Obsessed with Frequent-Flier Miles
Steve Belkin was in trouble with the law. It was 2001, and agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration wanted to know why he’d hired 20 Thai farmers to fly four times a day, every day, for six weeks straight between the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, only 80 miles apart in the infamous Golden Triangle, a hotbed for heroin smuggling. Sufficiently scared, Belkin showed them his spreadsheet—it was all part of a plan, he explained, to earn five million frequent-flier miles. For only $8 per round trip, his employees were racking up miles he then processed legally through Air Canada, a fellow Star Alliance carrier that recognized his staff as “super elites,” earning fistfuls of free business-class tickets to take them anywhere in the world. When he was finished, his inquisitor had just one question: Would you hire an extra person to earn miles for me? “Because he was tired of flying back and forth to the States in coach,” Belkin says today, laughing. “He wanted to ride up front.”
Don’t we all? The perfectly legal scheme lasted two years, adding millions of miles to Belkin’s lifetime haul of 27 million. At that point, Air Canada had caught on, closing the loophole. Belkin emphasizes that the Baht Run, as it came to be known, wasn’t his idea. “I’m just the guy who scaled it up,” he says. “Where this really all started was FlyerTalk.”
FlyerTalk, if you haven’t heard, is the largest, most freewheeling travel community on the web, with more than 15 million archived posts and 50,000 daily visitors. Founded by Inside Flyer publisher (and Executive Travel columnist) Randy Petersen in 1998, it hasn’t changed much since then. (Petersen also founded MilePoint in March, a new bulletin board for frequent fliers.) FlyerTalk is a bewildering assemblage of forums and message boards, that still overflows with pseudonyms for members and acronyms for everything else. But FlyerTalk embodied “social media” before there even was such a thing, and it has successfully fended off Facebook-style newcomers like Bumped.in. While those sites are all about making friends, the goal of FlyerTalkers remains the same: riding up front and racking up miles.
Their instrument of choice is the mileage run, essentially a series of flights to nowhere with the express purpose of accumulating miles inexpensively. “It’s an arbitrage game,” my friend Seth Miller, an IT consultant, likes to say. “Buy cheap and redeem high.” Spending less than $.02 per mile earned on a ticket from Boston to Washington to San Diego to San Francisco to Las Vegas to Chicago (and that’s just the first day) falls under the FlyerTalker definition of “cheap.” Redeeming high means burning those miles on international business- or first-class tickets and upgrades worth thousand of dollars and as much as $.10 per mile: a fivefold return on investment.
Plotting a mileage run requires scouring the web—or just visiting FlyerTalk—to discover double- and triple-mile promotions, spot mistake fares (for example, a coach ticket from JFK to Reykjavic for $61 instead of $610) and learn how to parse the fine print. I once spent a Saturday at a Newark airport hotel listening to a FlyerTalker code-named Viajero Joven teach us how to stretch a nonstop between Boston and Los Angeles into a five-layover odyssey, all in pursuit of extra miles. Present that day was Richard Baum, a software consultant who took his whole family on a mileage run to California as casually as driving them to the mall. “I flew to San Jose, and all I got was a burrito,” his daughter said afterward. At least the trip counted toward her elite status—the FlyerTalker’s ultimate goal.
Once you’re there, the perks pour in: upgrades, bonuses, lounges and reciprocal benefits on partner airlines. “Walking back to coach, people always comment on first class,” FlyerTalk’s former president Gary Leff, now working with Randy Petersen, tweeted recently. “They’d love the seat but can’t imagine who would pay [so much]. Me either.”
“Elite status matters,” Leff told me. “It matters more now than it ever did, with flights flying full. Being at the top of the wait-list queue matters. Waived checked baggage fees matter—even priority boarding matters, just so you can find overhead bin space.”
Anyone can accumulate miles, and almost everyone does. There are an estimated 17 trillion miles in existence—more than the number of dollars in circulation, according to the Economist—banked in more than 160 million accounts. The majority are the product of credit card purchases, which FlyerTalkers maximize by shopping on sites like Evreward.com, which tracks mileage deals offered by various e-tailers. They even buy Native American $1 coins from the U.S. Mint, which sells them at face value—meaning you can put them on your credit card and then use them to pay the bill, instantly earning free miles. But it’s hard to shop your way to elite status. For that, you need to fly a lot, and mileage runs are one way of doing it cheaply in a hurry.
Who has time for all this? You’d be surprised. A smattering of business cards from one FlyerTalk meet-up yielded patent attorneys, programmers and, of course, consultants. Belkin is a serial entrepreneur and the cofounder of an Indian solar energy startup; Leff is a university CFO. What they all have in common is a head for numbers and an almost impish glee in gaming a system designed to separate them from their wallets.
In that respect, they’re hackers, only they’re running rings around the travel industry’s pricing schemes instead of breaking into computers. Not for nothing has the term travel hacking been used to describe their exploits. FlyerTalk has been instrumental in pooling the talents of these individuals, disseminating their know-how and challenging them to keep raising the stakes—a phenomenon TED Conference curator Chris Anderson has described elsewhere as “Crowd Accelerated Innovation.”
Even the airlines are in awe. Continental, Lufthansa and other carriers treat FlyerTalkers as proxies for their best customers. “Our customer changed,” the head of social media marketing for Lufthansa told a group of them last fall. “The question is: Should we change as a company?”
All the airlines will have to, if they want to stay a step ahead of the Steve Belkins of the world. “Most people just become experts at their frequent-flier program or alliance,” Belkin says. “I tore apart just about every program in the world.” So can you.
Would you like to learn how to book your own mileage runs? You could join FlyerTalkers who are planning to converge on Chicago O’Hare, October 14–16 to discuss tips and tricks for maximizing miles and points from airlines, hotels and rental cars. Visit FlyerTalk.com for details. Similar ground was covered at Frequent Traveler University in New York on April 29 and 30, with two all-day seminars for expert travelers and rookies, respectively, hosted by FlyerTalk founder and Executive Travel columnist Randy Petersen and former FlyerTalk president Gary Leff.
So what’s the best frequent-flier program? The maddening answer: It depends. Former FlyerTalk president Gary Leff gives high marks to the Air Canada–affiliated Aeroplan for having the lowest threshold of any airline for midtier elite status, which includes lounge access and reciprocal benefits on other Star Alliance carriers. If it’s free flights you’re after, Alaska Airlines has frequent codeshares with both American Airlines and Delta, meaning miles flown on either can be redeemed on British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas, among others. Among the big three, Delta’s SkyMiles program has been derisively nicknamed SkyPesos by FlyerTalkers for its poor redemption rates, while United is infamous for blocking reward tickets on partners such as Lufthansa and ANA.