How to travel for nearly nothing
Meet those who game the travel industry
As Sam Huang cruised through the sky at 650 mph, 30,000 feet above the earth he wrote the following: “Unlimited Dom Perignon, wild caviar, and a shower spa while flying 40,000 feet in the air — it’s no wonder the Emirates First Class Suite is consistently named one of the best airline seats in the world. Tickets can reach up to $20,000 round trip — an astronomical amount that I wouldn’t even dream of paying for a flight.”
Huang, who recently turned 27, finished a round-the-world trip in May. He visited 11 cities, seven countries, and five continents. From Singapore to Sydney and Houston to Dubai, Huang’s trip spanned more than 55,000 miles.
Huang called the Emirates first-class suite home for his globe-trotting journey. This premium experience can cost thousands of dollars for a ticket from point A to B. The thing is, Huang paid a mere $300 for the entire trip.
Using a combination of airline miles and sheer ingenuity, Huang exploited a series of loopholes in Emirates’ online booking system to indulge his serious case of wanderlust. Although Huang’s experience might seem abnormal, it is actually much more commonplace than one might think.
In fact, an entire online community exists dedicated to leveraging deals airlines offer to travel around the world for free. Savvy travelers are able to achieve this through credit card points, frequent flyer miles, manufactured spending and a variety of other methods. Many in the community call this practice “The Game.” The goal is to amass as many travel rewards as possible.
Although people have been playing “The Game” for decades, only in the last 20 years has it come into the public eye. The travel community points to 1995, when FlyerTalk.com was established, as the explosion that started a massive expansion of the practice. The website, which describes itself as “all travel, all the time,” is an internet forum for avid travelers and a news site dedicated to publishing the latest on things flying.
“The Game” grew out of the FlyerTalk forums, which now boast more than 600,000 members. FlyerTalk spawned blogs that feature posts on selecting the best credit card, choosing the most lucrative frequent flyer programs, and other ways to travel for little or no money.
The proliferation of travel blogs help even the average Joe understand “The Game” and shined more light on the secrets of a sometimes tight-lipped community. More and more people are now taking advantage of these programs, and although they may not have the time to amass hundreds of thousands of miles to fly around the world in first class like Huang, people are investing a little time to reap lucrative rewards.
“I get antsy if I’m home for more than a month,” says Dan Eleff on a break from writing for his blog, DansDeals.com. Eleff, 31, started blogging when he was 20 and founded DansDeals.com in 2007. It’s now his full-time job, to write about the best credit card deals or fare glitches where $1000 flights may go for $100.
The blogger claims that his website hits 100,000 unique visitors a day. Every day, thousands of his forum members contribute tips and talk strategy on how to generate more points.
“I earn them faster than I can burn them. When you play ‘The Game’ this long, it’s finding the time to go on these trips. So I never have a lack of miles; it’s never been an issue,” he says.
Eleff has generated millions of miles over his 15 years playing “The Game.” It’s allowed him to take his family on month long trips around Asia and Australia, flying only first class and staying “at every five star hotel along the way.” He paid for all flights and hotels with points and miles.
He recently completed what many frequent flyers have on their bucket list, the United Airlines Island Hopper. This trip takes people to five small islands in the Pacific Ocean. The flight only operates on Monday and Fridays, stopping at the atolls of Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei and Truk. The weird thing about the trip is that the plane stops for no more than 40 minutes on each island.
“If you’re not an aviation geek with a love of flying, there’s no way I can explain the appeal of this flight,” wrote Eleff in a trip report. This sometimes unexplainable fascination of flying characterizes many who frequent “The Game.”
Eleff and Huang’s millions of airline miles might seem large, but they are relatively tiny players in a massive industry. The Economist published a study in 2005 that valued the global stock of airline miles at $700 billion. Banks subsidize these mileage programs because they want the public to sign up for credit cards. The banks get a small kickback every time a credit card is swiped, and profit even more when people start missing payments and have to pay interest on their balance.
Eleff says when people fall into credit card debt, they help subsidize people who play “The Game,” but added, “As long as you can be organized, and you can stay on top of your cards and your payments and make sure your miles don’t expire, then it really is a no-lose situation.”
Not everyone in the community is fixated on taking advantage of loopholes or finding a credit card to get free miles. Some just want to find simple cheap deals to get around the globe.
“I call it a passion project,” says Rida Wong, referring to the website she helped found four years ago. TheFlightDeal.com provides a selection of heavily discounted flights to both international and domestic locations.
The idea for The Flight Deal was spawned by a group of friends who frequently traveled for both work and pleasure. What started as an email chain between three people quickly grew to dozens, and that’s when the founding group members knew they had to do something bigger. They were constantly getting the question “When is a fare a great deal?” By breaking down a fare and assigning a price per mile traveled, they established a baseline for price comparison. Fares are only published if they meet a simple criterion: 6 cents per mile or less.
The Flight Deal has proprietary technology that scours the internet looking for deals within this criteria. It then posts a curated selection of deals, trying to include various locations that people might not normally think to go to.
“Our motto is not really about chasing the destination, but chasing the fare,” Wong says. Fares featured on the website tend to be a steal. San Francisco to Milan round trip was priced out at only $467. A quick search in a major flight search engine like Priceline or Orbitz comes up with the cheapest flight as $1200.
Wong, who runs strategy and business development at The Flight Deal, is a former banker. She says it’s something that she enjoys doing and takes advantage of many deals herself. But what she appreciates even more is when people can benefit from her passion.
“Our goal is to democratize travel. What we’re looking to do is help others who might not have necessarily thought they could have traveled and go to new places and learn different things,” Wong says.
Eleff also revels in the fact that he helps people get to places that they may never have dreamed of, or been able to afford. He’s aided readers in their quest to travel to Iran, Iraq, Antarctica and even North Korea.
“People used their miles to get there,” he laughed.
Flight bumping, fuel dumping and mileage running are terms one finds when reading Dan’s Deals or FlyerTalk. The jargon and the maze of steps to take advantage of the deals are overwhelming. But this is what keeps it interesting for many who play “The Game.”
“It’s always changing. It’s always keeping you on your toes. You always have to keep up with the latest developments,” Eleff says. And there is always more learning to do. Rewards programs are constantly changing and airlines are always reshaping.
Eleff hosts seminars on how to game the travel industry. He’s held 15 over the years and has seen attendees young and old, some who would also consider themselves experts in the subject and others who may just be getting started.
But just because it might seem like there is a high barrier of entry to play “The Game,” veterans of the practice says that there’s been no better time to get involved.
“I think now, there is no easier time to enter the market. I think we are entering a period where it is becoming more mainstream,” Huang says.
While not traveling the world or running his small business, Huang has been promoting his new website TopMiles.com, which he says is the first of its kind. His website helps simplify the complicated world of miles and award travel. Users can enter where they want to go, say from New York to London, and then the site guides them step-by-step on how to book that flight through points and awards.
“This makes the process so much simpler. In the past it’s very hard to get into this. You have to read all these different articles, you have to decipher the codes, you have to browse around,” Huang says.
Eleff believes that the process is more complicated and may take more than a trip to one website. It’s a hobby that takes some time investment, and the learning curve can be up to a year. But he insists that anybody can get into it.
“People will often post a first-year anniversary post [on my forum] ‘like you know this year I started off knowing nothing about this stuff and I spent a couple of hours a week [researching] and now I’ve just cracked a million miles and we were able to fly around the world in first class and stay in these crazy hotels,’ ” he says.
The Flight Deal makes booking a flight fairly straightforward as well, trying to cater its instructions to all types.
“We show people who are not as travel savvy or tech savvy or just don’t have the time; these are the dates that you can book for this price. If they can get it and they can travel on a discount, then I think it’s a win-win all around,” Wong says.
As more people get involved, there are potential drawbacks. “The Game” could become more competitive and airlines could lose more money, Huang says. American Airlines recently announced a massive devaluation of its frequent flyer program, AAdvantage. The airline will now award points not on miles flown with the airline, but by money spent on tickets. This hurts those who try and complete mileage runs, which is when travelers constantly travel on steeply discounted flights to accrue frequent flyer miles and earn elite status with the airline.
Eleff counters that although the programs constantly change, he doesn’t see the practice going away anytime soon.
“At the end of the day, it’s really a win-win situation for both of the parties involved. Airlines get rid of distressed inventory, which they wouldn’t have sold anyway, and they get revenue for that. The banks get credit card sign ups,” he says.
“The Game” has more than just the practical effects of getting around the world luxuriously and cheaply. Perhaps the freedom it provides and the mindset it can create are more valuable than the points themselves.
“It’s not just the first class flights,” Eleff says. “The first class flights are the exclamation point, but it’s the ability to fly at the spur of the moment and take off. Just the ability to do that without even thinking about it.”