Bloggers v. The Community In The Great Mileage War

There’s a lively discussion going on among feisty members of the MilesBuzz! forum on Flyertalk about a blogger’s role in the mileage and airfare deal community.

At issue is a group of bloggers who have been scouring the forums at sites such as theirs, identifying the best deals and then publishing the information in their blogs. Built for a wider audience, the blogs bring enormous traffic, often leading to a change in terms or cancellation of the deals.

Think of it like a trampoline. If two or three people discover the trampoline and take a jump, everyone has a good time. But if the entire town is invited, the trampoline breaks.

As an example, a recent loophole discovered by members of the forum found that prepaid spending cards could be loaded for no fee with a credit card, meaning one could charge two thousand dollars to a prepaid card, earn reward points and then pay off everything with no fee. The result was a way to effectively earn points for free, something that any budget traveler would swoon for.

Once the blog community caught wind of the deal, however, the financial companies got wise and changed their terms. Members of Flyertalk were enraged.

Further inflaming the situation is the income that many of the bloggers are earning from their sites. A blogger can poach a deal from Flyertalk, several community members pointed out, earn thousands of hits to their site and then burden the reader with dozens of potentially profitable credit card ads. Each credit card application processed from a referral link could score the blogger up to $200. Need an example? Count the credit card ads here. With a popup blocker enabled, I still count 20. Another blogger meticulously shows that with credit card offers he can make about $4000/month in extra income.

On the other side of the coin, bloggers point out that they do a service to the masses by distilling complex info into a simple, easy to read format. But are they putting their pocket books in front of the community?

It’s a grey area. On one hand it seems that the credit card companies have so much influence over the bloggers that they’ll post anything that they think will drive traffic. But on the other hand, public data is public data, and if they want to do the work to build the articles then traffic should dictate success. Whether they can do it with class is up to each blogger respectively. My guess is that when the axe man (ie FTC) comes calling all dues will be paid.

[Flickr image: sfbaywalk]

Need status on American Airlines? January is your month!

A combination of promotions on American Airlines makes January a particularly fruitful month for members who want to join their elite ranks. Usually, passengers need to fly at least 25,000 miles to reach gold status on the airline, but a double miles promotion (until the end of January) has reduced that to only 12,500. In addition to that, residents of Illinois, Texas and California can earn an additional round of double miles for flying select routes through the end of March, effectively earning some passengers triple miles.

This means that instead of the normal 3490 elite miles that one would accrue between Chicago and Los Angeles (round trip) a total of 10470 miles can be stacked up — or 40% of the way to Gold Status. And once you reach gold status? A whole host of benefits are available.

For many, this elite status is what helps make traveling easier and justifies a full carriage of longer, more interesting travel in the years to come. Some even go out of their way to take a mileage run and accrue that status, though you should carefully consider your future travel plans (and balance sheet) before you make that commitment. For me, our Huffington Post offices and editors in California were worth making the trip to Los Angeles once or twice this month. And if it fits into the equation of your long term travels then it might be worth your time too.

Make sure you travel before the 31st of January for the global double miles promotion. You have until the end of March until the geographically based promotion runs out.

Frequent flier classes help you learn (and game?) the system

Who knew a seminar could turn you into Gadling top dog Grant Martin? That isn’t the explicit promise of Grant-caliber savvy – nobody would be so bold – but two courses developed by Nicholas Kraley can bring you a little closer to maximizing your miles and taking that all important mileage run in December.

Kraley is something of an expert, having picked up more than 1.5 million miles in the past decade as a diplomatic correspondent and business travel columnist over at the Washington Times. The curricula he has developed for his “On the Fly” seminars – “Saving on airfare and redeeming frequent-flier miles” and the advanced course, “Securing top elite status and flying in luxury” – reflect his experience.

According to USA Today:

“No one has ever done this before, as far as I know,” Kralev says. “It took me years to learn all that stuff, since there are no books or classes about this, and I thought there must be enough people out there who want to fly cheaply but in luxury.”

Interested in checking this out? The program kicks off June 25 and 26, 2010.

On the road with a Gadling mileage runner

Whether you ethically believe in the mileage runs or not, they play a serious, vital role in many frequent flyer’s lives. The concept, in case you’re unfamiliar, has to do with flying around willy-nilly at year’s end solely to reach a certain number of earned-miles. In turn, rewards are given to loyal passengers who fly these high volumes, often so great that it’s actually worth the cost of flying those extra few miles.

I found myself in the above situation as November came to a close this year, 7,000 miles short of reaching 100k on American Airlines, a status that they refer to as Executive Platinum (EXP). Flashy. With said status comes a variety of perks: extra bonus miles when traveling, free upgrades and waitlist priority to name a few. To most, however, the biggest perk is called an EVIP, or System Wide Upgrade, a voucher that effectively lets passengers book a ticket in coach to anywhere in the world and then upgrade to business for free.

Very simply put, one can thus purchase a $700 ticket to Tokyo and use an EVIP to ride in business class next to someone who paid $3400 for a proper revenue ticket. It’s a great perk for those who have time or fly enough to earn EXP. And frankly, if the goal is nearby it’s worth spending the few hundred dollars to reap these rewards over the next year.

Going back to November, I projected the number of miles that I would be short and realized that I needed to scoop up a few more before year’s end. So I began to construct a mileage run, a trip taken purely to soak them up. Destination? Duration? Unimportant. The right amount of miles in the right amount of time? Key. Here’s how it came together: Tools and Strategy

The obvious goal of a mileage run it to earn as many miles as possible for the lowest amount of cost and time spent. There are a few tools to search for fares by distance against cost, but the best is Farecompare. Using their Flyertalk tool, you can sort by Price Per Mile (PPM) and distance. It’s true FC will give you a ton of false positives, but patiently working through the schedules and availability will pay off in the long run.

In my case, I needed to fly at least 7,000 miles in under a weekend, so I limited my search to Europe and South America, eventually sifting out a $450 fare from Chicago O’Hare to Frankfurt, Germany that I could take departing on Saturday and returning on Sunday — on the same airplane, no less. Using the webflyer mileage calculator, I verified that this would earn me 8660 miles, so I booked the fare.

On the Road

After a night out with friends on Friday and a full day of work on Saturday, I left for O’Hare from work at 5:00PM for my 7:30 flight. In my messenger bag?

  • T-shirt and undergarments
  • Laptop and charger
  • Book: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  • iPhone with a wide spectrum of TED videos

By 6:15 I’m in terminal 3 of ORD, ambling slowly towards the K gates and marveling at the grandiose holiday decorations. As an AA platinum member on an international itinerary I get free access to the Admiral’s Club, so I step in for a handful of pretzels and to pick up a complimentary Vitamin Water, then I’m at the gate five minutes before boarding.

Seat 21A on this Boeing 767 is part of the first exit row just right of the boarding door, and I’m joined by a nearly silent, middle aged man in the seat next to me. We push back right on time and I watch UP as I eat my dinner, then listen to This American Life until I fall asleep.

Frankfurt

Despite light flurries in Frankfurt we land on time in the German metropolis, dazed from a few short hours of sleep. With three hours before my return flight, there’s no time to go into the city (or leave the airport, for that matter,) but there’s plenty of time to explore the airport.

With no checked bags I vault through customs, the distracted passport control agent absentmindedly stamping my passport as I held it out to page J. He never even looked at the photo. And as I break out into the bright arrivals hall, the buzz of Frankfurt International Airport consumes me.

Time to check into the Admiral’s Club. Going up a few floors I randomly pick a direction and start walking, looking up at the massive departures board as I pass underneath. Oslo. Copenhagen. Mumbai. Chicago isn’t even on the list yet, but when I look down I happen to see the AA check in counter so I amble up.

“Is it too early to check in?”
“Nope,” the security agent smiles, “Where are you coming from?”
“Chicago.” She raises her eyebrows. “Needed the miles.”
“Oh, ok.”

Both veterans of the security question volley, we do the normal dance: Yes, I packed my bag this morning in Chicago. Yes, it’s been with me this whole time. No, I have no weapons. And then she points me to the ticket counter where I pick up my boarding pass and get directions to the Admiral’s Club.

In five more minutes I’m sitting in a leather chair above the departures hall, poking at a massive German pretzel and waiting for the shower queue to clear up. Between the lounge facilities and the in-terminal grocery store I spend the next hour cleaning and waking up, the products of which are a clean change of clothes, hot shower and two purchased containers of fried onions (great for hot dogs!)

Briefly before boarding, the lounging passengers in the Admiral’s Club are paged, and the slow return to the aircraft commences for our 2:30PM departure.

Return

Seat 21A is just as I left it, refusing to lock into its upright position and slightly uncomfortable. A new pillow and blanket have however been left for me which I unwrap, unfold and immediately proceed to fall asleep under.

8 hours goes pretty fast when you bring a fully charged laptop, research papers and videos along the way — and even faster when you sleep for most of it. Before I know it I’m passing back through the jetbridge and into the halls of O’Hare immigration, 30 minutes prior to my scheduled arrival of 5PM on Sunday.

The Department of Homeland Security officer greets me with a nod as I approach his glass cubicle, and doesn’t even flinch when I tell him that I was on a mileage run. With a quick flick of his wrist he stamps my passport, then I pass straight through baggage claim and back into the open terminal, 22 hours and 8600 miles after I arrived.

Wrap up

So why don’t airlines just sell elite miles to passengers rather than making them fly in circles? They could sell the seat to a person who wants to travel and the mileage runner can stay at home and relax.

Partially because elite status needs to be earned. Any random exec shouldn’t be able to purchase the perks that many, loyal travelers spend weeks on the road cultivating. It’s a rite of passage, so to speak.

It also builds brand loyalty. When you scratch the airline’s back and spend thousands of dollars with them, the small tokens that they return to your mileage account make traveling that much easier. Everyone wins, in a way — it just takes a small amount of effort to get things started.

Ready to book your own run? Start with Gadling’s own guide to mileage running.

Airline Hackers: Inside the World of Mileage Running

Wired has a great article up on their website called We Love to Fly and It Shows: Inside the World of Mileage Running. They gave writer Dave Demerjian $500 to stretch into as many free miles as possible using the least amount of money. The results?

“I’ll leave Boston on a Tuesday at 6 a.m. and arrive in Las Vegas 13 hours later, making stops in Washington D.C., San Diego and San Francisco. After a six-hour layover in the City of Sin, I’ll board the midnight red-eye for Chicago, then fly back through Washington D.C. before finally arriving in Boston at 1 p.m. on Wednesday. [... M]y run will yield 6,356. And the whole thing costs just $275.80.”

Flying for the sake of generating frequent flier miles –I love it. But what’s the point? On one hand, it’s a way to generate free tickets and maintain “elite” status among the airlines, which often yields first-class options and upgrades. On the other hand, it’s a puzzle — a game. “Assembling a mileage run means deciphering complex fare rules and pulling together information from up to a dozen websites,” notes Demerjian. “It’s an achievement that tickles the same satisfying problem-solving centers of the brain as a Sudoku puzzle, and always ends in the deep-rooted human thrills of travel and flight.”

Even if you don’t want to be an airline hacker yourself, the article offers up plenty of tips on how you can hunt down the cheapest deals on flights using a myriad of online tools. Have a look.

We Love to Fly and It Shows: Inside the World of Mileage Running [via]