Last year, in Australia, a bank ran a promotion offering 100 frequent flyer points for each purchase made on a particular credit card. But they didn’t specify how much the purchase needed to be. An enterprising Melbournian began making 1 cent purchases on his card (fortuitously he was able to do this on the web-site of the city’s toll road operator). He racked up a staggering 7,000 purchases in a six-day spree, before the irate bank figured out what was happening and shut it all down. But in the process this bloke managed to wheedle 700,000 frequent flyer points out of spending a mere $70. Enough points to fly around the world four times, in Business Class. Which I’d say is a pretty impressive outcome, no?
Then the other day, I read an article about a guy in Xi’an, China, who enjoyed a year of free lunches, courtesy of an airline. Apparently, he had bought himself an unrestricted First Class ticket. Each day he would head to the airport around midday, and after checking in for his flight would make straight for the First Class lounge where he would stuff himself at the complimentary buffet. Then he would leave the airport, call up the airline, and change his flight departure to the next day. On which he would repeat the trick, and then again the next day after that, and then again the next day after that.
In fact, he did this a total of 300 times before the airline twigged to what was going on. And when they eventually politely enquired of him: “zhè shì zěnme huí shì” (“what’s up”, in Chinese), he decided to call it a day. After almost a year’s worth of free dining, he cancelled his ticket. But because it was an unrestricted ticket he demanded, and got, a full refund.
Seriously, you have to stand up and applaud such brazen chutzpah.
All of which led me to thinking: over the years I have racked up more than a few air-miles of my own, not to mention having occupied quite a few hotel beds. I am unhealthily familiar with airline schedules, airport operating procedures, hotel policies, and the rules and regulations governing myriad different frequent flyer programs. And thus I am aware of many of the “loopholes” that can make the most of your travel dollars and program miles. Here are Eight Tips I can offer on the subject.
Tip One: Buy a House on Credit.
True story: a high-school buddy has made an art form of figuring out the best ways to get travel perks. The high point being when he arranged to pay for a house on a Diners Club card. I don’t know if this scheme would still work today, but back then apparently Diners agreed they would fund the purchase if my friend first deposited the full price plus a 3% handling fee into his card account. Meaning that on a roughly $1 million property purchase, he paid an extra $30,000 but racked up about 1.5 million frequent flyer points. That’s enough points to get six First Class round-the-world tickets, which if booked for cash would otherwise have cost about $90,000. Not quite free tickets, but nonetheless lots of champagne travel for the price of beer…
Tip Two: Don’t be a One-Way Ticket Sucker.
One of the great mysteries of modern life is how airlines set the price for their tickets. It is absolutely impenetrable, as a maths professor who did a study on this important subject confirms: “… All the different pricing rules interact in ways that not even those who designed the pricing systems fully understand. Mathematically, finding an optimal fare for a particular route, while theoretically solvable, turns out to very similar to a classical mathematical problem known as Boolean Satisfiability, which has long been known to be NP-complete – which means it could take the fastest computer longer than the lifetime of the universe to find the solution”. Or in simple terms, the way that airlines price their tickets is all fucked up.
The best example of this is the inexplicable discrepancy between the price of a one-way ticket and a return fare. For instance, I need to book a flight to go from London to Edinburgh in three days time. The British Airways web-site is right this moment offering me a one-way fare for about $500. But that very same flight, when paired with a return ticket in three weeks time, is about $300. Makes perfect sense that a one-way should be twice the cost of return, doesn’t it? Math gone mad, really, but an opportunity nonetheless – just buy the cheaper ticket, and then toss the return segment in the bin.
Tip Three: Be a Libyan.
The same friend who bought a house on credit got assigned for a while to a project in Libya. And in the course of ferrying back and forth he figured out that airlines often price the exact same flights differently, depending on where you start the journey. So on BA’s web-site (to pick on them again), a First Class ticket from Tripoli, travelling via London to Australia and then back again, will cost you about 6,500 Libyan Dinars (which of course is equivalent to US$5,500, c’mon people, you knew that!). But here’s the thing: the very same First Class seats on the very same flights, when booked as a London to Sydney return via BA’s UK web-site, will set you back a whopping $14,500. That is roughly three times the price for the same seats, and you don’t even get the flights to and from Libya. And even if this latter bit is of value – I’d pay not to go there too – surely it is not worth $10,000?
Now, if you have really big cojones, after booking the ticket you’d just ignore the first Tripoli-London flight, and show up at Heathrow to commence your journey. Although this is a strategy fraught with risk, because airlines are entitled to reject a ticket if the first sector isn’t used (a rule specifically designed to stop people gaming the system). If this is your plan you need to be ready to sweet-talk the pants off the check-in staff. Like my exceedingly charming friend, who had a whole inventory of ready-made excuses to pull out and use. Such as he had taken really ill in Libya and so caught a ride on a private jet back to London to get to a doctor, and so hadn’t been able to use the Tripoli-London ticket, although now here he was ready to fly, surely the airline was not so mean as to punish him for having been virtually at death’s door, and so on and so on …
On the other hand, if you don’t like to gamble, there is a risk-free approach. Which is to actually fly to Libya one-way from London, setting you back about $500 (but note, as per above, book a return fare and discard the return segment – don’t be a one-way ticket sucker, remember?). Then simply turn around in Tripoli International, or if you’re really up for it go sightseeing for a day, and then fly back on the first leg of your First Class ticket. All 100% kosher. (To be fair, there is not too much that is kosher in Tripoli these days, but you get the point: this sort of thing is eminently worthwhile if you don’t mind a bit of extra travel).
Tip Four: Use the Fifth Freedom.
An airline is only allowed to carry passengers to and from its registered home country. Although on really long haul flights aircraft need to touch down somewhere in the middle to refuel. In these cases the airlines and the various host Governments long ago agreed something known as the Fifth Freedom, which essentially is an exception to the rules, to allow a carrier touching down en-route to pick up new passengers there. Like the Singapore Airlines flight to Los Angeles via Tokyo where they sell not just Singapore-Tokyo or Singapore-LA fares, but also Tokyo-LA, even though this last one isn’t directly to or from Singapore. Other examples: Singapore Airlines’ Moscow to Houston; Air New Zealand’s London to LA; Emirates’ New York to Milan; Cathay Pacific’s New York to Vancouver; and Air Tahiti’s non-stop segment between Los Angeles and Paris.
So why is this relevant, you may ask? Well, Fifth Freedom flights are often not widely known – I mean if you wanted to fly from Moscow to Houston, it probably would not be top of mind to check with Singapore Air. Airlines, however, like to fill their planes, and so often will sell tickets on these flights really cheap, just to put a butt in the seat. Sometimes up to 50% less than a similar seat on a national carrier flying that exact same route. Gotta love that.
Tip Five: The squeaky wheel gets the oil.
How often have you tried to redeem frequent flyer miles, and been told “sorry, nothing is available on those dates”? Or tried to book a hotel only to hear: “sorry, there are only full priced rooms available”? And then you hang up disappointed, or even worse, like a schmuck book the expensive option.
Your basic mistake being that you have assumed the person on the other end of the line – usually a lowly paid phone operator in the Philippines or Bangladesh – actually knows stuff, and actually gives a shit about you and your cheap-arse travel requirements. Both inherently flawed assumptions, you poor misguided fool. The reality is that the person on the other end of the phone may well know what they are on about, but equally it may be their first day on the job, or they may be incredibly stupid, or they may be having a bad day, or they may simply not have a clue and not give a damn. They normally just read you the first thing that pops up onto their screen. They may not check surrounding dates for you or alternative routes or multiple connection options. They almost certainly won’t offer to waitlist you for a frequent flyer ticket, although almost all airlines can do this. Nor will they check availability on partner airlines, even though Qantas frequent flyer points are just as usable on any other One World airline, say.
And you can bet your bottom dollar that even if they happen to know that Paris and London are near enough to one another to be alternative end points to a journey there is no way in hell they will check this for you, without being specifically asked to do so. So, for example, I learned long ago that Singapore Airlines frequent flyer tickets on the Singapore-London route are near impossible to get, unless you book a year in advance and put up one of your children as collateral. Yet frequent flyer seats from Singapore to Paris or Rome or Amsterdam are almost always available, and then tack on a short budget flight to London. Voila!
No-one at an airline will ever suggest this sort of alternative to you though, so you need to prod and poke and question everything you are told. And even then, if you don’t get the result you want, call back the next day and try again. Airline phone operators are like Forrest Gump’s chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. A different phone operator very often equals a different result. Try and try again, and don’t give up easily: being a persistent pest can pay off. Or better yet, find yourself a good travel agent who will do this on your behalf. It is well worth their fee.
Tip Six: Challenge and blame.
You have endured endless nights away from home, in hotels. You always stay at the Hilton. And for your troubles, you now have “status” with Hilton, which makes it a little bit better: room upgrades, dedicated check-in, express check-out, free internet, complimentary breakfast, access to the Club. Then you need to visit some Godforsaken place, like Almaty in Kazakhstan say, and you discover to your sheer horror that this is one of the few places on earth without a Hilton. But they have an Intercontinental. What do you do?
Option A: You invoke the ancient right of “challenge”. That is, you ring up the people who run the Intercontinental rewards program, and you tell them you are a super-duper traveller and always stay at Hilton hotels, but now want to switch to Intercontinental. Only it is hard to do, because you don’t want to give up your Hilton perks. Most big hotel chains have the ability to accept a “challenge” (it is actually what they call it) and give you instant or temporary matching status, to try to win your business. A bit grubby, I know, but it worked a charm for me in Kazakhstan, I can tell you that much.
Option B: You blame the competition. As in call up the Intercontinental and say: “Hello, I was booked to stay at [name any other hotel here], but they stuffed up my booking and the room was dirty and the service was atrocious – I am sick to death of that hotel chain and I want to stay with you instead”. Chances are the Intercontinental folks will do everything they can to accommodate you, and give you all sorts of little extras and freebies, just to knife the competition. (PS: this trick works equally well with airlines, especially for hard-to-get last-minute tickets at the airport. Approach the booking desk of Airline A, and tell them you are in a desperate state because Airline B was delayed, lost your luggage, or in some other way ruined your day. You’ll be amazed how quickly seats suddenly become available on otherwise full flights. Only the most surly of airline staff won’t bend over backwards to sort you out, if at the same time they get to stick the boot into another airline).
Tip Seven: Just ask.
The simplest approach is to just ask for what you want. Although yield can be low: a recent survey found that only 4% of people who asked for an upgrade at airline / hotel check-in actually got it. And some companies have a blanket policy against this sort of thing, in which case you are wasting your breath. That said, if you are going to try the direct approach remember to be polite and presentable, and try to come up with a vaguely plausible reason why you need an upgrade (“I am ill”, or “it is our honeymoon”, for example). Just don’t be so stupid as to lie about something eminently verifiable (like “it’s my birthday”, when it isn’t – remember your birthday is in your passport, dumbass).
And believe it or not, check-in employees are human beings, too. So they will occasionally reward a request that might be complete nonsense, but that at least brightens up their day. Like the following fabulous real-life examples, courtesy of Virgin Atlantic: “Manchester United lost today, I am really upset and need the space to get over it”; “My wife is pregnant – I need an upgrade as it is a really stressful time for me”; and “I lost all of my money in Vegas so can’t afford to pay for an upgrade”. Not to mention my absolute favourite: “I am Sir Richard Branson’s dentist”.
Tip Eight: Be Nice!
Being a customer-facing airline or hotel employee is a thankless task. People are often rude, obnoxious, or demanding. And almost universally customers love to bitch and moan, but very few will take the time to be appreciative. So be nice, and you will stand out from the crowd.
Like in Beijing once, where I stayed at the Park Hyatt less than a month after it opened. On check-out I demanded to see the Manager. You could almost see the reception lady’s face drop – clearly I was another whiner – but she dutifully called her boss. When he appeared I told him that I just wanted to say what a wonderful hotel it was, how much I had enjoyed my stay, and how I will definitely tell everyone I know about it. He almost fell over backwards, because no-one ever does this sort of lunatic thing – that is, give positive feedback. Two days later I got an email from Hyatt Customer Service, saying how much the hotel staff appreciated my views, and that they would be upgrading me to the most elite level in their frequent guest program as a “thank you”. Ever since, I’ve enjoyed rock-star treatment at Hyatt hotels all over the world. Just for having been nice. As they say, you will always get more from sugar than you will from spice.
So there you have them: Eight Tips for making the most of your travel dollars and program miles.
But really, this is all amateur hour when compared to Dave Phillips, who in 1999 spent $3,150 on pudding and managed to accumulate 1.2 million frequent flyer miles in the process. That is, he successfully parlayed three grand of dessert into $150,000 of flight value. An achievement that has made Dave a cult hero in the frequent flyer travel set, where he is known reverentially as “the Pudding Guy”.
How did he do it? Well, he noticed that a particular food company was running a promotion, offering 1,000 frequent flyer miles for every 10 individual bar-codes mailed in. The promotion was related to frozen meals, which cost $2 each. But in reading the fine print Dave noticed that the terms and conditions were not specific, and the offer applied to any bar codes from any of the company’s products. Including their chocolate puddings, only 25 cents each but with the required individual bar codes. So Dave hopped in his van, and drove to a dozen supermarkets where he bought every single pudding he could find. And then he ordered in more – 60 cases more, to be exact. Apparently by the end of all this Dave’s garage and living room were bursting. Do the math: that is over 12,500 individual serves, which is quite literally a ton of pudding.
All the puddings (minus the bar code labels) went to the Salvation Army, so a lot of homeless folks got something out of the exercise. As the puddings went to charity the cost of them was considered a tax-deductible donation, which Dave claimed. Because Dave wound up with more than a million miles in his American Airlines flyer account, he got awarded elite gold status for life (normally about fifteen years of intense travel is required to do this). And Dave even kept about 100 of the puddings for his personal consumption. I bet these tasted sweeter than any other chocolate puddings in the history of the world.
But even this amazing feat was topped, in March 2013, when Brad Wilson realised that the US Mint was selling one dollar coins off its web-site, at face value. That is, pay a $1, get a $1 which you can use anywhere. Brad immediately whipped out his credit card, and over a sustained period of eight months managed to buy $3 million (yes, $3 million!) worth of $1 coins. But being legitimate purchases, every Dollar bought for a dollar earned him 1.25 frequent flyer miles. Meaning that in eight months he racked up 4 million miles, essentially for free. Bringing him all the trips and airline perks he could ever want, for the rest of his life.
Well done, Brad. Road Warriors everywhere salute you. We are not worthy.