Ever heard of the Pudding Guy? His name is David Phillips and among airfare junkies who lurk on FlyerTalk.com, he’s a legend. In 1999, he spotted a promotion: In exchange for every 10 Healthy Choice brand barcodes it received, the company would reward 500 frequent ﬂyer miles. So he bought 12,150 pudding cups.
A few months later, Healthy Choice sent him 1.25 million frequent ﬂyer miles. The cost was just $3,150. To this day, no one’s ever topped the Pudding Guy and his creamy bounty. But that doesn’t mean these mileage maniacs aren’t trying. And FlyerTalk.com is their home.
I discovered this discussion board and knowledge base while researching ﬂights to Europe. A simple query brought me to the site, but the airfare expertise of these schemers sucked me in. I soon learned their lingo and some interesting, albeit time-consuming, ways to ﬂy for free and earn perks in the air.
Mileage runners book long, inexpensive ﬂights to maximize frequent ﬂyer miles. So instead of ﬂying from, say, Los Angeles to Chicago, a dedicated mileage runner might add connections in Houston and Atlanta. Or if the price is right, one might take the same ﬂight three times in a day to rack up miles.
The ultimate goal is twofold: Accrue enough miles to travel for free. And, more importantly, vault the mileage runner into the status of airline elite, giving him access to ﬁrst-class upgrades, the coveted airport lounge, meal vouchers and the pleasure of skipping the security queue.
If you have some time on your hands, ﬁguring out the perfect mileage run is like solving a puzzle. First, head to FlyerTalk to learn the basic jargon (Flyertalk.com/glossary). Then pick the airline frequent-ﬂyer-miles program you’re going to use. Once you’re ready, search for cheap ﬂights from your home city. Next, ﬁgure out the full fares and airline routing rules of the ﬂight.
When you’ve found a ﬂight that abides by airline rules, use ITA’s Matrix Trip Planner to build your itinerary and then book your airfare either through the airline or Orbitz.com, which is powered by ITA. Finally, prepare to soar all the way up to elite level status.
Accrue Credit Card Miles
If ﬂying from airport to airport is not how you want to spend a weekend, an easier option is to accrue miles with your credit card. You already know how the system works. You spend money on your card. You earn miles. You redeem the miles for ﬂights. Pretty simple, right?
That’s what I thought until I explored deeper. I found people buying coinage from the U.S. Mint with their frequent ﬂyer credit card. Others were churning cards—opening a card for a speciﬁc promotion and then weeks or months later cancelling it and then reopening the card to again cash in on the promotion. And some doing all of the above!
If this sounds appealing to you, check out the FlyerTalk forum “Miles Buzz.” There you’ll ﬁnd over 250,000 posts about promotions available, all updated by airfare junkies in real time. Nothing gets by these guys.
Getting Bumped Intentionally
Airlines often overbook ﬂights. Their statisticians predict how many passengers will show up at the gate, and they overbook ﬂights to maximize revenue. But when these number gurus fail, airline staff scurry to ﬁnd passengers willing to board the next ﬂight.
In exchange for this inconvenience, airlines compensate ﬂyers. On a recent ﬂight to London, Virgin offered me a free round-trip ticket to anywhere in the world, a night in a hotel, and meal vouchers if I took a ﬂight the next day. Here are a few tips to getting bumped intentionally.
• Arrive early, be ﬂexible, and ask politely if any volunteers are needed.
• Choose the airline carefully. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s February 2010 Air Travel Consumer Report, Delta, Southwest, American, United, and US Airways have the highest instances of voluntary bumpings.
• Travel in the mornings, Sunday evenings, or during holidays to popular destinations. Historically, this is when you’re most likely to get bumped.
• Travel light. Airlines give priority to passengers with no checked baggage.
• Book the whole itinerary with one agency. If you opt to buy two separate tickets, airlines won’t take responsibility for the second leg of the journey. So even if you get bumped, you’ll still need to rebook the connecting ﬂight (at your expense).
No one said getting a free ﬂight would be easy, but if you have the time and the determination, ﬂying for free can be done. Wondering what the Pudding Guy did with 12,150 pudding cups? He donated them to charity and got a tax write-off.
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