My taxonomy of travel hackers

Last weekend I took a quick trip down to Dallas to meet up with blog subscribers, and also managed to fit in a Friday happy hour with folks in town for the latest Family Travel for Real Life gathering.

Getting together with likeminded folks, or at least folks likeminded enough to travel from all across the country to swap tips, tricks, and stories, is always fun, and there are now lots of options. The Ann Arbor Art Fair DO is a longstanding annual gathering, Trevor at Tagging Miles has started running daylong get-togethers focused on reselling, and there are the aforementioned Family Travel for Real Life conferences focused on family travel, including (very) large families.

In my experience at these events, I've noticed a few basic attitudes towards travel hacking that differentiate how people — even people using the same credit cards, loyalty programs, and techniques — think about what they're doing.

The Hobbyist

No one I have ever met in this game calls travel hacking "The Hobby." But in a bizarre piece of stunt journalism, Rolling Stone used that term in its profile of rich weirdo Ben Schlappig, and we've been joking about it ever since.

I'm reclaiming it here to use it without criticism or calumny. Trevor at Tagging Miles is also what I would call a Hobbyist: he takes 1- or 2-day trips all around the world, flying in international first class and business class cabins to spend a little bit of time in Sydney, Taiwan, or Bangkok.

A Hobbyist really is the kind of person who would benefit from what Frequent Miler once called "opportunistic hoarding." If you want to hop on a plane at the last minute to take a short trip to the other side of the world, then having as broad and deep a portfolio of loyalty currencies is essential. Every route you want to fly requires a different calculus: distance-based or region-based; with or without fuel surcharges; stopovers allowed or prohibited.

Hobbyists are the kind of travel hacker willing to buy points or miles "when they're cheap" and who pursue every new signup bonus as a "painless" way to diversify their portfolio.

The Family Traveler

Another "type" I meet all the time is the Family Traveler. This is the guy or gal who wants her children to see the world, but quickly realizes how expensive seeing the world (or even the country) is if you have to pay for it out of pocket.

Here you typically see a keen focus on the bottom line: mom and dad will both earn Southwest Companion Passes, each select a different child, and then exclusively fly to destinations served by Southwest.

A family traveler has both constraints and opportunities that other travelers don't. Opportunities include companion tickets like those offered by the American Express Delta Platinum and Reserve personal and business credit cards, which become more valuable than they would be to a solo traveler, since they partially obviate the need to find award space when booking multiple tickets. Constraints include the near-impossibility of regularly finding 3 or 4 award seats on the same flight.

The Budget Traveler

As I have joked in the past, before I learned about travel hacking I still traveled all the time — I took busses, I flew Spirit, and I stayed in hostels. I don't travel more since I became a travel hacker, but I pay less and I get more. That slots me into the category of Budget Traveler.

From a Budget Traveler point of view, locking in higher-than-average rewards at lower-than-average prices is the point of travel hacking. That makes rewards currencies like US Bank Flexpoints and Hilton HHonors points into priorities, since they offer outsized rewards on easily manufactured spend. You'd be crazy to fly to the Maldives with Flexpoints, but they offer a big discount off retail for a range of domestic and international economy flights, and thanks to price compression are also an easy way to get seated up front on domestic flights and accelerate your progress towards elite status.

The Sucker

Of course, no taxonomy of travel hackers would be complete without mentioning the Sucker. The Sucker mostly reads affiliate blogs, follows affiliate authors on Twitter, and gets excited each time a signup bonus spikes from 40,000 to 41,000, as long as it's the highest offer ever. They jump on every deal, store up points in every program, and writhe in agony at the announcement of each devaluation of the points they've earned and will never, ever redeem.

The Sucker has 105,000 Membership Rewards points, because they met the minimum spend requirement but have no idea what to do with their signup bonus. The Sucker has hundreds of thousands of Club Carlson points, Wyndham points, and Choice points, even though there's no earthly reason for a single person to have points in all three tertiary programs.

I don't care if you're a Hobbyist, a Family Traveler, or a Budget Traveler. But please, don't be a Sucker.