Frequent flier miles: Cult of the obsessed
A few months ago I found myself headed to a Sheraton hotel in East Rutherford, New Jersey, one of the more anonymous towns in the United States.
The purpose of my trip: Frequent Traveler University, a two-day series of seminars on getting the most out of miles and points.
At these events, you tend to get a rapid-fire guided tour of the extremes people go to for miles.
The language might sound unfamiliar to the non-enthusiast, peppered as it is with phrases unique to the flier world.
A "mileage run," for example, is a flight taken for the sole purpose of accumulating miles or attaining elite status.
Most of the time, there's no destination -- you just pack in as many flights as you can (at the lowest possible fare) until you end up back at home.
And what is "elite status" exactly?
Most airline programs offer elite status levels based on the number of miles you fly in a year. A typical U.S. program will have, for example, three elite tiers awarded at 25,000, 50,000, and 100,000 miles respectively.
At each level, the member receives more perks, which can include bonus miles, lounge access and upgrade certificates, among other things.
Each program varies slightly, but that's the general model.
Members will usually have to requalify by flying that same number of miles every year.
Some extreme examples
Early on at the University, I met Jason Rubinstein and Stacey Lehrer, a young couple who recounted how they met on an online dating site while Jason was mileage-running.
“I’m like ‘you’re doing what? What’s a mileage run?’” Stacey said, recalling their first conversation. “Because at that point, I loved to travel, but I’d never been on a mileage run before.”
Jason and Stacey later met in person, and now travel together regularly. Earlier this year they flew eight roundtrips between New York and California in order to qualify for elite status.
“Miles brought us together,” Jason told me. “And what I tell people when they ask me how we met, I say we met in Arkansas. And they say, ‘Arkansas? How’d you meet in Arkansas?’ And I say, ‘35,000 feet over Arkansas in an airplane was where I met her, and she wasn’t anywhere near me.’”
For some, it takes a doctor's orders to curtail their flying.
“I just flew for two weeks straight without stopping between New York and Beijing, via Los Angeles and Chicago,” said Will Maxwell-Steele, a 23-year old New Zealander. “I thought I could do more, but my doctor said I had to stop at four roundtrips.” He earned 365,000 miles for his efforts.
Some get surprisingly inventive in their methods of earning miles.
A number of years ago, Cleveland-based Steve Belkin realized that he could hire people to fly for him, taking control of their frequent flier accounts in return for a wage and free tickets on a given route.
Once, when an US$8 airfare between two cities in northern Thailand popped up, he crunched the numbers and found he could earn millions of miles on the route for very little money.
Belkin hired a team of out-of-work Thai rice farmers and paid them more than the Thai minimum wage just to be on a plane all day long, back and forth between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, for six weeks straight.
Then, a few weeks in, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration took notice. They'd decided that Belkin must be the "stupidest drug-runner they'd ever seen," and he was called in to explain his actions.
The incredulous agents were eventually convinced as to his true motives, and one of them even asked if he could get in on the deal.
Spend your miles
Accurate estimates are hard to come by, but it's been reported that there are trillions of miles in frequent flier accounts worldwide.
A 2005 Economist study found that the potential value of unredeemed miles in the world was worth more than all the U.S. dollar bills in circulation.
When you consider that I -- one individual -- have earned roughly three million miles and points in 10 years, and have spent probably 2.5 million of them for tickets that, if purchased, would have cost in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars, it's easy to imagine all the miles out there.
Of course valuations of free tickets are tricky, but this begins to give an idea.
As more and more miles are awarded (not only by airlines but by banks, merchants, hotels, the list goes on) it makes sense that more and more people are becoming interested in getting more out of them.
Cue the frequent flier forums
Flyertalk.com, the biggest online forum for the discussion of frequent flier and travel topics, surpassed 400,000 members earlier this year, and the post count is closing in on 19 million.
The subset of people that attends meetings, seminars and get-togethers is smaller, but there's a steady flow of said events around the world, whether impromptu meet-ups or organized multi-day events.
I’ve been to a few gatherings of miles aficionados, and in each one the common theme has been that attendees are excited -- they can turn to anyone around them and rattle off airport codes, discuss airline routing rules or mull the pros and cons of lesser-known airlines’ premium cabins, and whoever they’re speaking to gets it.
In normal life, where most friends and family don’t share in the interest, this just isn’t possible.
The rise of the 'mega-do'
Of course, the frequent flier junkies are nothing if not ambitious, and they don’t just mass in hotel conference rooms.
The past few years have seen the rise of the so-called “mega-do,” which involves working with one of the major airline alliances to put a couple of hundred enthusiasts on a plane together, with events on the ground as well.
When the first oneworld alliance mega-do was announced for January of this year, I couldn’t resist joining.
For US$899, I purchased a seat on a chartered American Airlines (AA) 757 that would take me and around 180 other hard-core frequent fliers from Dallas to Seattle, then to Los Angeles.
There were tours of AA’s operations center and Boeing’s factory in Seattle, and a oneworld party on the ramp at the Los Angeles airport for which Cathay Pacific and Qantas towed over a wide-body each for us to gawk at and tour.
Onboard, passengers were exuberant. The aisles were packed. Pillows flew around the cabin. It was as if Carnival had come to the skies above the United States.
Happy fliers make happy flight attendants
Even though the flight attendants had to fight through crowds to serve food and drinks, they were smiling as well.
“Isn’t this annoying, having to deal with all of us?” I asked one flight attendant.
“Are you kidding?” he said. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had working a flight.”
It’s a good point, for surely one reason many a flight attendant is surly and brusque these days is that their passengers are often just as unhappy.
The notion of someone having fun on a flight seems quaint these days. But here were nearly 200 of them, loving every minute of it.
More on CNN: The best ways to earn and burn frequent flier miles