Travel hackers: How frequent fliers fly for free

Joshua Pickles says he currently holds 5.8 million miles and points over several programs that has given him top tier status with airlines like United, Continental and American Airlines and hotel franchises like Starwood Hotels and Hilton Hotels. He's been able to accumulate these miles and points without having to spend very much money.

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Pickles is a so-called "travel hacker" — a person who figures out ways to rack up miles and points to get free trips without having to pay anything out of pocket. On his website, Pickles insists that these are "schemes" and not "scams," the former being legal. One scheme: Use credit cards with miles reward points to buy shipments of the unused dollar coins sitting in Federal Reserve Vaults, which NPR's Planet Money reports has been piling up unwanted by the public but is continuing to be minted because of a congressional mandate.

Once the coins are purchased and shipped for free, buyers can then deposit them in their bank to pay off their credit cards — voila, a free trip without having to pay anything out of pocket. Tom Jurkowsky, a spokesman for the Mint told NPR that although it's not illegal, it's "an abuse of the system."

As a result, buyers are now limited to buying 1,000 coins every 10 days.

In a recent blog post, Pickles goes into detail about the process of buying and circulating money to rack up enough points for a free trip. He says that when you purchase the coins, you agree to no immediately deposit them in a bank, and put them into circulation. He suggests using the coins at Farmer's Markets, using them for mass transit, or buying money orders at the U.S. Post Office.

Pickles also has a few tips on depositing them in a bank, which can annoy certain tellers or institutions. This includes avoiding depositing the coins on weekends and closing hours, and bringing along a box of doughnuts to put them in a good mood.

Although none of this illegal, I'm personally hesitant to buy money just to rack up some miles for a free trip — it seems unethical, and I'm very much a goody-goody. What about you? Would you consider doing this for a free trip?

UPDATE 7/22: Planet Money reports that the U.S. Mint has released a statement saying it will no longer accept credit card payments for the purchase of dollar coins to prevent further abuse of the program.

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