Rolling Stone profiles Ben Schlappig and "Travel Hacking"

   One Mile at a Time  blogger, Ben Schlappig, was profiled on  Nightline  and in  Rolling Stone  recently

One Mile at a Time blogger, Ben Schlappig, was profiled on Nightline and in Rolling Stone recently

One morning this week, I was perusing Feedly and catching up on the latest travel blog posts. I came across an article on One Mile at a Time discussing recent media attention for its author, Ben Schlappig. Ben had alluded to press coverage and a resulting flood of traffic to his site (anyone want to do a profile on me??? No...didn't think so!) over the past week or so but I was not fully aware of what had happened. Earlier this week, I came across a segment from Nightline  that featured Schlappig.

I enjoyed watching the discussion of "travel hacking" and Ben's pursuit of free luxury travel. As I have written here on Debrian Travels, I have benefited from advice and tips from his blog and his travels have inspired me to pursue similar adventures of my own. However, this morning, I began reading the Rolling Stone profile of Ben and, I must admit, I was given pause by some of his comments in that story.

“The fact is, we are beating the airlines at their own game,’ he said last year at a gathering of the Hobby’s top talent. ‘The people who run these programs are idiots.’ Then he paused. ‘And we’ll always be one step ahead of them.”
Rolling Stone, "Up in the Air: Meet the Man Who Flies Around the World for Free"

Later in the article, he again asserts that the "Hobbyists" are ahead of the airlines:

Despite his success, many in the Hobby think the days of hopscotching across the globe are numbered...Earlier this year, Delta and United both switched to revenue-based reward systems [i.e., awarding frequent flyer miles based on how much ones pays for a ticket rather than how much they fly]...Schlappig seems unconcerned. “I’ve been at this for 10 years,” he says. “And there’s not a single year where I didn’t hear at one point or another, ‘This is coming to an end.’ But every year, we find new opportunities. We’re one step ahead of them.”
— Rolling Stone, "Up in the Air: Meet the Man Who Flies Around the World for Free"

I always get a little irritated at blanket suggestions that denizens of Corporate America are stupid. Getting to the upper ranks of management in most large companies, especially those in the Fortune 500, takes some combination of years of experiences and above average capability. By and large, these are not stupid people and it is hubris to cavalierly dismiss them. Also, it is fairly arrogant to suggest you always will outsmart the airlines and their employees when your own comment suggests that you are playing a reactive game.

For now, the Hobby’s principal advantage remains its size — tiny enough, he says, to avoid the attention of the airlines’ gargantuan bureaucracy. But for Hobbyists tempted by dreams of mastering the game and beating the house, [industry analyst, Henry] Harteveldt offers a warning. “Ultimately,” he says, “the house always wins.”
— Rolling Stone, "Up in the Air: Meet the Man Who Flies Around the World for Free"

The very reason that Ben and other travel "Hobbyists" are having to seek out new opportunities is because some of the major airlines are changing the nature of their frequent flyer programs. The travel hackers are being reactive which is not what I would call being "one step ahead." The reality is that, while there are certainly those that can wring every last bit of value from these programs, loyalty programs are, on average, beneficial to the airlines, hotels and other travel companies or those programs would not exist. As "industry analyst and former airline loyalty-program manager," Henry Harteveldt notes, the airlines come out on top in the chess match with Hobbyists. However, despite his degree of hubris, Ben is an inspiration for pursuing travel rewards the right way.

The article delves into the darker underside of travel hacking. Some of these practices are, at least, unethical and, at worst, fraudulent. While Ben admits to engaging in some behaviors in the past that bordered on the unethical - e.g., actively pursuing numerous vouchers for airplane equipment problems that had no real negative impact on his travel experience - he is clear that he now seeks to stay within the bounds of the rules of the travel reward programs. While I have no problem with working a program to the max within the limits of its rules and regulations, I have no taste for most behavior that might be deemed unethical and certainly not for fraud. I believe firmly in the free market and taking every legal and moral advantage I can - that is the nature of both competition and voluntary business transactions between buyer and seller. But the nature of a free market is choice. Either side of a transaction can establish rules and limits for those transactions. Not liking those rules and regulations means you don't participate in that market; it does not mean you should break those rules. I admire Ben for trying to benefit from these programs within the bounds of their regulations.

Ben Schlappig is the epitome of the success story. He is living a dream and working to educate others in how they too can have some of the experiences he has enjoyed. I have definitely gleaned numerous tips from his blog and I am inspired by his luxury travels. While I do not aspire to fully live the life he is living - for me travel is more than just the hotels and airplanes but also the experiences at the destinations - I look forward to continuing to regularly read One Mile at a Time and continue to learn from him!