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Travel Hacking, Credit Card Churning, Mattress Running, Deal Stacking & 'Gaming the System' Examples?

Posted: Sat Sep 12, 2020 12:28 pm
by ScrewTheAverage

In 2016 we sold 95% of our belongings and set off to become location and employment independent, while concurrently pursuing FI/RE. Our goal was to go abroad and travel continually for one year out of one 36L backpack each (Osprey Manta AG 36). In that one year we were fortunate to visit three continents, 23 countries, 60 cities, and do 18 house sits while spending $16K all-in for two people.

Since our year in Europe, we've returned to the US but continue to travel heavily (pre-COVID-19 that is), do house sits, and explore the world (we're currently in Portland, Oregon enjoying a house sit). Furthermore, in 2018 our total/all-in annual budget for two people was $7,500, and in 2019 it was $7,000.

As you can imagine the amount of moving around we do (again, pre-COVID-19) really makes Lounge Access (Priority Pass) and hotel status (Diamond Hilton, SPG/Marriott Platinum, etc.) worth it. Especially since, we're mobile consultants (IT and Project Management) and a comfortable setup with fast and reliable internet is critical for work. Also, since we're long-term budget travelers we're always on the lookout to travel hack, deal stack, credit card churn, and mattress run current hotel promotions with low level hotel awards to maximize return and extend our points and hotel status. We even went as far as to create our own category 1-3 hotel award maps for Hilton, Radisson, Marriott/SPG, Hyatt, and IHG to better leverage low 'hanging fruit' and make it much easier for us to quickly visualize where (if at all) we should mattress run and capitalize on a current promotion (or gap between house sits).

With that being said, here's the story of how we got 41 hotel room nights free with Hilton using hotel rewards and promotions:

Should we Mattress Run?
In January 2018 we came across the then current Hilton Unlimited Points Promotion which said we'd earn 2,000 Bonus Points on every stay (this is important to remember as the promotion is for stays not nights). In addition, we'd earn an additional 10,000 Points on every 5 stays and there would be no limit on the amount of bonus points we could earn. To top it off, recent Hilton program changes had made it so that after 40 nights we'd earn an additional 10,000 bonus points, and after 60 nights you’ll earn an additional 30,000 Hilton bonus points.

Naturally when considering doing a status/mattress/mileage run, we of course plan things out carefully, as our goal isn’t to chase status for the sake of merely having it, it needs to make holistic sense. We’re not about to spend too much more over what we would if we simply stayed at an Airbnb/budget hotel/flew a low cost airline/etc. In our humble opinion, the best-case scenario for a mattress run is to do it in a location that’s relatively inexpensive and in a location where we’re already needing/going to travel to.

In this particular mattress run, we had a house sit lined up in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (flights were booked with American Airlines miles) but we still had plenty of time (lodging wise) that we needed to pay for/secure. House sitting is an option for securing lodging, taking care of pets, and making friends, but you can’t solely depend on it, especially when you’re only looking for house sits in a certain location andfor a certain date range.

In the end, we ultimately decided to jump on the aforementioned Hilton promotion and book category one hotels in nearby Queretaro, Queretaro Mexico since we were already going to be in the area, and as an added bonus, we’d extend our Diamond status until March 2020 (subsequently extended through March 2022) after our 30th Hilton stay. (Side Note) San Miguel de Allende is about 75-90 minutes by bus from Queretaro, Queretaro Mexico and a round trip bus ticket is $8USD per person (as of the time of our visit).

The Hypothetical Math Behind the Mattress Run
As some ERE followers probably know, Hilton allows you to book award stays and still participate in their promotion/bonus offers.

So as an example, the math/breakdown when booking five category one night stays at a Double Tree would look like this:

Book five one night stays at a Category 1 Double Tree (this costs 25K Hilton points).

Per the then current Hilton Unlimited Points Promotion, each stay at a Hilton hotel gave you 2,000 bonus points, reducing your total out of pocket cost to 15,000 points

Also per the then current promotion, you'd receive an additional 10K bonus points for every five stays, further reducing you total out of pocket cost to 5,000 Hilton points.

On top of that, if you were already a Diamond/Gold member you'd receive an additional 1,000 bonus points per stay at DoubleTree (and Hilton) properties, reducing your total out of pocket cost 0 Hilton points!

In other words:

Total points needed to book five (category one) one night Hilton stays: 25,000 points

Total points earned after all bonuses are applied (assuming you’re already Hilton Diamond/Gold): 25,000 points

Total Hilton point cost for five (category one) nights at a Double Tree/Hilton Category 1: 0 points

While the aforementioned breakdown is a cool example, it’s much harder to carry out in the real-world. First, you have to either find a city where there are two close-by Double Tree category ones (we think Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt might be the only option left in the world) that you can check-in/check-out day after day, or you have to pay out of pocket for lodging every other night.

In our case, we decided to do a revolving door of one-night stays by booking at four different category one properties (Double Tree, Garden Inn, Homewood Suites, and Hampton Inn) all within the same city. If we’re not mistaken, Queretaro, Queretaro Mexico is (was) the only place in the world that has four category one Hilton properties all within about 4-10 miles of each other, making it ideal for mattress running with this type of promotion. The downside was that only Double Tree offers 1,000 bonus points per stay to Diamond Members; while Garden Inn was 750 points per stay (or free breakfast), and Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites were 250 points per stay.

Note: Hilton has since changed all Queretaro category one properties to category two!

Our final point outcome wasn’t originally going to be as lucrative as the free hypothetical example above, as we rotated through four different branded hotels and not just Double Tree’s. However, in the end due to some recurring maintenance issues at the Garden Inn Queretaro, Hilton awarded us an extra 15,000 points for our troubles, bringing our total out of pocket net cost to +10,000 Hilton points! In other words, what we originally thought was going to cost us 2,500 Hilton points for 41 nights of lodging, ended up making us an additional 12,500 Hilton points!

For us, even after taking into account the credit card Diamond devaluation (Amex Ascend), hit and miss welcome gifts, and suite upgrades, etc., it still made sense to undertake the mattress run. Since one, we were already going to be in the Queretaro area and two, we still had to find/pay for lodging for the time we didn’t have a house sit secured. The extension on Diamond status for another year was simply a nice bonus.

Note: If anyone is wondering, we never actually charged anything to our room in order to get/trigger the bonus points (as we’ve seen others claim they had to with Hilton promotions). All we simply did was book 41 one night award stays, checked-in/checked-out, rinsed and repeated, and got all our bonus points.

We're curious, what travel (or completely unrelated) examples do fellow ERE's have of gaming the system?!

Re: Travel Hacking, Credit Card Churning, Mattress Running, Deal Stacking & 'Gaming the System' Examples?

Posted: Sat Sep 12, 2020 1:13 pm
by unemployable
I was 1K on United for nine years. King of the skies. Most of it was leisure travel. Last time I flew across an ocean in coach was 2003, and the last time I paid for an international pointy-end-of-the-plane seat was never. Mileage runs? Mattress runs? Oh yeah. One year the necessary segment was on HKG-ORD, a 14-hour flight for which I got the last business class seat. I would add segments and route through out-of-the way cities to get more miles all the time.

A few years after the 2008 recession the airlines wised up and started awarding status based on dollars spent rather than miles flown, and the perks aren't as good as they used to be if you're spending your own dime. And I'm too far from an airport, and flying sucks right now. So I'm pretty happy I'm done playing that game. It's something mostly suited to your 30s anyway.

I have friends who still fly a lot for work. They're usually on Southwest for work and either that or Frontier or Spirit for family vacations. The cheap carriers have unbundled status and miles from their ticket prices all along, and the majors have slowly followed over the years.

My flying got me lifetime gold status on United, which comes with "lifetime" gold status with Marriott as well. The second lifetime is in quotes because it's only as long as they continue the agreement. Whatever you're gaming will change or expire. It always does.

I don't fly or stay in hotels much anymore. Between June 8 and July 29 of this year -- 51 days -- I was traveling around the US homeless and spent exactly one night in a hotel, in Oklahoma City after driving all day from North Carolina. Since attending my dad's funeral four years ago -- today is the anniversary of his death -- I've taken one roundtrip flight. My idea of "travel hacking" now is to sleep in my car, so that, for example, I'm right at the trailhead when I wake up.

It's crazy how much mental energy I would devote to worrying about my upgrade clearing or making my connection or hoping ORD isn't under flow control. But then I wasn't raising kids or anything so I had mental energy to spare. Really all status does is make the lifestyle tolerable; everything about it matters only in the universe within security. If you make it all about being on planes you're doing it wrong.

Re: Travel Hacking, Credit Card Churning, Mattress Running, Deal Stacking & 'Gaming the System' Examples?

Posted: Mon Sep 14, 2020 5:40 pm
by ScrewTheAverage
Thanks for sharing, you must have some great stories (wow, nine years)! Although we must say, just thinking of flying out of ORD on that scale and the notorious weather delays gives us shivers. ;)

We like your new philosophy of 'being homeless' and being able to be at the foot of the trail, congrats.

Our condolences for your fathers passing, be safe out there and continue enjoying life!

Re: Travel Hacking, Credit Card Churning, Mattress Running, Deal Stacking & 'Gaming the System' Examples?

Posted: Mon Sep 14, 2020 7:46 pm
by unemployable
It was mostly on United's route network, so nothing super weird.

I almost got kicked out of Hong Kong once. Or perhaps almost back into Hong Kong as I was on the secure side of the HKG airport. Somehow that's the only airport I've spent a night at and I did it twice.

Probably my silliest intentional itinerary was a trip to Montana when I was between jobs. Flying Midway (UA served MDW for a few years in the mid-2000s) to Bozeman, naturally changing in DEN. Well I get to the rental car counter in BZN... and they had a minivan waiting for me. Only vehicle they had. I had no interest in driving around Montana for four days in a minivan, so after mulling my options I booked an award ticket straight back to Chicago, O'Hare this time. It was the same plane that had just landed and the flight attendant recognized me. I ended up back home before sunset. So I spent the day flying from Midway to O'Hare by way of Bozeman, Montana.

Chicago's not a bad city to fly out of if you fly often and all over the country. Good competition, decent access to both airports and congestion at ORD has gotten much better since they opened up the new runway several years ago. I found summer storms to be worse than winter ones for delays. If a storm was delaying my outbound segment by more than a couple hours I would usually just cancel the trip.

Re: Travel Hacking, Credit Card Churning, Mattress Running, Deal Stacking & 'Gaming the System' Examples?

Posted: Sat Sep 19, 2020 1:36 pm
by ScrewTheAverage
Thank you for the sharing! As we read through your reply our face went from smile to grin to a full on laugh out loud session! :lol:

Good times travel hacking indeed!