BY: ROB HOFFMAN
Somewhere between LAX and JFK, complimentary champagne, mid flight turbulence and stewardess hand-jobs, Ben Schlappig sits hunched over his laptop strategizing new ways to pull the wool over the eyes of the world’s most powerful airline execs. Schlappig is a prominent member of an international community of flight-hackers who thrive on exploiting loop-holes in airline policies and frequent-flyer programs to keep their feet off the earth as often as possible. Known as “The Hobby,” it’s a mischievous subculture of clever individuals with a passion for beating the system.
Schlappig joined the community when he was still in high school, achieving elite status and a Premier 1k card by the time he was 16. At the time, The Hobby was little more than a bustling plethora of aviation geeks exchanging tricks and tips over an online forum called Flyer Talk. “I think it became more about the game in those years. And while I was far from the only one playing, I thought I was the best.”Schlappig told Rolling Stone in an article that paints him as a modern day Frank Abignale. And in many ways, he is.
SriLankan’s new reverse herringbone business class seat. Doesn’t suck that I had the cabin all to myself! A photo posted by Ben Schlappig (@onemileatatime) on
In his reign of faux-discontent with airline service, Schlappig amassed over $10,000 in vouchers, taking advantage of United Airline’s $200 – $400 “apology vouchers” to compensate for broken items on flights. Dim overhead lights, faulty headphones, perhaps even a mildly tattered barf bag—they all meant one thing: free money.
It was only a matter of time that the once largely concealed society would bloom into a handful of renowned Hobbyists, attracting recognition to the extent of minor-celebrity. Last year, a 22 year old by the name of Aktarer Zaman crafted a website around a seldom-known travel hack technique that earned him international coverage and a $75,000 lawsuit from United Airlines, which was dismissed by a Chicago court in spring. Zaman’s website, Skiplagged, now attracts around 1 million viewers every month—and no shit, he was on every news station in the country.
Another Hobbyist, Brian Kelly, employs ten editors and writers who generate a monthly viewership of three million by providing readers with valuable techniques to cut to the heart of airlines’ lengthy regulations. Often invited onto TV shows and news networks, Brian Kelly—better known as The Points Guy—has become a powerful voice in a growing market of travel hackers, a negative portrait of a system designed to squeeze the most money out of each customer.
“It’s all about how you spend every single dollar you spend. If you’re using cash or debit cards that aren’t earning you any points or miles, that’s the first step,”Kelly tells credit.com. Veteran flight-hackers like Kelly and Schlappig are in the business of reducing customer costs to bare bones—something some claim Schlappig has banked millions from. His techniques range anywhere from taking advantage of vouchers and “bumping”options, booking flights through busy hubs at intentionally inopportune times and gambling on weather conditions, to using software and applications to predict over-booked flights or “confuse the airline’s price algorithm to deduct the cost of fuel from a ticket, often at an enormous discount,” as he reveals to Rolling Stone.
Though major players on the side of the airline industry suggest an expiry date for the flight hacking community, the schemes proliferated by The Hobby remain eternally clever and increasingly innovative. Some Hobbyists have been cited to write codes that scan the Internet for mistake prices on flights and hotels, sidestepping the system by virtue of human error, nabbing flights and presidential suites for prices as low as $10. On the other end of the spectrum, renowned Hobbyist, social media celebrity and celebrated douchebag, Justin Ross Lee, treads a thin line of airline ethics with techniques that are simultaneously hilarious and bordering on fraud. Ross Lee recently shared his booklet of forged high-status business cards with Elite Daily, which he uses to swindle price reductions from hotels. “If it’s $1,000 a night, but Raytheon gets it for $195, you’re a shmuck if you don’t use a fake,” Ross Lee said in the profile. This is a man who books refundable first class tickets and returns them in the same day to take advantage of free airport booze and wifi in the high-status lounge—or as he calls it, his “office.”
Some Hobbyists have been cited to write codes that scan the Internet for mistake prices on flights and hotels, sidestepping the system by virtue of human error, nabbing flights and presidential suites for prices as low as $10.
My hotel lobby is shinier than yours! A photo posted by Ben Schlappig (@onemileatatime) on
Notoriety may seem counter-intuitive to The Hobby, but entrepreneurial travel-hackers thrive on social media followings that drool over free flights, five-star hotels and expensive champagne in exotic locations. And although Schlappig claimed on Instagram that Rolling Stone “makes it all seem a bit more isolating/show-offy than it is,” Ross Lee has accumulated nearly 30,000 Facebook followers, 40,000 on Instagram and another 60,000 on Twitter precisely from that—right down to the large-breasted wife who evidently refuses to wear a bra in photos.
Entrepreneurial travel-hackers thrive on social media followings that drool over free flights, five-star hotels and expensive champagne in exotic locations
For most Hobbyists, though, the penthouse views and complimentary Dom Pérignon are merely perks of a greater victory. If you win the NHL playoffs you get to drink from the Stanley Cup, but it isn’t the taste of metallic beer that the players are training for. Some travel-hackers like American journalist, Scott Keyes, do it for the thrill of taking a 13 country vacation on a budget of zero dollars.
Other Hobbyists like Schlappig reportedly barely leave the airport.
This is why I love flying, even after well over four million “butt in seat” miles. This view never gets old. A photo posted by Ben Schlappig (@onemileatatime) on
Other Hobbyists like Schlappig reportedly barely leave the airport. Diehard Hobbyists are forever chasing the buzz of outsmarting some of the world’s most powerful corporations—some find themselves in positions to develop careers out of it. Is it moral? Depends on where you’re standing. There are people who create the system, and those who take advantage of it—the latter more frequently glorified. In the end, so long as everyone has enough to support their habits, both teams are happy to play with their cards held close and the confidence of a winning hand.
More Hobbyists mean more travellers. More people trying to hack the system means more people in the system.
More Hobbyists mean more travellers. More people trying to hack the system means more people in the system. Perhaps this is what led industry analyst Henry Harteveldt to comment in The Business Journals that “ultimately the house always wins.” But Schlappig knows that the winners are determined by what game you’re playing, and what the airlines call poker, Hobbyists see more as cheat.