Will Icarus Lose His Wings? Rolling Stone takes on the Miles and Points game


I have a confession to make: When I started in this game, 5+ years ago, I was a huge fan of Lucky otherwise known as Ben Schlappig. He inspired my first trip award trip to Japan, in Lufthansa First Class with my wife.  Because of Ben, my wife and I lounged in the Lufthansa First Class Terminal both ways. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, and in fact, have returned there whenever we could. In fact, despite not being mentioned by The Points Guy, we were there when he was, even hearing about his visit to the White House. So it’s tough to share this post, but, I feel I have to.

We have flown Emirates First Class 9 times, because we were initially inspired by Lucky. In all fairness, I think I’ve only reviewed it a few times. Needless to say, the shower:


and Bar:


Are absolutely awesome. In fact, Emirates was so awesome the last time we flew, as to present my wife a birthday cake! (if only I could fly Emirates for my Birthday!):


But alas, I had to shake my head in, what may have been his direction (one never does know where he is at any given point, after all), this past week.

The Elephant in the Room

Recently Lucky was the centerpiece of a Rolling Stone article that seems to have generated him so much press. He works hard, in fact, he’s admitted to being a work-a-holic, so, to get that kind’ve recognition isn’t a bad thing, on a personal level, so when Lucky is writing Welcome to OMAAT, because he’s got so many new readers, for him, that’s a net win. This probably goes to the whole concept of: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

But, I’m not sure that this level of media attention on what is apparently now referred to as “the Hobby,” is a good thing. Perhaps this is the exception that makes the rule on my aforementioned quote. Of course, media on the miles and points game isn’t always bad, following September 11th, 2001, Randy Peterson did a crazier mileage run than my 90 minute turn around in Cairo, it was called “Come Fly With Me,” and it was an effort to get people back in the air, highlighting how safe air travel really is.

When I originally wrote this post, it was more focused on Lucky, because, I really had saw the Rolling Stone article in a negative light. Someone pointed out to me though, that I’m likely not the target audience for Rolling Stone, and that just maybe, it was written specifically for their target audience. Ok, I get that. Despite that, I still feel it necessary to highlight some things:

Will the real Godfather please stand up?

The article states:

“That year, Schlappig was elected to FlyerTalk’s governing TalkBoard; in 2009, he ascended to vice president, second to Gary Leff, now 40, one of the Hobby’s most popular bloggers. (Schlappig calls Leff “the Godfather” of the hobby).

I respect Gary Leff, in fact, after the Rolling Stone article (and probably before), I respect Gary Leff more. But as much as I respect him, the true Godfather of Miles and Points is Randy Peterson. I would bet a full meal at Elephant Jumps, that Gary would concur.

“Lose Lips Sink Ships” — Or in this case, may kill deals.

With the way social media is now, I assume there’s not a whole lot of probability that “gigs” (using Marathon Man’s term), like some mentioned in the article would last as long as they used to. Here’s an example:

During his senior year, he carelessly bragged to a New York Times travel reporter that he had amassed more than $10,000 in bumping vouchers. A few weeks later, Schlappig says, just before his last college final exam, in April 2011, he received a certified letter from United, cheerily informing him that because he had tacked advantage of the system his frequent-flyer account was permanently suspended.”

So, I remember hearing a different story, one that, one could probably find by digging through FlyerTalk, but quite honestly, its not my place to correct stuff like this. But, this jumps out at me, because I remember another person who reflected on a quote/article he had done with the New York Times as a mistake, because it brought too much publicity to a component of the game Hobby.

Why do I reference that? Because, despite how unforgiving social media is now-a-days, I still feel you get at least one mulligan. That was a mulligan, if you ask me. Rehashing that, is probably not a positive, but, for all we know, it could’ve just be the writer being thorough. The writer, Ben Wofford, must’ve been quite excited to have his first article published in Rolling Stone, and maybe it led to him digging everything he could up. I don’t know. 

Let’s continue on though, here’s another quote:

Earlier this year, Delta and United both switched to revenue-based reward systems: Frequent-flyer miles are now awarded by total dollars spent, effectively ending the practice of mileage running. 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.” (emphasis mine)

We are one step ahead of them, who are we referring to? The frequent flier program managers. Let me reference someone else quoted in the article, Henry Hartevekdt, someone who I’ve had a chance to chat with myself, and I certainly respect his opinion, and know that airline managers listen to him.

“No one’s hands are clean in this fight, the gamers have dirt on their hands, and airlines have dirt on their hands.”

But I’m not sure that it makes it right, if everyone has their hands dirty. What is the saying? If its eye for an eye, the whole world ends up blind?

I feel like reading this, the thing that jumps out at me most is, an argument of: “They left the door open.” and from the airlines’ perspective “We didn’t intend that.” The fact is, Both sides are wrong. When I think harder, I ask myself, am I abusing the airlines? I’d really like to believe that the answer is no. I understand their rules, I understand the guidelines of their program, and while I may–my word–leverage it, I don’t believe I abuse it. How do I leverage it? I re-qualify for Executive Platinum via Elite Qualifying Points, leveraging partners OneWorld Partners, like Qatar Airways, that may offer less costly fares from out of the way place, that I’d visit anyway.

So what’s the point?

I think Nick at Personal Finance Digest has beat me to the punch on a couple of questions that the article, and the media onslaught raise for me:

  • Why did we have to capitalize (and just to be fun, I even underline) “Hobby” ?
  • Is the golden age over? I’m not entirely convinced, but, I don’t see a spotlight on the miles and points game as a good thing.

Also playing into things, was at first, the slightly confusing media onslaught that Lucky did in Australia, and probably well, everywhere, or so it seems from his weekly recap.

I think if you look at most of the media coverage centered around the Rolling Stone articles–and in fact other articles, which I won’t even justify with a link–the fact is, that what they all seem to be selling, is this concept of Flying for Free. The irony of the matter, is that when I read what Lucky writes, he’s pretty clear, he’s not flying for free! For example, the amount of time he spends talking about Emirates, he’s not talking about flying for free, he’s talking about buying miles at 1.3 or so cents per mile, when Alaska Airlines has a sale, and fly Emirates First Class for $1,900 rather than whatever crazy amount they actually sell First Class fares for.

So, I think the media is wrong. Let me go one step further, I think the media around this Rolling Stone article, including the Rolling Stone article, is intentionally wrong. In some cases, they might’ve even taken things out of context, to further press home this point of Flying for Free. That’s not what I see the bloggers that I bother reading, talking about. There’s always a cost. As a result, I fear some folks may be in for a nasty surprise, kind’ve like Gary’s first example in his favorite Award Booking Requests.

How will all this media exposure impact our Hobby?

As I tried to figure out how desire for keeping the miles and points game alive, and the huge media exposure, I kept asking myself: Why would someone, who’s clearly enjoying the game, do something that would put such a huge spotlight on it?

I come back to the fact that maybe its not a question of trying to hurt the miles and points game. If I want to be unrealistically optimistic, its entirely possible that more new folks in the miles and points game helps force frequent flier programs to be offer greater advance notice of changes, and maybe not go down the route of Delta and United. If I want to be way to pessimistic, then its entirely possible that more new folks jumping into the game cause airlines to speed up plans for program devaluations.

I’m not sure what the answer is. But, if there’s one thing that rings true, it’s that we’ll need to be as agile as ever to adapt.

What do you think about the Rolling Stone article and the huge honkin’ spotlight on our “Hobby”












10 thoughts on “Will Icarus Lose His Wings? Rolling Stone takes on the Miles and Points game

  1. Trevor I think you are right on with this. To much hysteria these days. BTW, QF in only a 25% bonus for biz now, right?

    • So not having flown QF in the past (well, other than on miles), I had to check, but it looks like its a 25% bonus miles, but you still get 150% EQP’s per mile… that’s consistent with QR, if that matters to you…

  2. Lucky’s on the list of blogs I ignore, has been for years now, and represents (from my personal perspective) everything ugly about the hobby: excessive, mindless travel to boring chain hotels, little interaction with locals, and lack of respect for workers in various locales. My wish for him is that one day he’ll grow up.

    I was about to download the RS article but then realized that I didn’t care one way or the other.

    “The Hobby’s” been featured on television programs for years now, and publicity means a bonus for the featured blogger but little for the wider community; it’s the changes in revenue and marketing/sales/fraud/seats that changes the game. Ask Rick, Summer, and Gary. (I’d bet more people watched the Colbert Report than read the Rolling Stone issue.) Walmart didn’t stop accepting cards and Delta didn’t switch to revenue-based redemption because of publicity; they acted because of fraud (for WM) and new revenue opportunities (Delta).

    /off to yell at kids to get off my lawn

    • I have to laugh at your last comment… I think though the real question is whether the greater publicity results in more people vying for the same few award seats though.

  3. This is the calculation I believe bloggers like Lucky are making when they agree to these national stories (marketing opportunities). A bloggers #1 concern is drawing in newbies to click on credit card affiliate links. This is their bread and butter. To draw in the Newbies, they need to sell the dream. Look at all this expensive and luxurious stuff you can get for just applying for credit cards. It is very simple and easy to understand applying for and earning miles thru CCs. Newbies can follow and accomplish this step. What newbies can’t follow, understand or quickly learn is the art of miles redemption. Bloggers know newbies will be frustrated trying to spend miles for dream Disney, Hawaii or European vacations. Being frustrated the newbies will be paying the bloggers to help them use miles. They might also just use the miles to see Grandma. What isn’t clear if an influx of newbies will dry up availability for complex trips like to Bali, Australia or Thailand. Are these the locations newbies will be paying award bookers? Bloggers like Lucky probably know the answer is no and they feel confident that ‘spilling the beans’ won’t cause these value redemptions to dry up. More affiliate income without causing international first class award availability to go away would be a win-win for M&P bloggers.

  4. I have mixed feelings about the media exposure but I always feel that it’s best not to shine that much light on “the hobby”. Nothing good can come of that.
    You hear a lot of folks say “don’t ever call the airline” well the second part should be “and don’t blog about it either”.
    I get that these bloggers need to make a living selling affiliate links but ask yourself if they are willing to get their hands dirty to take advantage of “the hobby” then what will they do to persuade you to click on a link for profit?

    • It is a difficult line, as a blogger myself (but, mind you, I don’t have affiliate credit card links, nor do I do this as my full-time job), its a balance, but, I tend to feel like a big honkin’ spotlight, such as being put on “the hobby” at the moment, probably doesn’t really help us. There’s a way it could. If Lucky were to somehow work his new found fame to advocating that airlines should maintain the value of their frequent flier programs, as some others have, then that could turn out to be positive. Its just, what I’m seeing on all of his media stunts are how much he pays to travel, and how he maximizes points, not so much advocacy.

  5. Pingback: Award booking fish tales: The ones that got away! – Miles4More

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