How to stay a frequent flier: Post reporter takes 20 flights in 11 days to keep British Airways gold status first-class perks
Aviation correspondent Danny Lee spent HK$14,400, slept in airport lounges with flatulent travellers and faced a barrage of questions from a Singaporean immigration official in a bid to retain his elite frequent flier status with British Airways and Cathay Pacific
Heavy breathing from a middle-aged British man at Malaysia Airlines’ first-class lounge in Kuala Lumpur International Airport soon transitioned into the sound of his farts piercing the stale air.
It was 1am and the third day of my 11-day mileage run – an exercise I embarked on from Hong Kong to rack up qualifying points towards retaining my British Airways (BA) Executive Club top-tier gold status, which would otherwise expire next month.
Anyone would be loathe to give up the perks of elite status – entry into first-class lounges with free champagne, massages and restaurant grade made-to-order meals; regular seat upgrades; boarding the plane first; extra baggage allowance; being fast-tracked through security screening and booking your preferred plane seat before anyone else.
Especially since these perks can also be enjoyed on BA’s partner airlines, such as Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Qantas, Malaysia Airlines and more, with one also being able to earn miles from those flights.
Mileage runs — involving long flights or extremely circuitous routes to ensure one secures the largest amount of miles at the lowest cost – have often been a strategy used by frequent fliers.
In my case, I took 20 flights – criss-crossing the South China Sea six times, visiting five cities and doing three round-trips between Kuala Lumpur and Taipei.
The most flights I crammed into one day was five – and for one of them, I got off the plane only to get back on 30 minutes later, making my race to the gate at Langkawi airport the most stressful workout ever.
There were also at least three times when I had 4am wake-up calls while staying in hotels or overnight in airport lounges. Sometimes, that meant no sleep – cue my flatulent fellow traveller – or getting just two hours rest.
I calculated that I had travelled 25,061 km – equivalent to 0.6 times around the Earth, going from Hong Kong-Vancouver-Helsinki-Hong Kong, and resulting in a carbon footprint that I could offset by planting four trees.
In total, I spent 45 hours and 40 minutes on planes but 66 hours and 45 minutes in transit in airports, just to keep perks I had enjoyed for the past 23 months.
This explains why my first ever trip to the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi, known for its golden sand beaches and clear blue waters, was spent jogging off the airport tarmac and through the baggage hall, making a U-turn into the departure area and through security and back onto the same plane I came in on.
Unsurprisingly, the most eagle-eyed immigration officers were in Singapore. On my second flight into the Lion City on the fourth day of my odyssey, Mr Abdul Rashid quizzed me on the lack of immigration stamps from other countries. I had to explain my plan involved me not leaving the airport most times.
But this exercise was done in a way affordable for someone in the workforce for just over five years.
On 14 of the 20 flights, I was in business class on Malaysia Airlines, BA’s partner airline, which I flew 90 per cent of the time. This meant stretching my nearly six-foot frame out on Boeing’s 737 single-aisle planes with angled seats seating four passengers per row of seats – rather than six behind me in economy class.
It cost me HK$14,400 in all (HK$15,880 if you throw in the two nights of hotel stay), the same price as an economy class, flexible-date, round-trip ticket from Hong Kong to London this August.
Strategic planning … all done after work, of course
BA’s programme is the equivalent of Cathay Pacific’s frequent flier scheme, the Marco Polo Club. Asia Miles from Cathay and BA’s Avios scheme are the air miles programmes that make it possible to redeem free flights.
Typically achieving these perks is costly.
Two friends based in Manila and Chicago respectively, who have the equivalent diamond top-tier Marco Polo status tell me they would spend an average HK$95,000 (US$12,000) a year to retain their status.
But this is less than what Hong Kong-based passengers might pay.
My calculations show that in Hong Kong, top fliers would need to fork out as much as HK$250,000 (US$31,850) for seven long-haul round trips on Cathay Pacific in business class to keep diamond status in Marco Polo.
I realised that taking the 20 flights at my current BA status would give me 80 per cent of qualifying points needed to retain it. So I began trawling through cheap airfare websites and aviation discussion forums to find the best way to keep costs down and make my plan work.
Saving money, I learned, required me to sleep overnight in airport lounges. Bringing checked baggage was a no-go since the risk of a lost suitcase or a delayed flight would set me back if transit times were short.
By the numbers
Time spent on a plane: 45 hours and 40 minutes
Time spent in transit: 66 hours and 45 minutes
Most flights taken in one day: 5
Shortest transit: 30 minutes
Total distance of flights: 25,061km
Carbon footprint: 3.3 tons CO2
Trees that would need to be planted to offset carbon footprint: 4
So I carried only hand baggage and a change of clothes in my rucksack.
While in some cases my itinerary had between 30 and 60 minutes of transit time, as far as possible, I planned flights with enough spare time to ensure a delay would not set off a chain of missed flights.
On a trip last year between Taipei and Kuala Lumpur, with unpredictable bad weather consistently featuring across the tropical Southeast Asian countries, my flight was diverted to Singapore due to a storm over the Malaysian capital.
Ensuring the volume of flights would not take its toll on my body, I refrained from alcohol on-board and guzzled water, a tip from frequent mileage runners.
Much of my travelling and transit time was spent watching Netflix and eating.
My favourite meals were in Kuala Lumpur. During my four overnight stays in the first-class lounge, I was always excited for breakfast where I could pick off the menu Nasi Lemak and warm kaya waffles.
Built into my flying schedule at the halfway mark was a four-day break in Singapore to take a rest from the early starts and constant flying.
On the first night of my break, ensconced in my friend’s spare bedroom in Singapore’s east coast, I slept for 7½ hours – more rest than the previous three days combined.
What the pros do
My choice of routes was pretty boring compared with the near professional methods used by frequent fliers in Europe and America.
Fancy a return trip from Copenhagen to Honolulu via Helsinki, London, New York and Phoenix? Bought online and in advance, these flights – in business class – could cost just US$1,800 on a string of top airlines.
And doing this on a British Airways frequent flier membership would yield almost 90 per cent of the qualifying points travellers would need to gain top tier status.
Across Europe and the US, where airlines have a high frequency of flights to a wide range of destinations, there are always seats to fill and fares are often priced cheaply by computer algorithms. This allows savvy travellers to build up an itinerary of very cheap flights that criss-cross Europe and America in business class for the price of an economy class ticket.
Joining me on one of my flights this run was fellow aviation fan Wilson Li Chung-chak, a 21-year-old Hongkonger.
Explaining why he went to such lengths to travel well, Li said: “With the gold benefits, I can choose to start my holiday in the lounge. For a good trip, you need to have a good start at the airport.”
He paused, then added: “Actually, regular travellers I know who fly every month think the status is hard to get but also recognise its importance.”
Li told me he spent around HK$37,000 on a variety of flights spread across the first five months of 2018 including a return trip on Qatar Airways business class from Hong Kong-Doha-London costing two-thirds of his entire spend on flights. His other flights including a number of identical return trips I took on Malaysia Airlines business class including Taipei-Kuala Lumpur-Singapore.
Li, I later found out, is the social media manager for Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung – who is reportedly a big fan of Cathay Pacific.
Talking to Li, I learned about the benefits of securing elite hotel status.
With my BA gold status, United Airlines would likely put me on its second-highest frequent flier status for three months. In turn, that would immediately give me access to the second-highest tier of hotel rewards with the Marriott International group.
Completing its nine hotel stays challenge, as Li did recently at a cost of HK$6,000, elevated him to the group’s platinum elite status giving him complimentary room upgrades (even to the presidential suite) and guaranteed 4pm late check out, hotel lounge access and breakfast for two.
The Hilton Hotel group matches Marriott status therefore expanding a traveller’s range of hotel choices and lucrative benefits.
And Hilton status would allow a matching status with Alaska Airlines, a boutique airline that serves the west coast of the United States. Under its mileage scheme, travellers can earn and spend air miles on flights with its partners such as Cathay Pacific but also a range of non-partner airlines such as Singapore Airlines and Emirates.
As I tucked into Taiwanese beef noodles from the famed Noodle Bar at Cathay Pacific’s Taipei airport lounge, I reflected on Li’s words, getting excited at the thought that my current BA status was just one step away from even better perks.
That’s when I made my decision – time to check-in for my next challenge.