The world is your oyster
With the wonderful advancements in modern transportation these days, it’s pretty easy to navigate the globe – and relatively quick, depending on your starting point and your destination, of course. I for one used to commute between London and Paris regularly, much to the astonishment of certain colleagues. “Really, it’s not that far,” I used to reassure them. “But it’s in France …,” they’d counter feebly, the concept of an international commute clearly blowing their minds. Yet with inventions and services such as the Eurostar, a quick two-and-a-quarter-hour hop across the channel could take less time than I spent simply trying to get home after work. OK, it’s true Europe has an unfair advantage in that everything is a stone’s throw away. That’s why so many Antipodeans make it their home: you can literally pop over to Amsterdam, Madrid, Istanbul or Rome for the weekend. The scale may be different in North America, but you can still cross from Seattle to Vancouver or Montréal to New York, or even coast to coast, with ease.
International travel and the time it takes may have become smaller barriers to visiting loved ones or satisfying our desire to explore new places, immerse ourselves in new cultures or simply go shopping, but one ugly word continues to raise its head: cost. It might be easy and relatively convenient to flit between countries, but is it affordable?
In 2013, Americans were expected to spend an average of $1145 per person for a vacation. But what about those who take a more cunning approach to traveling abroad – those who carefully navigate the system to self-fund their trips? American Airlines was the first company to consider a travel reward system – the brainchild of their advertising executive consultant Bill Bernbach, who encouraged them to introduce such a program in 1979 – and it was launched two years later. Nowadays it seems we have loyalty cards galore and more commercial partners for our credit cards than we can remember, all vying for our business and promising rewards if we stay with them. However, the fact remains that despite our efforts, the freebie (or near-freebie) trip generally remains unattainable.
Brands are falling over themselves to trap consumers in loyalty programs and analyze the information gathered to find out exactly what drives our spending and commercial commitment. Most of us seem to be perpetually emptying our pockets, with negligible returns. The best we can hope for when traveling is perhaps a class upgrade – and even then, the new flight or train might be significantly more expensive than others if booked at the last minute or from certain corporations. However, some individuals are savvy enough to be flipping the algorithm on its head, to their own advantage.
Take Ben Schlappig, a New Yorker of German descent who has been fascinated by planes and flying since childhood. He’s particularly revered within a community of “travel hackers,” who have mastered the art of manipulating the travel points / loyalty systems and acquiring enough credit to enjoy flights for free – usually in first class, with their feet up and a glass of champagne in hand. Ben has numerous admirers who drool over his luxurious sky-high lifestyle, but what’s unusual compared to the majority of travelers is that for him, it’s not about the destination, but really about the journey; he simply loves airports and flying. Ben frequently jets around the world (in fact, at the ripe old age of 25, he has already circumnavigated it 16 times) solely to gather yet more points to enjoy yet more flights, often not leaving the airport at all or merely making a quick stopover in a top hotel. It’s self-perpetuating. In the week he was interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine (see the previous link), he had been to Dallas, Dubai, Oman, Barcelona and Frankfurt.
Last year alone, Ben notched up 400 000 miles. Flying is such a passion for him that he has made it his full-time job, creating his own blog to share his adventures. Ben first became involved in the travel hackers world when he was 14, often spending his weekends taking trips across America while his fellow classmates were busy doing their homework. He quickly became an integral part of the Flyer Talk online community for avid flyers and point collectors, which was launched by Randy Petersen in 1993. It followed in the footsteps of Petersen’s successful Inside Flyer magazine, which he took to market in 1986, gaining a readership of 90 000 within two years.
Ben isn’t the only person leading an elite lifestyle funded by travel corporations and a mathematical ability to outsmart the system. David Phillips, a civil engineer, also managed to convert 12 150 cups of Healthy Choice Chocolate Pudding into over one million Air Miles and help transport his family around the globe by carefully deducing the most efficient buying vs. reward strategy. Entrepreneur Derek Low recently flew in the world’s most expensive “suite class” with Singapore Airlines thanks to his acquired points, simultaneously blogging about his experience.
If you’re not quite ready to delve into the travel loyalty programs and maximize your returns, perhaps you can console yourself with some top travel blogs. Remember, though, that if you really want to get to the Maldives cheaply and luxuriously, there’s probably a legitimate way to do it. You just have to learn how to maneuver craftily through the myriad points programs, and then the possibilities are limitless.
Consider this quotation commonly attributed to Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Bon voyage, my friends!