To most, flying is a necessary evil required to shift you from your home to your holiday as quickly as possible. To others, it’s a passion - and a profession.
Meet Ben Schlappig, an airline obsessive and travel blogger who has made it his life’s goal to travel around the world as much as possible without paying a penny.
As a teenager, Schlappig, now 25, began learning the tricks of the trade – from frequent flyer miles to credit card points – to allow him to spend more time in the air than on the ground.
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At 16, Schlappig was already part of a FlyerTalk forum for aviation enthusiasts and became the first member to fly across the Pacific six times in one trip – Chicago, Osaka, San Francisco, Seoul and back again. By the time he turned 17, he’d already logged half a million miles.
He now writes a travel blog at One Mile at a Time and runs a travel consultancy website PointsPros that seeks to share his experience and knowledge of airline bureaucracy and how to exploit it.
Schlappig, who now flies on average 400,000 miles a year, mostly in first class, sleeps in luxury hotels, and eats in business class airport lounges, told Rolling Stone: “An airplane is my bedroom. It’s my office, and it’s my playroom.”
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The New Yorker identifies as a Hobbyist, an ever-growing group of fliers who spend their days using frequent flyer miles, credit cards and airline loopholes to avoid buying full price for air travel.
He says he is beating the airlines at their own game – he’s previously said at an event for Hobbyists that “the people who run these programmes are idiots – and we’ll always be one step ahead”.
Schlappig had to work his way up to flying royalty (he’s now apparently greeted with awe by cabin crews and airline staff). He first had to choose an airline to attain loyalty status – he chose United. He then sought to earn loyalty with a number of paid-for flights, looking for the highest return on his investment. United, however, booted him off the programme in 2011 when he inadvertently bragged to the New York Times how we was exploiting the system to the tune of $10,000.
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He also learnt to exploit loopholes in ticket algorithms – there are some hobbyists who write internet code to alert them to pricing errors on airline websites.
Next was one of the staples of the Hobbying industry - signing up to a plethora of credit cards to reap purchasing rewards and any perks that come with them.
Hobbyists rely on having dozens of credit cards to allow rewards binges – one technique involves buying dollar coins on a credit card, then paying off the debt with the coins purchased, but keeping the card’s rewards.
Schlappig was also able to anaylsis Federal Aviation Administration data to determine which flights would be over-booked, turning up to fly but then volunteering to take the next flight and a $400 compensation voucher.
The loopholes are broadly a product of airline deregulation in 1979, the birth of frequent flyer programmes. With the airlines free to set their own pricing structures, away from the watchful eye of government authorities, they also were able to create their own loyalty programmes.
Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, told Rolling Stone: "A lot of people get shafted. But it also creates an opportunity for people who can break the system and live like Schlappig. They're chasing around these people who are trying to game a system that they themselves set up."
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