While you may try to rack up frequent flyer miles from travel, airline-branded credit cards or online shopping, have you ever thought about pudding? One clever traveler turned a Healthy Choice promotion into enough miles to fly the world multiple times.
In 1999, Civil Engineer David Phillips noticed a promotion from Healthy Choice offering 500 American Airlines miles for every 10 product bar codes sent in, with a double bonus for sending them in the first month. Phillips figured out that the promotion would extend to all of their products, and searched his area supermarkets for the best deal. He started with 90-cent cans of soup, and then found a better deal: individual packages of chocolate pudding for 25 cents apiece. He bought every one available, spending a total of $3,140. This gave him 12,150 puddings worth over 1.2 million airline miles.
The story gets sweeter when you hear how he collected the bar codes for redemption. He started by putting his family to work, but they were soon (literally) sick of peeling the pudding lids and eating the stuff. He offered them up to Salvation Army for free, in return for the bar codes. For this, he was also able to get an $800 charitable tax deduction, bringing his investment down to around $2200. Netting over a million miles also gives him lifetime gold elite status on American, giving him an extra boost for accruing miles. His story inspired a similar plot in the movie “Punch Drunk Love.” Phillips continues to take advantage of frequent flyer promotions and deals, and now has over 4 million miles in his accounts.
Like free travel? Of course you do. There are a few contests you should enter, especially if you are a seasoned business traveler or a bubbly sociable traveler. Like most online contests, they will require social media savvy and some old-fashioned popularity contest-winning charm, but hey, you could win free travel!
-Jauntaroo’s Best Job Around the World: The vacation matchmaker site is looking for a “Chief World Explorer” to travel the world for one year (or at least a few exciting destinations like Berlin and the Maldives), with all expenses paid. You’ll be representing Jauntaroo and creating social content, and earning a $100k salary for your trouble. There’s also a “voluntourism” component, promoting the site’s partner charities and “travel with a cause” motto. To enter, upload a 60-second video detailing why you should win by September 15 and get your friends to like it, as only the final five will make it to the interview.
-“American Way” Road Warrior: Already been around the world, with an expertly-packed carry-on and the efficiency of George Clooney in “Up in the Air”? If you’re a true “road warrior” you know that “American Way” is the in-flight magazine of American Airlines, and they have an annual contest to award the ultimate business traveler. The grand prize includes a half million AAdvantage miles and a trip to Curacao, plus a slew of other prizes befitting a frequent flier, such as noise-canceling headphones. Fill out the application (sample question: what makes you a true road warrior?) by August 31, and the five finalists will be posted online for the public to vote on the top three winners.
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.
Did you fly mostly for business or pleasure- what was the point of all this travel?
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.
Last month, the media was abuzzover increased airline fees for pre-assigned seating, with many concerned that it would especially affect families who want to sit together for no additional cost. Even New York Senator Chuck Schumer got involved, asking airlines to waive fees for families traveling with children. Rather than look for victims or call airlines “anti-family,” however, look at the bigger picture. Airline seat fees arenothingnew, but they are increasingly being used as another weapon in the arsenal against the airlines’ least desirable customer: the infrequent flier. If travelers will choose airfares based on a difference of nickels and dimes, does this force the airlines to nickel and dime the traveler?
The real divide in travel now isn’t between business and leisure travelers, families and singles, or even first class and coach; it’s between frequent fliers with airline loyalty, and price-conscious consumers who won’t hesitate to switch carriers for a cheaper fare. Savvy travelers who fly more than a few times per year understand that it pays to be loyal to one airline. In addition to earning miles for future trips, frequent fliers can jump to the top of upgrade lists, skip long check-in and security lines, and even waive many of the fees not included in the base fare. Travelers who fly only a year or less are more likely to book the cheapest ticket they find, even if the difference between carriers is just a few dollars, assuming the service will be similar (or worse, the same as they remember the last time they flew). What’s the incentive for airlines to give such passengers anything for free if they might never fly them again? “The customers that are more loyal, who fly more often, we want to make sure they have the best travel experience,” said American Airlines to Associated Press.
People are quick to call airlines greedy, and while they are looking to make money, running an airline is hardly a lucrative business these days. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a nifty graphic breaking down the cost of an average flight, showing that on a 100-person flight, the airline is making a profit off only a single seat. Between the rising costs of fuel, staff, security, insurance, and maintenance, most airlines are struggling to avoid bankruptcy or just stay in business. While you shouldn’t feel sorry for the airlines, understand that the alternative to fees is increased base fares, where you may be stuck paying for amenities you don’t need or want.As I’ve lived abroad for two years, I’ve become loyal to Turkish Airlines. They not only have the most flights from my current home airport in Istanbul, but I know I’ll always get a meal even on short flights, never have to pay fees outside of excess baggage, and even be able to use a dedicated check-in desk for travelers with children at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. I’ve often paid more to fly on Turkish Airlines than other carriers on the same route to guarantee the same standards of service. This makes me a valuable customer, and the more money I spend with them, the more perks I receive.
Earlier this year, I was looking for tickets from New York to Austin for a friend’s wedding. It was slightly cheaper to fly on American Airlines (my preferred carrier when I lived in New York) than Jet Blue, but as a solo traveler with a baby, I knew I’d be checking a bag and wanting to take my stroller up to the gate. Jet Blue would offer these services for free (American wouldn’t let me gate-check the stroller, but I could check it at the counter for free), and the overall cost would be about the same, plus I’d get free snacks and entertainment. In the end, I chose Jet Blue and was even given a priority seat without charge because the flight was relatively empty. If I were still based in New York and flying frequently, it would be more worthwhile to me to fly American to build my frequent flier status and miles for places I’d like to go.
As a parent who travels frequently with my child, I understand the potential nightmare separate seating could cause, but I also understand that airlines can’t make exceptions without making some passengers unhappy. If airlines were to waive a seating charge for families, travelers would complain about special treatment. Fliers with elderly parents would ask for exemptions to sit together, people with a fear of flying would want their travel partner close with no fee, and single travelers would feel they were being forced to subsidize everyone else.
Over at Huffington Post, my colleague (and fellow baby travel expert) Corinne McDermott contacted all of the major airlines regarding pre-assigned seating fees. Only Spirit Airlines explicitly said families should pay fees to be guaranteed adjacent seats. In fact, much of the hype about families being separated might really just be that: hype. Most airlines will try to accommodate people traveling together, just reserving preferred aisle and window seats to reward frequent fliers, or sell for an additional fee. It makes sense for an airline to offer a premium like preferred seating for free to a loyal customer, and instead try to make as much money as possible for a customer they may never have again.
Instead of spending time writing angry comments online, spend that time educating yourself about the full cost of an airline ticket and decide where your priorities lie: do you want to pay the absolute lowest fare and expect nothing more than a seat, or do you want to pay for service instead surprise fees? The old axiom “you get what you pay for” is the new reality in airline travel.
Earlier this week, I saw a story about babies and first class air travel posted on Facebook. The Facebook poster asked our own Heather Poole (flight attendant, mother, and new book author!) for her thoughts on the story, and she replied, “I’m fine with babies in first class. Usually they just sleep.” Columnist Brett Snyder is a frequent flier and new dad wondering if he should use miles to upgrade his first flight with the baby. Reading the article and the many comments, I wonder: why is this (or really any story about babies and airplanes) a contentious issue?
Long before I even thought about having children, I thought the same about babies in first class that I thought about anyone in the front of the plane: must be nice for them. Sure, it might be a waste of money to give a premium seat to someone whose legs don’t touch the ground and who can’t enjoy the free Champagne, but it’s the parents’ choice to splurge on the ticket. If the parents are more comfortable, the kid might be happier and thus quiet — a win-win for everyone on the plane. Does the child “deserve” to sit up front? Perhaps not, but airplane seating has never been based on merit. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, a passenger is a passenger, no matter how small.As the veteran of nearly 20 flights with an infant in Europe, the US and trans-Atlantic, I’ve been fortunate to fly a few times with my daughter in business class. While the roomy seats and meals make a 10 hour flight easier with a baby, more valuable is the ability to skip check-in and security lines, board the plane early, and spend layovers in a spacious lounge with a place to heat baby food or change a diaper. Some of those perks used to be standard for all passengers with small children, but have now gone the way of the hot meal in coach. Some airlines still make travel easier for parents: JetBlue is one of the only US-based airlines to allow you to gate-check a stroller of any size and check your first bag free (checking a bag becomes inevitable with a baby). Gulf Air offers free “Sky Nannies” on long-haul flights for young children, and Lufthansa offers a guide service (for a fee) to escort families traveling through their German hubs. Turkish Airlines (my most frequently-used airline while I live in Istanbul) always offers a “baby meal” and blocks off empty seats when possible to give us more room.
I’m also fortunate to have an easy baby who so far (knock on wood) has been very well behaved on every flight. This is in part very good luck, but also due to the fact that I watch her constantly and head off any signs of crying before they start. I’ll hold and feed her as often as it takes, even if it means I rarely rest anymore on a plane. Many of the same people who’ve given me “the look” when boarding with an infant have complimented me after on her behavior. Brett also notes in his article: “Don’t just sit there while your baby screams. Do everything you can to calm him and people will be more understanding.” This is good advice, but does it really need to be said?! I’d never dream of sitting by idly while my child disturbed other people and I’m embarrassed by any other parents who would consider such behavior acceptable. Still, I recognize that even with the most watchful parents, sometimes a cranky baby is unavoidable but I hope that when/if that day comes, my fellow passengers will see how hard I’m trying to make the flight easier for all of us. Better still, if I anticipate a difficult age for my baby to fly, I’ll look into alternative methods of travel (or postpone until an easier time).
If we are going to ban babies from first class, or even segregate them from adults on all flights, why stop there? Why not a separate flight for the armrest-hogs, the obese, the incessant talkers, or the drunk and belligerent? I’d like a plane full of only frequent flyers, who know not to use their cell phone after the door closes, who don’t rush the aisles the minute the wheels touch down, who don’t recline their seats during drink service or bring smelly food (or nail polish) onto the plane. Start flights for only considerate, experienced travelers and you will find me in the front of the plane, with my baby on my lap.
For more about (considerate) travel with a baby, read my past “Knocked Up Abroad” stories here.