Mileage Maniac: New Book Details The Craziest Loyalty Program Exploits Of Last 30 Years

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My award booking partner Steve Belkin has a new book out, Mileage Maniac, which any frequent flyer or mileage junkie will get real enjoyment from.

I’ve done a lot of mileage earning in the 30 years since I joined American AAdvantage for the first time. There was even one US Airways promotion I used a dozen years ago to generate 16 million miles across multiple accounts. But I don’t think anyone has ever scaled mileage offers the way that Steve has. That’s because when he sees a good deal, he says that if it’s good for him to do – or to do for himself and his wife – then it must be good to do coordinating in 20, 40, or 100 friends’ accounts too. Steve is all about scale.

Steve talks about recruiting other people to fly in his name and about hiring disabled Thais to fly for him out of the opium capital of the world – until the DEA got involved.

Steve tells the Thai “Baht Run” story as being about crediting miles to Air Canada Aeroplan, getting rice farmers to become Super Elites so their miles could be redeemed for business class tickets with no capacity controls. That’s true. But there was another version where he had Thai flyers earn United 1K status and obtain international upgrade certificates.

I still have the 20 year old email where he wondered whether I wanted a rice farmer for an employee, who would gladly make their upgrades available to me? Steve was paying unheard of wages for Northern Thailand, but people taking 5 trips a day out of the opium capital of the world with no checked bags raises.. red flags. He then switched to paying New Zealand college students to fly to Europe several times over their summer break.

He tells the story of eBay Anything Points, Goldpoints-ValuMags, flying the Concorde for $1000 in magazine subscriptions, british midland Diamond Club, TrackItBack, and easyCGI. But I have to wonder, Steve, what about Emmi cheese?

Steve tells some of the best war stories about mileage programs, but as you read along you have to wonder, are the good old days over? And in some ways they are. Airline loyalty programs aren’t as valuable after perpetual devaluation, and even walking away from any semblance of transparency or consumer commitment by eliminating award charts. Even Hyatt will follow Marriott with ‘high and low season pricing’ which undercuts the ability to get outsized value for points, while Hilton and IHG have eliminated award charts altogether.

However bank programs still offer great value.

The good old days may be gone, but that doesn’t mean today isn’t great (just different). And the lesson in Steve’s book and his mileage career is still true, that if there’s a great offer on the table it’s even better multiplied out by 100.

Mileage Maniac is available in paperback for $8.49 with free Prime shipping.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. What a great way to use some earned Kindle credits from Prime Day! Looking forward to reading all the shenanigans!

  2. FYI about what company entities can use Brex. From the Brex website: “Brex offers corporate cards . Corporations and other forms of non-individual liability companies are great Brex customers. Brex underwrites with Employer Identification Numbers (EINs), not Social Security Numbers, so consumers, sole proprietors, and other unregistered businesses are ineligible. Only companies organized and registered in the United States (such as C-corps, S-corps, LLCs, or LLPs) may apply for a Brex Account. Consumers, sole proprietors, unincorporated partnerships, and companies registered outside the United States are not permitted to use, or attempt to open or use, a Brex Account.”

  3. Old timers on Flyertalk will remember the Steve story in great detail since many of us back then followed his exploits. Nice guy. We met several times, and also broke Kosher bread together. Tell Beaubu I say hi.

    I can recall his interview in Gabe’s video back in the day.

  4. @ Gary — If only I hadn’t been so scared that US Airways would go under, or we would have bought more stickers!

  5. @cr — because it’s racially insensitive and can be perceived as mocking a foreign culture.

  6. oh ffs. if there can’t be humor including a currency name (not racist: A CURRENCY Name), there is no longer “normal”. chill.

    go brandeis yourself.

  7. White Privilege 101 in the above comment.

    @cr reading list:
    – How to be an Antiracist
    – White Fragility

  8. @Dick – is the social justice warrior role and virtue signaling getting you down.

    Everything is offensive to someone dude. Laugh at it and move along instead of being so damn serious! It is people like you that are ruining our world.

  9. Ah the early days….

    The year of triple miles. $198 RT SFO-JFK earned 15,000 miles. 50k miles award on TWA earned a free international first class ticket + an upgrade from cheapest coach to first class. The miles earned on the upgraded ticket were almost equal to the miles used for the award and often the free ticket earned mile and no capacity controls. Any seat could be booked.

    Flight on UA earned more segment upgrades than they used. Every seat in F was eligible.

    To be young again..

  10. @Steve, when AA announced the triple miles promo, I heard it on my car radio. Since there was no internet in 1988, I called AA to inquire about what I just heard. I just started flying transcons for business from JFK. I had 3 flights planned within the 3 month (?) promo. That was almost 50,000 miles! I cashed in almost immediately to take my family to EWR/MCO. Good times.

  11. There was no ID check and the rules of the programs didn’t forbid having someone fly in your names so…you can guess what happened. Those three round trips to earn that first class ticket and upgrade only cost $600. Imagine being able to fly anywhere in the world first class and bring someone else along with you in first for the price of the cheapest coach ticket and earn enough miles from that trip to almost do it again.

    But absolutely the best deal of all was DHL. They would buy me a ticket to HKG in order to ship all their packages as luggage since luggage, unlike air freight, cleared customs immediately. My job was to sit on the plane…and collect the Pan Am miles. I took three trips to South Africa in first, bringing a friend along each time. Everyone else was wondering what this 20 something year old in jeans with long hair was doing in first. On one flight the elegantly dressed lady next to me looked over and asked “rock star?” I said “no, computer engineer.” She said “Ah, of course.”

  12. Having started playing the travel game in the mid 80s, my old favorite was getting a ticket for getting bumped.

    I used to book meetings with my boss in Chicago on Friday mornings, just so that I could volunteer to get bumped ORD-DTW on NWA. I could usually goy at least 4 tickets every Friday.

    Lots of beaches and skiing for free back then. I miss NWA. 😉

  13. I had no idea that the ethics/morals/values started to slide downhill that long ago. People are indeed weird … but of course I don’t make my living diddling with loyalty programs. Just because it’s not illegal doesn’t mean it’s right. Karma’s karma.

  14. It’s like taxes. People always work out a way to legally do stuff. As a former co-worker at my passenger railroad job said one day in a meeting, “There are always those will figure out a way to sharpshoot the system.”

  15. @dhammer53 – Actually 1/1/83 is considered to be the birthday of the internet (although it was actually around since 1960 or so). The WWW started in 1990, Then the internet became more useful for more casual users.

  16. Have to have a look. The miles game is still being played, but everyone is quiet about it. Over here it still generates several thousands in cash and plenty of free business class international flights annually. A part of the cash is invested in quality food supplements for the wild ducklings at our waterfront home because healthy ducks fly free with no masks, COVID tests, or long TSA lines.

  17. Just wow! how did I miss this post!.. Ordering the book!
    Hoping he covered the almost ‘recent’ biggest exploit in the frequent flyer universe, the Venezuelan communist currency exchange control. Such great memories, probably can write a small book about it.
    So sad I didn’t knew about Gary of Steve Belkin at the time, nor participated in Flyer Talk. I could surely made a great hire and had many employees at my charge at those times.

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