March 14, 2013 at 8:55 AM ET
After ditching nearly all his material possessions and quitting his six-figure job in a Fortune 50 human resources department, Mike Hrostoski, 31, says he's "living like a millionaire just on travel hacking."
There's no breaking into airlines' websites required. The informal term "travel hacking" means using unexpected shortcuts to quickly earn free or reduced price airfare and hotel stays. This year's first quarter already finds Hrostoski visiting Amsterdam, Berlin, Cancun, Columbia, and Olso, all for free, all from frequent flier miles.
When his mother died unexpectedly in June 2011, Hrostoski found himself asking: "Am I living my higher purpose?" The question propelled him on a 4,100-mile cross-country road trip with his 17-year-old brother to spread his mother's ashes.
He sold or donated most of what he owned, packed what remained into a few pieces of luggage, and he's been on the road ever since, checking off enough experiences to fill the bucket lists of lesser men.
Losing his mom brought him face to face with his own mortality. "I started to get conscious," he said.
He's swam with stingrays. He learned to do a standing back flip. He's shaken hands with Warren Buffett. As a self-improvement challenge, for two months he took a cold shower every morning and gave up booze, women and sex, both with partners and without. In November 2012, with zero advance training, he spontaneously ran and completed a 26-mile marathon.
For cash, he does one-on-one life coaching with "high performing men, mostly entrepreneurs," helping them design their lives to be more awesome. In his sessions, done by email and Skype at the rate of $200/hour, he helps his clients nail their sales goals, improve their relationships, and confront challenges.
Despite having enough miles to circumnavigate the globe without paying for a single ticket, Hrostoski claims he's "just a normal guy who uses it to get some free travel."
A normal guy who does things like crash on strangers' couches in other countries where he barely knows the language. Or prepays his cellphone bill by $1,000 in order to qualify for the minimum spending requirement for the latest mile-boosting credit card he's using.
The travel hack
To further cut down on travel costs, Mike gets $1,800 in free hotel rooms every year by gaming the Expedia.com "best price guarantee."
The online travel agency has a policy where if you find a better price for exactly the same room on another website that meets their accepted qualifications, they will refund you the difference and give you a $50 coupon for future hotel booking.
Using bestrateguarantee.blogspot.com, a site dedicated to finding rooms where price discrepancies exist between online bookers, Hrostoski will intentionally reserve a room he has no intention of staying in. Then he files the price match claim, gets the coupon, and cancels the reservation.
He does this three times a month, and usually calls Expedia, which takes about 20 minutes, while folding laundry or going for a walk.
According to Expedia's terms and conditions, he isn't breaking any rules. The site sets a maximum limit of three price match guarantee coupons per month.
"The customer may keep the coupon in their account" if they cancel the reservation after receiving it, Expedia spokesperson Brittny Quinn told NBC News. "However if we determine that this policy is being abused, Expedia does reserve the right to disable coupons and deactivate accounts."
Hrostoski doesn't feel guilty. "If it wasn't working financially for Expedia, or the credit card companies for that matter, then they would end the programs," he said.
"Travel hacking -- it's just making the most of what's out there."