The craziest mileage earning schemes and where you should focus your points earning

In a story about Flyertalk and frequent flyer communities, Greg Lindsay regales of many great mileage accumulation schemes in the May/June issue of Executive Traveler.

Now, every frequent flyer story should begin…

Steve Belkin was in trouble with the law. It was 2001, and agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration wanted to know why he’d hired 20 Thai farmers to fly four times a day, every day, for six weeks straight between the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, only 80 miles apart in the infamous Golden Triangle, a hotbed for heroin smuggling. Sufficiently scared, Belkin showed them his spreadsheet—it was all part of a plan, he explained, to earn five million frequent-flier miles. For only $8 per round trip, his employees were racking up miles he then processed legally through Air Canada, a fellow Star Alliance carrier that recognized his staff as “super elites,” earning fistfuls of free business-class tickets to take them anywhere in the world.

I need to ask Steve about this, because I think he’s conflating two different stories here.

I seem to recall that the Aeroplan strategy was back around 2003, having New Zealand college students fly to Europe to earn Aeroplan super Elite, which allowed those members to book Air Canada flights without capacity controls. Employer sof those students could then use their miles to book business class tickets on any Air Canada aircraft, and it was less expensive to employee the college students and pay for their flights than it was to buy business class directly.

Meanwhile, the Thai rice farmer strategy was in 2001 as noted, to fly short, cheap segments and have those employees earn United 1K status via 100 flights, which then earned them 6 systemwide international upgrades (back then valid on any paid fare).

Of course, those weren’t all of Steve’s exploits, in a 2000 USA Today piece I can no longer find online, they explained:

Belkin earned a whopping 10.5 million miles in a 1999 United Airlines promotion that awarded 25,000 bonus miles (enough for a free domestic round-trip ticket) for flying first-class between any of 13 cities. Most were faraway, exotic locales. But Belkin paired up relatively inexpensive hops, mostly between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, raised $750,000 in financing, bought 1,600 tickets at about $425 each and recruited 40 acquaintances to take the flights (for a $50 per flight fee, plus drinks) for the two-month duration of the promotion.

But it’s not just miles, elite status matters too.

Once you’re there, the perks pour in: upgrades, bonuses, lounges and reciprocal benefits on partner airlines. “Walking back to coach, people always comment on first class,” FlyerTalk’s former president Gary Leff, now working with Randy Petersen, tweeted recently. “They’d love the seat but can’t imagine who would pay [so much]. Me either.”

“Elite status matters,” Leff told me. “It matters more now than it ever did, with flights flying full. Being at the top of the wait-list queue matters. Waived checked baggage fees matter—even priority boarding matters, just so you can find overhead bin space.”

Lindsay tells of buying coins from the US Mint to earn miles, mileage runs, Frequent Traveler University, and the upcoming Chicago Seminar.

On the best frequent flyer programs, my advice gets a little bit too condensed, as is the nature of any article, so I’ll expand in a moment.

So what’s the best frequent-flier program? The maddening answer: It depends. Former FlyerTalk president Gary Leff gives high marks to the Air Canada–affiliated Aeroplan for having the lowest threshold of any airline for midtier elite status, which includes lounge access and reciprocal benefits on other Star Alliance carriers. If it’s free flights you’re after, Alaska Airlines has frequent codeshares with both American Airlines and Delta, meaning miles flown on either can be redeemed on British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas, among others. Among the big three, Delta’s SkyMiles program has been derisively nicknamed SkyPesos by FlyerTalkers for its poor redemption rates, while United is infamous for blocking reward tickets on partners such as Lufthansa and ANA.

Still mostly good advice, but of course Air Canada doesn’t have the lowest elite qualifying threshold (you can earn Star Gold status with Aegean after 20,000 status miles, and Turkish has a great qualification scheme). And unfortunately a new rule at Aeroplan requires you to actually fly some of your flights on Air Canada in order to earn status with them. They’re eliminating 500 mile flight minimums and gutting their award chart July 15, making the program far less attractive than it was.

Oh, and Skymiles didn’t just get nicknamed Skypesos by Flyertalkers, but rather than term originated with me. Heh. I do recommend crediting Delta flights to Alaska Airlines, though, if you aren’t otherwise earning Delta elite status, and if you’re an infrequent Delta and American flyer (e.g. you fly primarily Star Alliance) Alaska is a great place to put miles from both airlines in order to rack up points towards an award more quickly.

Best elite programs? I’d give the top tier nod to Untied and to American, and for lower tiers I’d say US Airways elites across the spectrum have good chances for upgrades and United’s lower tier elites at least get economy plus.

Overall, Greg Lindsay offers a great piece.

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. Have to admit I do not get carried away with FF schemes but certainly could. I like reading about them. Thanks for pointing out the article. BTW, interesting flub at the end of your piece–“Untied” instead of “United”

  2. OK, by now we have all heard the Belkin and Mr. Pickles story a thousand times. Is there anything else out there?

  3. I don’t follow the value proposition in Steve’s accumulation of 10.5 million miles for $750,000. Something seems to be missing from the explanation (or I need more coffee).

  4. 1. was 40 million miles for $750,000, but united caught on and ‘requested’ that i abort the rest of the flights/mileage earning. so ended up with 10 million for $187500….getting a mile under 2 cents in 1999 was really unheard of.

    2. most everyone else was using baht run for 6 ua swus. i figured out the aeroplan actually offered a far better value proposition with 1000 minimum miles, huge threshold bonuses at 100k, 150k and 200k rdms and a free intl. j voucher for flying 70k eqms. so, overall each thai ‘surrogate flyer’ earned close to 300,000 rdms and the intl. j voucher which i valued at another 80-100k.

    used the same methodology on ultra-long hauls with nz students to earn aeroplan miles.

    at the time the key whoppoer of a benefit was ‘no capacity controls’ flying ac metal, plus no restriction on who could fly on such rewards (today it has to be acct holder and one oter person on same itin) AND ‘authorized third party’ access to an acct so I could manage them all virtually and book awards.

    hope that helps.

  5. the whopper of a benefits was based on earning top tier SUPER ELITE status with Aeroplan.

    IIRC there were like $200 Fairmount vouchers, free top tier status with a small Canadian hotel program.

    For the Baht Run, once flyers hit 100 segments for status bonus (out of 200 necessary), they were receiving 2000 RDMs for $8

  6. Great stories. Bravo to Mr. Belkin and others who figured them out and made the effort to capitalize to the fullest extent.

  7. I have a few logistical questions regarding the “baht runs” that I hope someone could help me with.

    1. How did this work in terms of ff accounts? Did you open up Aeroplan accounts in the name of the various pax – and then you simply controlled the accounts? (running the risk that the actual pax could attempt to redeem them)

    2. How did you recruit and pay the pax? Paypal was around then. Was that used? What about recruitment? Was it off-season for farmers?

  8. nybanker

    1. Accounts were set up in names of actual pax.
    2. As they were rural farmers and handicapped people with no passports or disposable income, or access to their PIN numbers, i was not worried about them redeeming awards from their accounts.
    3. All of them signed a form written in Thai and English, authorizing me access to their accounts, per published Aeroplan rules.
    4. recruitment was just pure luck and diligence; I wondered around Chiang Mai offering $750 for anyone who would fly 100 roundtrips over 6 week period. Suffice to say, word got out!!
    5. It was of season for farmers

  9. I’m not sure why you call Skymiles “Skypesos”. I read that Delta allows upper elites to redeem 25,000 miles for last minute first class travel in the United States. Do any other airlines allow this?

  10. bow to the master. Am new to this forum and have not participated in any mileage accumulations except the Amex platinum 50K card, but I enjoy reading the stories. very entertaining and informative.

  11. Beaubo: thanks for the details. How many farmer staff members did you have for this effort?

  12. nybanker-

    10 rice farmers
    10 handicapped folks from a small nonprofit dedicated to teaching them skills/getting them jobs. Suffice to say, our six weeks worth of wages was the equivalent of what they would make in a half year!

  13. @beaubo: met you in Chicago last October. The story of your baht runs still makes me laugh. Cheers! –yrf

  14. Beaubo: Great stuff! Thanks for sharing the details. Last questions: What carrier offered the route at this price? Was it J or Y?

  15. But what does one do with so many miles? Not a rhetorical question. Selling miles is against the rules of these programs.

  16. Articles like that make me cringe. The more the story is out there, it means the end is near.

  17. @NYBanker intra-Thai segments at $8 were on Thai Airways in coach, business wasn’t a huge premium either maybe double if my memory back 10 years serves correctly.

  18. Gary:

    The author of that Executive Traveler piece got the dates wrong for the Chicago Seminars 2011. Should be Oct 28-30. Can you have him correct that? Thanks.

    Here is what he wrote:

    “Expert advice

    Would you like to learn how to book your own mileage runs? You could join FlyerTalkers who are planning to converge on Chicago O’Hare, October 14–16 to discuss tips and tricks for maximizing miles and points from airlines, hotels and rental cars. Visit for details…”

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