legal and not expressly forbidden?

Debby Downer

Make no mistake: hitting up against ethical issues can make you feel like a downer. When I would mention my desire to avoid using credit cards for travel hacking, for example, I could feel my interlocutors not only dismissive but also a bit defensive, like I was at the dinner table telling everyone that they shouldn’t eat what they were about to eat. And I don’t want to be that person!

That said, if you’ve ever felt like a situation crosses a boundary for you, you know that it is a feeling too powerful to ignore.

I am not here to judge anyone. I am only conflicted.

More than just travel

I use travel hacking as the specific example here, but the ethics are universal. You can find these examples in your work place, in your home, at the grocery store.

And I really just want to impress upon you the importance of taking ethics seriously. We are confronted with these dilemmas with regularity, and while you sometimes can’t know how you will feel in a certain situation beforehand, it is important to actually face the dilemma.

It’s totally acceptable to want to “get away” with something. But there are consequences to our actions, and rather than wishing those away, it is much more mature and wise to confront a situation and see the consequences from all sides. And it’s not just the pursuit of best consequences; just because a situation is “victimless” doesn’t make it “right.” (Again, whatever “right” means.)

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When possible, it’s worthwhile to take the high ground. As you probably know from your own experiences, there are fewer people up there.

But enough about me. Do you encounter ethical dilemmas in the travel hacking world? How have you handled them?

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