(CNN) – Whether it’s hiring a credit card they don’t need, buying a random product, or filling out endless surveys, most travelers have tried some kind of trick to earn more airline miles.
Some dedicated travelers even take specific trips, known as mile races, for the sole purpose of earning miles and / or increasing your frequent flyer status.
Yet few have certainly gone to the same lengths as airline miles expert Steve Belkin, who took the notion of leveraging rewards programs to his advantage and jumped at it long before most travelers, or the airlines, they understood how fruitful it could be.
Belkin managed to earn a staggering 40 million frequent flyer miles over three decades, devising elaborate plans such as hiring dozens of actors to fly under his name, attending air travel meetings and subscribing to hundreds of magazines. .
The travel entrepreneur recounts his many miles-earning adventures in his new book, “Mileage Maniac“, which went on sale earlier this year.
The first time you were interested in accruing airline miles was in the 1980s, when they were a relatively new concept.
“I came across the idea of airline miles,” he tells CNN Travel. “And because I have a slightly more twisted mind, I was able to connect the ideas and realize that I really had the opportunity to be a scalable business.”
Adventures to earn miles
Once it realized that the various departments involved in airline programs did not necessarily coordinate with each other, and that it could “stack” offers, Belkin took on the challenge of earning more and more miles.
He spent hours and hours researching endless programs and offers, trying to come up with ingenious and profitable ways to increase his growing collection of miles.
Belkin’s first big strategy was in 1988, when it hired 25 “mile clones” to fly under its name in order to take advantage of a United Airlines program that gave triple the miles to passengers traveling between the East Coast. and the west coast on Thanksgiving.
“I hired about 25 unemployed and underemployed actors to fly around,” he explains. “In the late ’80s no one was checking IDs, so I could have 25 people fly as’ Steve Belkin’ and be my mile clones.
That was how he earned all his miles.
“Over the course of a weekend, I earned the equivalent of a million miles, which was considered a ridiculous number of miles at the time.”
According to Belkin, the actors agreed to be part of the scheme after he offered to pay for their plane tickets.
“At that time, most people didn’t have the money to fly back and forth,” he explains, “it was good business for them, so everyone benefited. And they did. [los actores] They didn’t understand or care that I wanted their miles. For them it was monopoly money. “
As frequent flyer programs and point systems became more popular, travelers and airlines alike got smarter about potential hacks, and Belkin had to get even more creative.
One of his more outrageous plans was to hire Thai rice cooks and massage therapists for a 30-minute, $ 8 ride through northern Thailand to gain super-satellite status in Air Canada’s Aeroplan program, in a plan known as “baht run”.
“The baht run was actually created by someone else, I just made the most of it,” he admits. “The Aeroplan program was the only one in the world at the time where, with that top-tier status, there was no capacity limit or restrictions on free travel.
“That meant if you wanted six business-class tickets to Australia for Christmas, they had to redeem them for you. It was an incredible advantage. But flying 200 segments was overwhelming.”
Defeating the system
He decided to assemble a team to fly 200 segments between the two cities for five days a week in a six-week period, a task that he admits was very difficult to manage, and which later led to him being mistaken for a drug dealer.
“I was sitting in Cleveland watching the miles go by, and I got a cryptic call from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Thailand,” he says.
When he flew back to meet them, the DEA informed him that the route his hired team traveled daily was related to opium smuggling.
Realizing the seriousness of the situation, he pulled out his mileage spreadsheet and began explaining the details of his plan to the puzzled agent who was questioning him.
“I was a little upset, but also relieved,” says Belkin. “Towards the end of the meeting, he said, ‘Steve, you bought all these tickets with your credit card, you have people on the same planes, you use the same travel agencies, you show up at the airport. I was thinking that you’re either the smuggler. brightest drug I’ve ever met, or stupidest. ‘
“Luckily, it wasn’t either. He was smuggling miles, he wasn’t smuggling drugs. So that encounter ended on a happy note.”
After spending so many years coming up with ways to make airline points schemes and programs work for him, Belkin admits he gets frustrated with those who are indifferent to his miles.
“I had an uncle who had a lot of miles, but he didn’t know how to use it,” he says. “I was going to spend like 300,000 miles per person flying to Australia, and I knew you could get there for 100,000 miles per person.”
Belkin says he begged his uncle to let him pay for the ticket and redeem the miles himself, but he refused to accept it.
“He said, ‘well, I think it’s a great deal.’ Now we hardly speak to each other,” he jokes.
Although Belkin’s hobby has allowed him to travel the world in style with his family for years, he insists that was never his goal.
In fact, it was simply the “idea of beating the airlines at their own game” that prompted him to do so.
“I was trying to figure out how to earn more and more miles and do increasingly complex and convoluted things,” he says. “I never thought about ‘what am I going to do with all these miles, or where am I going to go?”
“Redeem the miles was almost an afterthought. I have been very lucky to have all these miles, and I can go wherever I want, whenever I want. But that is not where I find satisfaction. The satisfaction was that I discovered the way to be better at his own game. “
However, travelers thinking about trying one of their air miles tricks should think twice.
According to Belkin, today it is no longer possible to get away with most, if not all, of the schemes featured in “Mileage Maniac.”
“That’s one of the reasons I wrote this book,” he explains. “Most of these things are not replicable in 2021. If you did not do them in their day, it is more a fable than a reality now.”
In fact, a lot has changed since Belkin began accruing airline miles, and the most significant difference is that most programs now offer miles based on the amount a customer spends rather than how many flights they take.
“That was really the turning point for the programs,” adds Belkin. “At first they were called frequent flyer programs, and they rewarded you for the number of flights you did.”
“Then in the mid-2000s, airlines started to realize that they had to reward people who paid a lot. So they started calling them loyalty programs. So today, loyalty basically means that the more The deeper your pockets are, the more rewards you get. “
Belkin also points out that while travelers may be able to come up with new tricks, it is very difficult to keep them a secret these days due to social media, not to mention the many blogs dedicated to travel hacking.
“Before there was a small community of fans of frequent flights,” he says. “And when you came up with a good idea, you could share it with a few people and help them achieve it to the point of making it even better and more effective.”
“It was very satisfying and there was a sense of camaraderie and community.”
But once that community expanded, Belkin began to feel that “people were waiting for people like me and a couple of these other masterminds to come up with things and share them with them so they could do it.”
After realizing that word was spreading and airlines were “blocking” some of the methods, he and the others “ended up going underground”, sharing their techniques only with a small circle.
“Most of the tricks that are read [en el libro] they’re pretty underground, “he says.” Even people who say they know how to play the game say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know about that.’
Although there is still a community of frequent fliers, Belkin believes that the rewards for “beating the system” are much lower today.
“There are always ways to play the game,” he says. But for most people, the amount of time and effort it would take probably wouldn’t justify the advantage, unless it’s something that you really, really commit to doing. “
“I’d say if you want to play a game, play tennis. Don’t play the miles game.”
However, remember those glory days of the adventures of earning miles with extreme affection.
“It was fun staying up late at night, doing math, recruiting task forces, and figuring out how to take out a home equity loan without my wife knowing,” says Belkin, featuring Randy Petersen, founder of the monthly magazine. “InsideFlyer” as one of his biggest influences.
Although he has received much praise for his ability to earn miles, Belkin has also received criticism, something that really puzzles him.
“If you were substituting miles for money, and someone said ‘I’ve been playing the stock market and I’ve tripled my money,’ no one would criticize it,” he says.
“Nobody criticizes people for hoarding money or accumulating real estate. But suddenly, when it comes to miles, there seems to be a little different yardstick at play.”
When asked what airline executives will think of his plans, Belkin says he likes to think they enjoyed the publicity his antics generated.
“I’d say they didn’t like the fact that I did all this crazy stuff,” he adds. “But it really kept them in the headlines for a while.”
Although his wife, Julie, was perplexed by his fixation on air miles in those early days, she was eventually sold on it, and the couple continue to enjoy a jetset lifestyle.
“My wife didn’t understand it at first and I didn’t explain it well to her,” admits Belkin, who still has six to nine million miles to spend.
“But now we have a few million miles, and if we want to go somewhere, we can go in style. So I think she’s at peace after being mystified for all those decades.”