They flew first class for free and here’s how you can, too

A “free” first class upgrade is the Holy Grail of air travel. And Sam Huang did it with one of the most sought-after premium sections on the planet — an around-the-world flight in one of Emirates’ legendary First Class Suites.

If he’d paid for it with real money, Huang would have shelled out a cool $60,000 for the decadent private suite, the all-you-can-drink Dom Perignon and gourmet meals. But he did it with miles.

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“I redeemed 200,000 Alaska Airlines miles, which was earned without flying one mile on Alaska Airlines and through sign-up bonuses on various credit cards,” he says.

Unbelievable, but apparently true. You can read exactly how he pulled it off on his site, which advises loyalty program members on how to game the system.

Something for nothing? How is that even possible?

There’s a colorful and controversial history of hobbyists pursuing miles and upgrades without paying for them. But there are also serious ethical questions that their behavior raises.

Pudding for a mile

The “free miles” movement rose to prominence in 1999, when David Phillips, an engineer from Davis, Calif., figured out a way to quickly earn American Airlines miles from the back of pudding boxes. All told, he racked up more than 1 million miles, earning him the nickname “The Pudding Guy.” His initial $3,000 investment yielded about $150,000 worth of miles, enough to earn Phillips lifetime gold status. And he did it without darkening the door of an American Airlines aircraft.

Tim Doke, an American executive who worked for the airline at the time, told me the company “was not too bothered by the scam, since the miles he obtained were actually purchased from us by the promoter, ConAgra Foods.”

“Given all the stuff that happens at American on a daily basis, this one barely scored a blip on the radar screen,” he added.

An upgrade via U.S. mint coins

The “free miles” hobbyists gained more momentum in 2008, when upgrade-obsessed frequent travelers discovered they could exploit a loophole in a U.S. Mint promotion to collect airline miles, which could be turned into upgrades.

Legions of point-collectors purchased the coins, collected the miles, and then returned the currency for a full refund.

“My partner and I will be departing on a luxury first class vacation in the French Riviera using this frequent flyer miles strategy!” noted an anonymous poster on a credit card forum.

The government eventually shut down the program, saying it felt “violated” by the point collectors.

Card tricks

After the coins, upgrade aficionados found a new toy: the credit card. Many cards allowed members to collect miles for every dollar spent. But like the U.S. Mint special and the pudding promotion, they can easily be gamed through a process called manufactured spending.

Entire blog networks dedicated to helping people manipulate the system to amass more miles and upgrades sprang up. The most successful mileage collectors dispensed advice to legions of the faithful, were subjects of fawning magazine profiles and they almost never flew coach.

The loopholes these collectors use are slowly closing, too. Banks are tightening their credit card program rules, making it harder to create miles out of nothing. And airlines are adding new restrictions to their loyalty programs, putting elite status out of reach to those who aren’t willing to spend real money on status.

Even Huang, who insists he is not a blogger, points out that technically his around-the-world flight wasn’t completely free. He still owed the airline about $300 in fees.

So what are the new tricks?

Getting in on the action isn’t difficult, and you don’t have to be that clever. You can sign up for a service like Huang’s TopMiles or any one of a dozen sites that will help you optimize your existing mileage portfolio and collect even more.

TopMiles allows you to input your departure and arrival city and displays the number of miles you need for a “free” ticket. It then shows you the credit cards with the highest sign-up bonuses that you can use for each program. The service also helps users keep track of their spending on the cards.

“Finally, once they have enough miles, they can go through my step-by-step guides to redeem their miles,” he says.

But how, exactly, did Huang manage that Emirates ticket? “It’s a bit difficult to compress in a sentence, but essentially I booked the trip as two flights with a bunch of extra layovers in between,” he told me. “Usually airlines have ‘routing rules’ that restrict where and how long you can lay over in, but in this case there were no rules in the computer system.”

Ethical questions

Should you try to do the same thing? Chip Bell, an expert on business ethics, says loopholes are no way to get upgrades — or anything else.

“Loopholes are what give customers, businesses, and well-to-do achievers a bad name,” he says, adding, “I would reserve tricks for Halloween.”

Natalie Holder, an employment lawyer who has served as an ethics and compliance officer for companies like Starwood and Diageo, says if consumers don’t have ethical misgivings about these practices, they should.

“The litmus test of ethical conduct is whether the item was obtained through an unfair advantage that violates a company’s policies or a law, depriving well-meaning customers of a good or service,” she says. “When a company learns about these loopholes, it often has a team of internal investigators in legal compliance, internal audit and other departments to find the source of the slippage and close any gaps between ethical and unethical conduct.”

Huang says his upgrade was legitimate. “I think I did nothing wrong,” he says. “Airlines use computer systems to make decisions, often not in favor of consumers. Think about your $150 change fee or non-refundable tickets; it’s encoded in the computer system. In this lucky case, the computer allowed me to book this ticket.”

But that loophole is almost certain to be closed quickly, says Steven Zussino, who runs the site Canadiantravelhacking.com.

“I think this blogger followed the redemption policy and took advantage of the redemption for Alaska Airlines,” he says. “Since this is going to be heavily publicized I don’t see this award appearing in the future for Emirates, using Alaska Airline miles.”

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15 thoughts on “They flew first class for free and here’s how you can, too

  1. I think whether or not this is unethical depends on the source of the miles.

    The “pudding guy”? He bought the pudding, he followed the rules, ConAgra sent him the miles he earned. No problems there. Likewise sign-up bonuses on credit cards. Again, no problems there.

    But the people that take advantage of retailers to rack up credit card points? (The US Mint, stores selling pre-paid reloads, etc.?) That’s not very nice. The retailers totally take it in the proverbial shorts there by being used to pay (via credit card merchant fees, which are higher on rewards cards) for a promotion (the credit card handing out miles) that they don’t even participate in or receive any benefit from. (My local grocery store doesn’t even sell pre-paid reloads any more, I suspect for this precise reason.)

    1. but the credit card companies dont lose any sleep over charging 24% interest and convincing those who are already in debt to go even deeper in debt (all for their corporate profit). Why is it so bad for me (with a 790 credit score) to take advantage of an offer for 50,000 miles when my interest in the credit card is minimal. And its not like i’m finagling the system, i get 2-3 credit card offers in the mail each and every week.

      1. You should probably read my post again… I said, and I quote: “… Likewise, sign-up bonuses on credit cards. Again, no problems there.”

        1. my apologies. it’s Friday. though i’d say….i’d feel less bad taking advantage of the US Mint than I would if i were buying amex gift cards from a local mom & pop pharmacy or something like that. But again, my apologies for not absorbing your entire post.

  2. I thought this website was dedicated to spreading the idea that frequent flier programs were evil?? I havent’ flown Emirates 1st around the world but did use my miles recently for my wife and I to take Delta business class (a far cry from Emirates i’m sure but still a lovely experience) to Brazil. Tickets that would have been $7,500 a piece were now ours for miles and $22 each in taxes.

    Lying and stealing are wrong, taking advantage of a promotion just for the miles is fine (ie getting a credit card with a 50,000 mile bonus, meeting the minimum spend and never using the card again).

  3. I suspect that many of the people that really game the system think of it more as a game than anything else. Like those crazy coupon people that seem to be proud of aquiring 500 boxes of free tampons. Honestly, I don’t have the time nor the energy to play a game like this.

    That being said, legitimate promotions aren’t something I necessarily view poorly, like bonus miles for opening a credit card. I don’t think someone that racks up miles with a branded credit card deserves elite status, and agree with the airlines there, but I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with it. The vast majority of people aren’t coming out ahead, or they wouldn’t do it in the first place. I worked in credit card processing and saw people that used cards to amass miles. And most of them were spending more than they were saving. For whatever reason, they felt good about having miles. That’s the part I don’t understand. I’ll always always always choose to have the cash, that has real value to me.

    Mostly I just get frustrated with the folks that barely fly, but think they have some special status because they’ve somehow accumulated a bunch of miles. Real status comes from actually flying, as someone spending real money with the airline. The entitled attitude I’ve seen is ridiculous (I’m not talking about the OP here, please don’t take it the wrong way. I’m just speaking generally). Although I guess anyone that would take that much time and effort to take advantage of the system must have a few screws loose.

  4. This is a classic article about someone who doesn’t understand the points world feeling that someone must have done something unethical to get a flight that would have cost $60,000 for very little cost.
    He opened a few credit cards, spent money on them and accumulated points. He used the points to buy an airline seat. There was no upgrades or scams involved. He really only took advantage of the credit card issuer, but even they got some benefit out of it (annual fees, interchange fees etc.).

  5. My husband joined a frequent flyer program in its infancy because he flew for business and was a delta captive flying out of Atlanta. I fly with him maybe twice a year and I haven’t purchased a ticket in at least ten years. I think we’ve used the program the way the airlines originally intended but I don’t fault those who exploit the rules. The airlines are making plenty of money on the sale of their miles to the credit card companies so they contribute to the issue. The problem, as I see it, is the programs have devolved from the initial intention and have created trillions of “free” miles that had to be restricted to minimize the impact on the bottom line of the airlines.

  6. It’s illegal to evade taxes, but it’s legal to avoid taxes. The same thing applies here. Play by the rules, and earn your reward. If you don’t lie, cheat, or steal, then why would your ethics be compromised?

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