How Hongkongers can make frequent flier programmes pay: meet the blogger who lives on air miles

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 December, 2015, 2:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 December, 2015, 1:53pm

Frequent flier programmes still have huge "value" for Hong Kong travellers despite global airlines devaluing schemes to focus on the biggest-spending customers, a top travel blogger says.

US-based writer Ben Schlappig, who has traded sleeping at home for hotel suites and first class seats and writes about his experiences for a living, said Hongkongers were well placed to exploit the programmes despite airlines making it harder to qualify for the benefits.

This summer, Cathay Pacific revamped its elite Marco Polo frequent flier programme, focusing on rewarding bigger-spending customers, instead of by distance or regular travelling.

"There's a huge amount of value to get out of airline loyalty," said Schlappig, 25.

"Airlines make huge amount of money from them and consumers can gain quite a bit by understanding the systems."

He said "extremely profitable" airline loyalty programmes were evolving, especially because "they're not frequent flier programmes any more. They are frequent buyer programmes. The airlines want to incentivise people to fly with them, but they don't want to give away miles unnecessarily. And so that is a tough trend to counter as a consumer."

Using an array of tricks, he has been on extended vacation for the past 18 months criss-crossing the globe using a stash of more than a million air miles to enjoy the jet-setting luxury lifestyle without breaking the bank.

Watch: One mile at a time: the man who travels the world on air miles

Schlappig turns his hobby into a professional job, scheming to fly for a handful of dollars using a combination of frequent flying and complex flight itineraries and redeeming air tickets.

During a decade of flying, he estimates he has saved about US$10 million in that time.

Last July, his style of flying garnered worldwide attention and several pages of his hobby detailed in US popular-culture magazine Rolling Stone.

Schlappig landed back in Hong Kong to share his cheat sheet on how to fly business and first class for less money.

Earning miles and cheaper premium travel

Don’t start your next long-haul flight in Hong Kong. Business class fares out of Bangkok, Taipei, Colombo, and Kuala Lumpur via Hong Kong are considerably much cheaper, and can carry savings of around 30 to 50 per cent, and earn more miles to redeem later. “The specific and best option varies based on your destination,” stresses Ben.

Starting a Cathay Pacific business class flight in Taipei, via Hong Kong, to New York can cost 50 per cent less than booking a direct flight from Hong Kong. This excludes the price of a separate flight, if you don’t live in Taiwan, to start the journey.

Mileage running. An alternative to booking a standard return flight means is to book that flight through many different cities in between to reach a final destination. This method is often much cheaper and will maximise the number of miles earned per flight. Crucially the miles and flights will speed up qualification towards a high-valued frequent flier status.

One of Ben’s gruelling trips involved six trans-Pacific flights in five days: Tampa to Chicago to Osaka to San Francisco to Seoul and return. Another trip involved taking advantage of an economy-class-priced discounted business class mistake fare from Sao Paulo to New York. He travelled to Brazil eight times in nine days.

Popular aviation website FlyerTalk is a forum where travellers reguarly share mileage running tips and strategies.

Choose carefully to credit your airmiles. Some frequent flier programmes are easier to qualify for than others – and membership is not restricted to the country of the home airline. With major global airlines aligned to one of three alliances – Oneworld, Star Alliance or Skyteam – being a member of an airline’s programme within one of these groups allows travellers to share the same benefits of premium lounges, fast-track security and priority boarding across a vast range of carriers and airports.

Ben says to look away from home airlines and seek to credit miles to partner airlines but enjoy the same benefits.

Redeeming flights

Festive period a “great time” to use airmiles for business and first class. The Lunar New Year, for example, is very slow for first and business class bookings and easier to find award seats. Ben says: “Most people travelling for leisure are in economy and there is generally less business class travel over those periods. So it’s actually a great time to get first and business class award tickets.”

Redeem at the last minute. Ben recommends: “Airlines release award seats closer to departure. So if you want that first or business class seat, keep checking closer as the departure date approaches. So, last minute is the best time to book which is the opposite of paid tickets that are very expensive if you book last minute.”