Flying First Class on a Student Budget: Meet Ben Schlappig

I might as well start by introducing myself. I’m finishing my senior year in college majoring in marketing, which probably in no way qualifies me to write about the art of business travel. But I look at school as more of a part time activity (though I still do quite well). My full time obsession is miles and travel, and when I say obsession, that’s really what I mean – I probably spend more time on the hobby than most people do on their jobs. This hobby isn’t new for me. I’ve had top tier status with United (flying over 100,000 miles per year) since I was 14.  
“Why on earth,” you may ask? Well, most people dread the travel experience. They plan ahead for the horrid airport experience, spend the week prior to their trip moaning about their upcoming flights, and generally approach travel with a negative attitude. So it’s no surprise that most people hate flying. When you approach something with such a negative attitude, you’re setting yourself up for a bad experience.
But I’ve always seen the positive things in travel – the global melting pots that airports are, the excitement of being in a mini-city that has direct access to six continents, and the general thrill of getting on a metal tube that will propel me through the sky at close to 10 miles a minute to a new, far off destination. What could be cooler?
Fortunately I’ve always had a supportive family that understood the importance of learning about new cultures, and the general excitement that comes with travel. But that doesn’t answer the most basic question. What do I do to travel so much (this year I’m on track to fly 300,000 miles)?

Well, I’m a mileage runner. Simply put, that’s someone that flies for the sole purpose of accumulating airline miles. While most people my age spend their weekends in a state of, well, nevermind, I spend almost every Saturday night on a redeye from the west coast heading east, restlessly turning as I try to make the most of a couple of hours of airplane sleep. In the typical weekend I might fly through six or seven cities.
So am I just someone wealthy enough to be able to waste money on flying, or is there a method to my madness? Well, there’s a method. I seek out the lowest fares, which for a coast-to-coast flight typically comes out to under $250 all-in roundtrip for a transcontinental flight. I do my best to add on a few connections whenever possible without adding much to the cost, and voila, I have a mileage run. For a $250 trip I’ll easily fly 7,500 miles, and as a top tier elite with United, I get a 100% mileage bonus, bringing my total up to 15,000 miles.
But I can usually beat that by quite a bit. I also do my best to book onto oversold flights. In the past month alone, I’ve voluntarily been denied boarding on eight United flights that were oversold, netting me $3,200 in vouchers. In turn I can use those vouchers to book more mileage runs, further reducing my cost of travel. In the end, I probably don’t pay more than a cent per mile flown. At that rate I’m flying around the world in first or business class using those miles for cheaper than I’d pay for a coach ticket.
While the end goal isn’t the actual flying experience, my mileage runs tend to be quite exciting in and of themselves. Many of my best friends are airline employees that I see on a weekly basis, exchanging more than just friendly “hellos.” And airplanes, being melting pots of society, tend to provide no shortage of stories for when I get home. I’ve sat next to a runaway kid, a stoned passenger that urinated in the galley of the aircraft, and even a mother that tried to “push” her 15 year old daughter on me.
But the mileage obsession doesn’t stop with flying. I don’t think there are very many decisions I make on a day-to-day basis where I don’t factor in the mileage earnings. For example, if I’m going to a restaurant for dinner, I’ll do my best to select a restaurant that participates in a mileage dining program, allowing me to earn a few hundred bonus miles. Opening a checking account? I better be earning some substantial miles from it (I earn 50,000 Continental miles a year through Chase checking accounts). Credit cards? There better be a nice sign-up bonus (last year I earned 400,000+ miles from credit card sign-up bonuses). A few of the current best offers:

Citi AAdvantage AMEX and Visa (See Best Travel Credit Cards)

Chase Ink Bold Business Card – 50,000 points

Chase Ink Plus Business Card – 50,000 points

Hyatt Visa – 2 Free Nights in Any Hyatt, including Park Hyatts

While this hobby is no doubt as addictive as the worst drug out there, it’s also very beneficial. It has literally put the world at my fingertips. Other people plan their “once in a lifetime” vacation to Italy for years, but for me it’s a weekend getaway. A couple of months ago my brother was going to be in Seoul for a few nights, so last minute I decided to join him – by means of Washington, Tokyo, Singapore, Tokyo (again), Frankfurt, and Seattle, all in first class. We even stayed at the incredible Park Hyatt in Seoul using free nights from a generous Hyatt promotion, all for “economy” prices. And that’s the beauty of this hobby.

Over the past few years I’ve visited five continents and dozens upon dozens of countries that I could never otherwise have afforded to see. And my goal with blogging here will be to share many of the “tricks” for achieving the same results with as many people as possible. Whether you’re a business traveler just looking to maximize your  potential earnings from business trips you already take, or someone that wants to travel but don’t think you have the resources to do so, let me show you how you can go where you want to go at prices you can afford. Be careful, your life might never be the same!

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