Tom Stuker took the term “frequent flyer” to new heights this year, logging just over 1,000,000 miles in 2012 all on United, all in first class. The 59-year-old Chicago native and New Jersey resident says he’s flown a total of 13 million miles, much of that in his capacity as an independent consultant and sales trainer for automobile dealerships around the world.
This year, Stuker says that about half of his trips were for pleasure, but how much fun it is it to fly 20,000 miles per week and did he actually see anything or did he spend the entire year in transit simply to break this milestone?
I caught up with Tom via Skype from Lombok, Indonesia, on Friday to find out.
So we have just a few days left in 2012, how many miles will you have logged for the year?
I’m going to finish the year just over 1,050,000.
Once I realized I had a truckload of miles, I thought, ‘I may as well try to get to a million.’ I didn’t want to end up with 938,000 when 1 million is such a sexy number, so towards the end of the year, I planned it out and made it there.
It was about 50/50 business and pleasure. I took a lot of the year off just to travel. I flew with my wife more than 200,000 miles just on long weekend trips, so that consumed a lot.
How many miles did you fly last year?
About 825,000, most of that was business, that’s why this year I decided to take more time off.
Why are you so loyal to United?
I’m very brand loyal, they’ve been very good to me and I’m very good to them.
How much did you spend buying all these airline tickets this year?
A lot. I never disclose exactly how much I paid for my tickets. I have a contracted rate with United. I fly predominantly all first class and I give away a lot of my miles to close friends and relatives.
So does United give you a special Batline to use to book flights?
I have a special Batline. I book everything on the phone – I’m old school. It’s a hotline for Global Service people.
It’s very expensive to fly first class, are you paying for first class tickets or do you pay for coach and they upgrade you?
I pay a negotiated rate for first class travel. They know me by name when I call United.
You have so many miles, shouldn’t you be able to redeem all your miles and travel for free?
I have – I’ve taken plenty of free trips. I took two free trips last week. I make sure all my relatives get miles when they need them. And I spend miles on other things too.
People are going to read this and wonder how well off you are. Are we talking Bill Gates or Mitt Romney territory or just comfortable?
I have just enough money to afford a good life of travel. I have two homes. I have a pretty good business. I work to live but I don’t live to work. I get a lot of criticism for traveling so much.
People say I have no home life. It couldn’t be any further from the truth. My two boys are grown. My wife and I, we both love to travel. We do everything together and we spend a lot of quality time together.
In order to hit more than 1,000,000 miles in a year, you’d have to average almost 3,000 miles in the air every day. How is that logistically possible?
I don’t know how I did it myself. Between time on planes, connections, transfers, booking travel, it comes to about 80 hours per week. How did it happen? I don’t know, the year flew by – no pun intended.
How many flights did you take?
I never added it all up. I had some time off at the beginning of this year and I said, ‘I’m going to fly 12 days straight.’ On January 12, I passed 100,000 miles, so I got off to a really strong start.
I did a lot of work in Australia though, and just going back and forth there is 20,000 miles right there. I got to Hawaii 4-5 times per year and we’ll leave on Friday night and come back on Sunday. That’s 10,000 miles.
You visit Hawaii from New York just for the weekend?
Two or two and a half days, yes.
And you’d spend only 3-4 days in Australia?
I’d get in on a Tuesday morning and leave Friday morning, so that’s three days.
What’s the longest you ever stayed in one place this year? Did you stay a full week anywhere at all?
I don’t think I’ve been at home for a full week in about 18 years. I’ve been married and divorced twice but it had nothing to do with all the flying.
But why not travel and stay in these places a bit longer? Go to Hawaii and stay for a week or two, explore, get comfortable there?
First of all, I’m ADD. I can’t pay attention too much. I lose focus. I get what I want from a destination and move on. Relaxing to me is weird. I’m not a lay-by-the-pool person. I relax by planning trips and communicating with people from all over the world on Skype and doing other things.
Some would argue that you traveled a lot but didn’t see much. How do you respond to that charge?
I would say, ‘look at my photo albums.’ My wife and I have flown 2.5 million miles together. I’ve been everywhere and done everything. I’ve done desert safaris, I’ve been to the top of the Burj Khalifha, I’ve been on the pyramids, I’ve done a safari in Africa, elephant trekking in Thailand, I walked the China Wall. OK, so I’ve never been to Antartica! So shoot me!
Let me guess – you haven’t been to Antarctica because United doesn’t fly there?
That’s one reason plus I’m not a cold weather person. I’ve been to every state, every Canadian province. I did four days in Rio – that was enough for me. I’ve been to every island in the Caribbean. All over South America. I did three or four days in Buenos Aires.
How do you pass the time on all these flights? Do you talk to neighbors, watch movies, work, read?
A combination of all those things. I’ve met so many amazing people flying in first class. I read magazines and newspapers until we get up in the air and then sometimes I try to get work done. I think my company was built on airplane cocktail napkins. I can’t watch movies because I’ve already seen every damn one of them.
I understand your going to be the star of a reality TV program?
It’s called “Car Lot Rescue.” It’s something like “Kitchen Nightmares” but at car dealerships. I go in there, find problems, address them like a bull in a china shop, get push back and solve their problems. That’s going to be on Spike and it debuts February 10.
What’s your least favorite destination?
I wasn’t too excited about Greece. The history is phenomenal but I found the people there to be a little on the rude side, which will offend all the Greeks who read this.
I’m surprised. Greece is one of my favorite places. Where were you?
Athens, Mykonos, Santorini. But there are rude people in New Jersey too, so New Jersey isn’t the friendliest place either. Australia and New Zealand are the friendliest places.
Speaking of rudeness, what kind of rude behavior have you seen on flights this year?
Even in first class, I’ve seen everything from people clipping their nails, polishing their nails, people who take their shoes and socks off. People who won’t put their seats up to let people get to the bathroom. People who will kick my chair because my seat is reclined.
What are your travel plans for 2013?
I’m going to London a couple times. Vegas. Phoenix. We’re taking a long weekend in Buenos Aires. And this is all just in January.
Why go all the way to Argentina just for the weekend?
I’ve been there before; I just want to revisit some places I haven’t been to. I want to go to a new tango place.
A British expat named Fred Finn claims to be the world’s most frequent flyer with 15 million lifetime miles. Do you want to take that title away from him?
He says he has 15 million miles and I’m not going to call him a liar. He gets paid for appearances as the world’s most frequent flier. I don’t mind being number two, with 13 million miles. I think he’s about 70, so he’s got a dozen years on me. God willing, if I live to 70, I’ll probably pass him but it’s not on my bucket list. I fly for one reason, to create memories, not miles.
[Photo credit: Tom Stuker]