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The Latest in Travel Hacking

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*Update: Looking for more recent travel hacking posts? They’re over here.

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This is a story that involves a) a frustrating series of calls to Expedia, b) a way to repay Expedia’s unhelpfulness by giving many of you $200, c) my attempts to order a total of $16,500 coins from the U.S. Mint, d) a Lasik eye exam in pursuit of Delta SkyMiles, and much more.

Yep, it’s another look at Travel Hacking – my odd hobby that elicits a range of adoration and puzzlement every time I write about it. First up, though, I’d like to rant about outsourcing and cluelessness. This serves no purpose other than entertainment, so feel free to think of it as a filter to get to the $200 coupon and other fun stuff.

You Can Skip This Part If You Want…

I’ve recently completed two bad experiences with Expedia over the past couple of weeks. Since I had at least five conversations with five different agents, I think it’s safe to consider my experiences to be the norm rather than the exception.

Expedia uses an outsourced call center that is a model of everything that doesn’t work with outsourcing. I know in some cases outsourcing can be a win-win, but in Expedia’s case, the consumers definitely lose. The conversations I had were painful. One issue was trying to change the date of a one-way ticket that was supposed to be easily changeable. I got the change, but it took more than an hour and a series of Kafkaesque exchanges.

First, the agent tells me over and over that there are two red-eye flights on Korean Air from Malaysia to Seoul, one leaving at 11:30 and the other at 11:45. I’m pretty sure there’s only one. We go back and forth, and finally I say, OK, I’ll take the 11:30, curious to see what will happen since I know there really isn’t an 11:30.

After a long pause he comes back, “Sorry, only the 11:45 is available now.” I think we’ll take that one, then. The conversation continued as follows:

Expedia: “What is the return date for the ticket?”

Me: “Uh, it’s a one-way ticket.”

Expedia: “OK, what day are you flying back?”

Me: “Uh…”

And then when it came to my domestic connection:

Expedia: “There are no flights between Vancouver and Los Angeles.”

Me: “Uh, I think there are at least five non-stops every day.”

Expedia: “No, no non-stops – and I don’t see any connections either.”

Me: “How about Alaska Airlines #705 at 5:00 p.m. or #703 at 1:00 p.m.?”

Expedia: “You want to go to Alaska?”

In retrospect, that last one was pretty funny, although at the time I was banging my head against the desk. To make one minor change in a ticket that was fully changeable required more than 70 minutes. To get an answer about another ticket that was canceled before I used it required five separate phone calls over three weeks. Anyway, I won’t be using Expedia again if I can help it.

(Sorry for the rant. It felt good to write it out, and I’ll feel even better when some of you tell me about the almost-free vacations you’re taking with the $200 coupon below. Just try to avoid making any changes to your trip after you book, or you’ll experience the same pain I did.)

….But Don’t Skip This Part ($200 Coupon Deal)

OK, I know I need to move on and let it go. You can’t win with situations like that, so I should just be glad I finally got things settled.

In much better Expedia news, if you’d like $200 towards a three-night trip that can sometimes cost as little as $250, here’s the deal. Log onto Expedia, search “flight + hotel” departing from the U.S. or Canadian city of your choice, and you’ll be eligible for a $200 discount anytime between now and the end of September 2009.

The coupon code you need is 200IHG. To validate it, you need to book a vacation package including a) at least one round-trip flight, and b) three nights at an Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, or related hotel.

If you’re creative, you may be able to get a trip for practically free by finding a vacation package that costs around $250 (taxes are about $50 and can’t be included with the coupon). If you want to fly to somewhere new and crash out in the Holiday Inn for a few nights, here’s your chance.

Tip: if you really luck out or are just going to a random destination (Cleveland, anyone?), the price may be under $200 a person and thus ineligible. In this case, you can add a carbon offset or rental car – or both, which is kind of ironic – to raise the price to just above $200 and thus eligible for the deal.

Keep in mind that it’s easier to find deals if you live near a major airport and aren’t flying too far. L.A. to Vegas works well, for example, as do feeder flights from commuter airports into Chicago or Atlanta. Canada is a bit trickier, although there are some deals out of Vancouver I saw when I looked at going the other way.

Be aware that a lot of travel blogs and forums are writing about this offer, so don’t wait too long, as the inventory of available opportunities decreases every day.

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5,000 SkyMiles for a Lasik Eye Exam

Last fall I went in to a downtown Seattle clinic for a hair-loss consultation. The experience was a bit awkward (“Why are you here, Mr. Guillebeau?”), but I walked out with 20,000 SkyMiles for 20 minutes of my time.

I wasn’t the only one who did this – I referred about 40 friends and readers across the U.S. and Canada to the friendly hair-loss clinic, helping to create a cumulative total of at least 800,000 new miles. Meanwhile, friends were telling friends, travel forums were writing about the deal, and over all of North America, tens of millions of miles were paid out as the clinic saw a rapid increase in office visits.

It seems that Delta (or the P.R. firm that set this up) learned their lesson last year, because now they have a similar deal for a Lasik eye exam, but it’s just for 5,000 miles. I don’t think I need 5k Delta miles right now, so I’ll skip this one, but it’s there for the taking if you can spare half an hour to get your eyes checked. Here’s the link:

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Free Platinum Status with Hyatt

I currently have Gold or higher status with Starwood, Hilton, and Hyatt – even though I stay in each company’s properties less than five times a year. All three of the statuses (is that a word?) have been bestowed through credit cards or promotional offers.

The latest bonus is from Hyatt, and it’s easy. You don’t need to get checked out for Lasik or lug $2,500 in coins to the bank. Just click this link and fill out the info:

That’s it – it’s only valid through September 2009, though, so you’ll need to do something to put it to good use before then.

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Frequent Flyer Challenge Update

I haven’t written about the infamous Frequent Flyer Challenge in a while, but people continue to post an occasional update to the Google Document. As of today we are well above 4,000,000 miles that have been created for AONC readers. You guys are great. New readers (especially those in the U.S.), check it out and see if it’s something that would work for you.

My biggest challenge now is cashing out my 180k United balance to go on a big trip in November. If it works out, I’ll write about the itinerary and how I got the award.

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How to “Buy Money” from the U.S. Mint

If you have a new credit card that requires a minimum spend before receiving a mileage bonus, how can you meet the requirement without buying things you don’t need? If you’re in the U.S., you can effectively buy money from the U.S. Mint. The money arrives in boxes of $1 coins, which you then take to the bank and deposit in your account to pay the bill.

In Seattle last year, I came home from the bookstore one day and found $2,500 in coins left on my doorstep outside. I couldn’t believe it. The UPS guy left $2,500 sitting on the street? My theory was that he had already taken the boxes out the truck and didn’t want to load them back, so he ignored the big “Signature and I.D. Required” sticker on the front. (Later, I realized that was exactly the kind of UPS guy I would be– so it’s probably good that I don’t work for UPS.)

Most of the coin sets have a $250 limit on each version, so you can’t go crazy and order tens of thousands of coins – $2,500 is the overall limit for those, hence my $2,500 order last year. However, a new Native American set that was recently released has no limit other than the backorder they are encountering due to so many people ordering. To check it out, I ordered $5,000 worth last month, and they arrived about 10 days later.

Let me tell you from experience, $2,500 in coins is pretty heavy, but I managed to lug them out the door and on to the bus in Seattle to my bank. When the $5,000 arrived here in Portland, I got my strength training workout for the week by struggling along with them for two blocks. I only had about five blocks in total to go, but it was just too much weight for one amateur athlete to haul.

My first strategy to solve this problem involved carrying one box at a time for a few steps, putting it down, resting, then walking back to get the other box and carry it a bit further. This was highly inefficient, of course, and I also felt nervous about leaving a box of $2,500 on the ground as I walked on with the other.

In the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction department, a nearby homeless guy was watching me attempt to carry all the coins, and he let me borrow his Home Depot shopping cart to return them the rest of the way to the bank. I’m sure he was honest, but I thought it was better not to mention that the boxes I had been struggling with contained $5,000 in cash. I returned the cart to him afterwards and thanked him for the help.

A few weeks later, I decided to ramp it up by ordering $9,000 of the new coins and am still waiting for them to arrive. All of these charges earn miles for me, and my lifetime mileage balances with several airlines continue to grow because of it. Who knew that Native American coins could be so popular? Hopefully the homeless guy with the shopping cart will still be around, because if I can’t carry $5,000 in one trip, I’m not sure I can do $4,500 each in two trips.

***

There’s more I could tell you. I haven’t gone into the glitch fare I picked up to get home from Malaysia, or the itinerary for a friend of mine who went around the world in Business Class for just over $1,000. I could go on about this for a while, but it’s a love/hate topic and it’s already gone on for a while – see the note below.

Quick note: I don’t publish this kind of info all the time for a couple of reasons. One, because not everyone who reads AONC cares about it. Some of these tactics are valid only in the U.S., or sometimes just the U.S. and Canada.

Two, because most of these tactics will be irrelevant in a year, or even a few months from now. I want to focus on writing articles that are evergreen (I call it legacy content) that will help people no matter when they read it. But from time to time, I’ll do something like this to break things up. Make sense?

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And That’s It

It’s a long post, but hopefully you learned something. Feel free to share your comments or questions, and do let me know if you successfully use the $200 coupon from Expedia. I just hope you don’t have to call them to make a change – if so, be prepared to throw logic out the window.

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Image: Frederic Poirot

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    34 Comments

    • Olivia says:

      You’re reading my mind this morning! Good to know there are more people participating in the $1 coin circulation program. I used it to “get rid of” a $500 Visa gift card & took it to my bank here in Portland. They were very confused at first and said they’d have to open each roll — which was fine with me — until they realized they were dollar coins and unopened boxes from the US Mint. 😉

      Cheers!

    • Emily Brown says:

      Thanks for the travel tips Chris! My husband and I were just wondering what we’re doing for an upcoming vacation — something that won’t cost us the shirt off our backs. This $200 offer might lead us to some great ideas. But, like you said, better act quick… so gotta go! Thanks again!

    • Adri says:

      amazing… good tips!!!
      in my case I try to save some money when traveling by using coupons… researching a lot on the Web for the best deals… a lot of reading before I arrive to the place… but in terms of miles… just using my credit cards for everything….
      I would love here in Mexico we had such great deals as I see in US…
      traveling within Mexico is really expensive… I dont know why, but actually, most of the time, it is cheaper a ticket to Spain from Mexico City, than to Cancún (from Mexico City), ridiculous… but sadly true, since Mexico is a wonderful country…

    • John Bardos says:

      Great story! I wish it were that easy to rack up miles in Japan.

      So I guess the mint absorbs the credit card processing charge by giving you full value of the coins you buy, plus pays for shipping charges? That is very generous! Selling dollars for 95 cents doesn’t seem to be a wise thing for a government to do. 🙂

      I certainly am envious of all the airmile promotions available to Americans. It doesn’t work like that in the rest of the world.

    • I read with amusement (easy for me to say) your experiences with Expedia.
      I have a brother that’s a resident Philosophy professor in China.
      He relays many of his conversations with very similar chains of questions, involving saving face, and negotiating things around to his way.
      He’s a master at asking leading questions and with his western sense of humor, he has a great deal of fun with the whole thing. His thinking is so outside the box, that I don’t think there is a box.
      You’d like him.
      You remind me of him.
      Regards, Sandra

    • Hi Chris,

      I totally agree that there is a million ways to make a million – at least – and each time somebody shares brilliant ideas about how to get one step closer through doing non-conform tricks there is one important factor that seems to be missing:

      Monetary end result (US dollars) devided by your precious time (hours)

      If you make more than your hourly net income and on top of that feel great about it you are a clear winner. If not – it was probably not worth telling about it neither.

      Lets take your example about the $200 (+ $50 tax) trip discount including flight and hotel as being “almost for free”. If you earn $30 US per hour I see this picture

      – One hour of surfing to find the deal ($30)
      – 2 days on the road at 8 “work hours” per day (16 x $30 = $480)
      – Food + transportation ball park figure of $50 per day ($100)

      $610 – $200 rebate + $50 taxes = $460 expense

      If you were going to Cleveland anyway this sounds like a great deal. If you weren’t why would you go there for $460 somebody may ask.

      About Expedia – it’s customer service that makes the difference today and the bigger the company the smaller the profit margins. Go where you get service and most likely you will find out that the 80% of travelers have no clue where that is taking place. They are on hold with the “glocal” Expedia Customer Services team 🙂

      Looking forward to your next post

      Martin
      Montreal, Canada

    • Chris says:

      @John,

      Yes, it is a 1-to-1 exchange, so you don’t lose 5%, and the shipping is free too.

      @Martin,

      Good point, thank you. I agree that you have to look at the overall value in any travel hacking situation. For me, that example in your comment doesn’t add up though – I need to travel a lot of places, I work everywhere I go, and it only takes me about 15 minutes to apply the $200 coupon.

      On the other hand, the 5,000 SkyMiles for the Lasik exam is not really worth my while, so that’s why I’m skipping it.

      I guess each person has to decide what they value – that’s probably the bottom line. It also helps to enjoy the overall hobby, which some people do and others don’t care about.

    • Leslie M-B says:

      Thanks for the tips, Chris!

      BTW, I’ll be the one hanging out in front of your house waiting for the UPS guy who doesn’t need your signature to show up with all that money. I’ll bring my own shopping cart. 🙂

    • Chris-
      I LOVE it when you publish your Travel Hacking tips. I am loathe to pay full retail for my travels and you always give new ways to get more bang for my buck. Which, in turn, increases the number of my adventures. 🙂

    • Etsuko says:

      Chris,

      This might be the first fresh post about this stuff I came across ever since I started reading your blog, and your explanation for why that is makes sense. The biggest takeaway for me is about buying money. Who would have thought that?? My husband will love this story. We’ll be going to east coast tomorrow on and all our flights are paid for by mileage. Now we know another way to collect more miles. Thanks for the valuable information! The story about carrying them to the bank was really funny:-)

      Etsuko

    • For a minute there I thought my favourite traveller blogger turned a buillion bull (ie thought you ordered gold coins from the Mint as a hedge against dollar+currency loss of purchasing power!).

      Would love to hear the story of the RTW biz class ticket for $1000!

    • Andi says:

      You are fantastic! Thanks for all of the great ideas/suggestions. Going to check them all out now. Happy traveling!!! 🙂

    • jen says:

      i luv luv luv your pragmatism!

    • I must be missing something. Shipping for the coins shows $4.95 domestic. Is there a special code?

      Thanks

    • lise says:

      I did this last year with the presidential coins, but my bank wanted to charge me 3% for anything over $400 in coinage a month. I thought this was ridiculous given that they are unopened boxes from the US mint.

      I do enjoy these posts though, even if they aren’t legacy material.

    • Chris says:

      @Ted,

      When you add the coins to your cart and begin the check-out process, the shipping charge goes away. This is for the $1 coins only, there are some others that charge shipping, and those are not the ones you want.

      @Lise,

      That’s strange, I use Bank of America and haven’t had any problems. I think most major U.S. banks are the same way.

    • Karen says:

      As a fairly new reader, I thought that it couldn’t get any better than reading about your around the world trips. But, borrowing a shopping cart from a homeless guy to lug your coins that you bought just to earn miles?!?! It doesn’t get any better than that! That’s hilarious.

      I can’t use the $200 coupon at the moment, but I love reading your travel hacks, and look forward to being able to take advantage of one in the future!
      🙂

    • Courtney says:

      Hi there:

      I’m new to your blog and I want you to know that I think its awesome so far. I have a couple questions to clarify the expedia trip offer: Is the 9.29.09 deadline when the trip has to happen or when it needs to be booked? Is the $200 per person?

      Or perhaps even better…can you focus me on a place where i can find the small print?

      Thanks much!

    • Dave says:

      The idea of buying coins and redepositing them was one of the ideas that first drew me to your site when I read it in the frequent flier miles challenge. Absolutely brilliant!

      For your next challenge you should see how many coins a person can actually carry and deposit in one trip. We’ll call it the “Million Coin March” or something like that.

      Thanks for the great tips and best of luck in your travels.

    • Sean says:

      I tried to setup a trip to Vegas using the coupon, but wasn’t able to make it work with time frames and hotel limitations. Great deal though if you can find a way to use it. That is awesome you are over 4,000,000 miles in your frequent flier challenge, 80% of the way to your goal!

      I always enjoy the travel hack posts, keep them coming. Looking forward to seeing you at the meetup Thursday.

    • moom says:

      How about buying travellers checks or international money orders? Do those not count as a “purchase”? Or they won’t let you use a credit card?

    • Chris says:

      @Courtney,

      It’s $200 per trip, and travel needs to be completed by the end of September.

      @Moom,

      No, that doesn’t work because those transactions are usually treated as a cash advance and you’d have to pay fees.

    • Omar says:

      Hi Chris (or anyone else that can help 🙂 )

      I’m trying to book a vacation package to Vegas for myself and two other friends. I’ve tried using it on two different Holiday Inns and I get a “coupon invalid” error.

      What am I doing wrong?

      Thank you.

    • Julie says:

      Hi Chris – Loved the article. One thing, though – the code should be 200IHG, not 2000IHG. I just tried using it and quickly figured out that the extra 0 was the problem.

      Thanks for your continued awesome writing and tips.

    • Chris says:

      @Julie,

      Yikes – thanks so much, I will correct that in the article.

      @Omar,

      See Julie’s note. 🙂

    • Oh what a mouthwatering post! Pity I live in the Caribbean without a US address…

      I’m known to comment from time to time about the reality of living in these ‘paradise’ islands of the Caribbean, these kind of deals and techniques just don’t exist – and for sure, if they do, it’s difficult to find them as online info on our travel sector is not yet so up to date!

      Sometimes it feels like no-one thinks we might want to get out of here now and again! Wry Laff!

      But, it makes me think…I should look into seeing what is around these islands and see if there’s not enough to make a blog about it, encourage agencies and airlines to send in info for their promotions too.

    • Thank you so much for writing this post! My mom and I were able to pay for flights and a 3-night hotel in New York City for $75 less per person then what we would have paid for the flights alone.

      Because of the savings that we’re getting with the $200 coupon, my mom and I are going to enjoy a wonderful few days of seeing NYC in the fall. I’ve been wanting to visit NYC for quite some time, and the information in your post made it possible. Thank you so much for writing about it!

    • Matt says:

      I have a question regarding the Expedia flight+hotel deal. I’m looking at some options but don’t actually want to stay at the hotel (the flight is still cheaper using this option). If I book it this way, are there any consequences if I never show up to the hotel? Am I missing anything else? All I really want is the cheap option for the flight. Thanks!

    • Aaron says:

      That $200 deal is ridiculous. $85 from Seattle to Vegas + hotel. Ive been doing the coin thing for a while. Think im addicted. Wish i had a higher credit limit though.

    • Michelle says:

      Thank you so much for sharing the Expedia coupon! My husband and I have been trying to figure out how to get him to Philadelphia in a few weeks for his grandfather’s 90th birthday party. Everything was out of our affordable range. Using the coupon, we got him a flight and hotel for about what the flight alone was going to cost without it. So now my husband will get to spend time with his grandpa, and his grandpa is very happy he’ll be able to make it. We’re all very grateful. 🙂

    • Katie Seymour says:

      I’m laughing hysterically about the coins; you are so funny! Thanks for the smiles. I’m looking for the sample of your Excel spreadsheet, as I just signed up for some cards you recommended. My daughter is off to S. Africa for a semester beginning this summer and I want to visit, too, so your travel hacking book and info has inspired me to get a move on! Thanks, Chris.

    • Ryan says:

      I see you don’t use the potential of social websites like twitter and
      facebook on your blog. You can get big traffic from social sites on autopilot using one useful app,
      for more info search in google for:
      Alufi’s Social Automation

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