September 18, 2021

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Like this “mileage freak” he earned 40 million frequent flyer miles

(CNN) – Whether it’s signing up for a credit card they don’t need, buying a random product, or filling out endless surveys, most travelers have attempted some kind of hack to earn extra airline miles.

Some dedicated flyers also take specific trips, known as mileage runs, for the sole purpose of earning miles and / or increasing their frequent flyer status.

However, it’s safe to assume that few have gone as far as air miles expert Steve Belkin, who took the idea of ​​using reward programs against himself and ran with it long before most flyers, or airlines for that matter, understood how fruitful it could be.

Belkin has managed to earn a staggering 40 million frequent flyer miles in three decades by devising elaborate schemes such as hiring dozens of actors to fly under his name, participating in hair transport consultancy and purchasing hundreds of magazine subscriptions.

The travel entrepreneur recounts his many mileage-earning adventures in his new book, “Mileage Maniac,” which was released earlier this year.

He first developed an interest in accumulating air miles in the 1980s, when they were a relatively new concept.

“I just came across the idea of ​​airline miles,” he tells CNN Travel. “And because I have a slightly more devious mind, I was able to connect the dots and realize that it actually had the opportunity to be a scalable business.”

Adventures that earn miles

Steve Belkin has written a book about the various projects he has undertaken to earn 40 million miles over 30 years.

Courtesy of Steve Belkin

Once he realized that the various departments involved in airline programs weren’t necessarily in contact with each other and that he could “stack up” the deals together, Belkin set out on the challenge of earning more and more miles.

He has spent countless hours researching countless programs and offers, trying to find imaginative and inexpensive ways to add to his ever-growing collection of miles.

Belkin’s first major project took place in 1988, when he hired 25 “clones of miles” to fly under his name in order to take advantage of a United Airlines program that offered travelers traveling between the east and west coasts for triple miles. Thanksgiving.

“I hired about 25 unemployed and underemployed actors to fly back and forth,” he explains. “In the late 1980s, no one was checking ID, so I could fly 25 people like ‘Steve Belkin’ and be my mileage clones. Then I’d earn all their miles.

“Over the course of a weekend, I earned the equivalent of one million miles, which was considered a ridiculous amount of miles at the time.”

According to Belkin, the actors agreed to follow the scheme after it offered to subsidize their airfares.

“At the time, most of these people didn’t really have the money to fly back and forth,” he explains. “It was a really good deal for them, so everyone benefited from it. And them [the actors] I didn’t really understand or didn’t care that I wanted their miles. For them it was monopoly money ”.

As frequent flyer programs and point schemes became more popular, both travelers and airlines became more savvy about potential hacks, and Belkin had to be even more inventive.

One of his most extravagant plans involved employing Thai rice farmers and masseuses to fly a $ 8 30-minute route through northern Thailand in order to receive super-elite status on Air Canada’s Aeroplan program, in one scheme known as “baht rush”.

“The baht ride was actually created by someone else, I just powered it up,” he admits. “It [the Aeroplan program] it was the only program in the world at the time in which, with that high-level status, no capacity control and no blackout award travel could be achieved.

“This meant that if you wanted six business class tickets for Christmas to go to Australia, they had to redeem them for you. So that was an incredible plus. But piloting 200 segments was daunting ”.

Beat the system

Belkin, seen in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, has spent years traveling the world racking up miles.

Courtesy of Steve Belkin

He decided to put together a team to fly 200 segments between the two cities five days a week over a six-week period, a task he admits was very difficult to manage, and subsequently led him to be mistaken for a smuggler. drug.

“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, Belkin was informed by the DEA that the route his hired team traveled daily was associated with opium smuggling.

Realizing the gravity of the situation, he pulled out his mileage calculation spreadsheet and began explaining the details of his pattern to the baffled agent who questioned him.

“He was a little annoyed, but he was also relieved,” Belkin says. “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 agents, you show up at the airport. I was thinking that either you are the most brilliant drug dealer I have ever met, or the most stupid. ‘

“Fortunately, I was neither. I smuggled miles, I didn’t smuggle drugs. So that meeting ended on a happy note. “

After spending so many years devising ways to make airline points schemes and programs work to his advantage, Belkin admits he’s frustrated with those who are nonchalant about their miles.

“I had an uncle who had a lot of miles, but he didn’t know how to use them,” he says. “He 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 was like, ‘well, I think that’s a great deal.’ Now we barely talk to each other, “he jokes.

While Belkin’s hobby has allowed him to travel the world in style with his family for years, he insists that this has never been his goal.

In fact, it was simply “the idea of ​​beating airlines at their own game” that spurred him on.

“I was trying to figure out how to earn more and more miles and do more and more complex and convoluted things,” he says. “I never thought ‘what am I going to do with all these miles, or where am I going?’

“Redeeming the miles was almost an afterthought. I’ve been really lucky to have all these miles, and I can pretty much go where I want, when I want.

“But that’s not where I got my satisfaction. The satisfaction was that I found a way to get a key in their castle. “

Underground community

Belkin says he enjoyed beating airlines at their own game and earning miles was an afterthought.

Courtesy of Steve Belkin

However, travelers who are considering rushing to try one of its airline miles initiatives should think again.

According to Belkin, it is simply no longer possible to get away with most, if not all, of the patterns featured in “Mileage Maniac” today.

“This is one of the reasons I wrote this book,” he explains. “Most of these things are not replicable in 2021. If you haven’t done them in the past, it’s more of a fairy tale than the reality is now.”

In fact, a lot has changed since Belkin began collecting airline miles, the most significant difference being that most programs now offer miles based on the amount a customer spends rather than how many flights they take.

“This was really the cornerstone of the programs,” adds Belkin. “In the beginning they were called frequent flyer programs, where they rewarded you for how much you flew.

“Then, in the mid-2000s, airlines started realizing they had to reward people who pay a lot. Then they started calling them loyalty programs. So today, loyalty basically means the deeper your pockets, the more rewards you get ”.
Belkin also points out that even though travelers are able to come up with new hacks, it’s very difficult to keep them under wraps these days due to social media, not to mention the numerous blogs dedicated to travel hacking.

“There was a small community of frequent flyer fanatics,” he says. “And when you came up with a good idea, you could share it with a few people and help them realize it to the point where it became even better and more effective.

“It was very satisfying and there was a sense of camaraderie and community.”

But once the community expanded, Belkin began to feel like “people were just waiting for folks like me and a couple of these other minds to come up with stuff and share it with them so they could do it.”

After realizing that word was spreading and airlines were “shutting down” some of the hacks, he and the others “ended up hiding,” sharing their techniques with only a small circle.

“Most of the patterns you will read about [in the book] they’re pretty underground, “he says.” Even people who claim to know how to play are like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know.’ ”

While there is still a community of dedicated frequent flyers out there, Belkin believes the rewards earned from “beating the system” are far less these days.

Jet set life

Steve Belkin with his wife Julie.

Courtesy of Steve Belkin

“There are always ways to play,” he says. “But for most people, the amount of time and effort it would take would probably not justify the bright side, unless it’s something you’re really, really, really busy doing.

“I would say if you want to play a game, play tennis. Don’t play the mileage game. “

However, think back to those glory days of miles by earning adventures with extreme affection.

“It was fun to stay up late at night, draft numbers, recruit worker pools and figure out how to take out a home loan without my wife knowing,” says Belkin, who lists Randy Petersen, founder of the monthly magazine “InsideFlyer” as one of his major influences.

While he has received a lot of praise for his miles by acquiring skills, Belkin has also received criticism, which is something that really baffles him.

“If I had to substitute money for miles, and someone said ‘I played the stock market and tripled my money’, no one would criticize them,” he says.

“Nobody criticizes people who accumulate money or accumulate real estate. But suddenly, when it comes to miles, there seems to be a slightly different standard at play. “

When asked what airline executives will do about his plans, Belkin says he likes to think they appreciated the publicity his antics brought.

“I would say they didn’t like the fact that I was doing all these crazy things,” he adds. “But he really kept them in the headlines for a while.”

Although his wife Julie was puzzled by her fixation on air miles from those early days, she eventually recovered and the couple continue to enjoy a jet set lifestyle.

“My wife didn’t get it right at first and I didn’t do a good job explaining it to her,” admits Belkin, who still has six to nine million miles to play with.

“But now we’re sitting on 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 ruined for all those decades. “

Top image credit: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images