Any other year, the four-day excursion from Denver to San Francisco would be an indulgence we couldn't afford. This time, points and a little creativity made the difference. Booking a series of one-way tickets on United Continental (UAL) allowed us to get five coach seats for $188.50 -- an itinerary that will cost cash flyers at least $1,796 and as much as $2,448.
Before you ask, no, I don't have elite status on United, and my account wasn't overflowing with Mileage Plus miles. Anyone can do what I did, and you may want to, especially if you have accounts with miles due to expire within a few months.
Of Magazine Subscriptions and One-Way Tickets
That was my problem. Our three kids had Mileage Plus points lingering in their accounts -- 14,300 each, to be specific. Not enough for a round-trip anywhere and far too much for loading up on magazine subscriptions. (Airlines typically offer cheap subscriptions to fliers as a way to get orphaned miles off the books.) My wife and I had 81,000 miles between us, but that still wasn't enough to buy five round-trip tickets to anywhere.
I'd have given up trying to use our inventory -- most of which was due to expire on July 31 -- if I hadn't run across "hacker fares" on Priceline.com's (PCLN) Kayak travel search engine when booking a business trip last month.
Put simply, hacker fares are itineraries "hacked" together in the cheapest possible form.
Instead of buying a round-trip from, say, United, you buy one-way tickets on the two airlines offering the cheapest seats. Since I'd just saved myself $300 doing that when paying in cash, I decided to try the strategy using miles. It worked better than I could have imagined.
First, I used all my miles to book myself and our youngest on a round-trip to San Francisco. Then, my wife used her miles to book her own round-trip. Then, our two eldest booked one-way tickets for the most expensive portion of the itinerary (i.e., the return home) while we used the miles my youngest had earned to buy the outbound for his older brother.
All that remained was to pay $138.10 for the outbound for our daughter. Adding another $50.40 in fees brought our out-of-pocket to $188.50 -- $1,607.50 less than the cheapest comparable cash fare on United.
3 Things to Do When Hacking a Fare With Miles
The best part about this is that anyone can do it. Airlines are always keen to get rid of unused miles and to fill unused seats. Still, if you're going to try hacking a vacation with miles, be warned that it could take several hours to get a workable mileage deal. Here are three tips for getting the most from your efforts:
- Search for the cheapest fares first. The best way to find mileage deals is to first search for cheap itineraries. Those are the seats airlines most want to sell, which make them a likely target for mileage inventory.
- Log into your preferred airline's booking website. Neither Kayak nor any other booking engine is going to allow you to pay with miles. You'll have to deal with each carrier directly. Log into each website and input your destination details as if you're paying with cash. Select the flights you want and proceed to selecting your seats. Now, make a note of how many open seats and rows there are. If you're traveling with a family, you'll want to try for flights with lots of open seats since, again, they'll be the ones most likely to offer you the option of paying with miles.
- Beware unaccompanied minors! Now that you know where you're going and how you'll get there, it's time to book with miles. But be warned: Not all tickets are equal. Minors can generally book their own tickets with miles but can't fly without the company of an adult. If that isn't you, the airline will charge a fee to take responsibility. ($150 in United's case, which is why I booked tickets for our youngest from my Mileage Plus account.)
Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers doesn't mind a little turbulence from time to time. He has no position in any stocks mentioned. Find him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Priceline Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Is your portfolio ready to fly high in the new year? Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.