Hacking Frequent Flyer Programs


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Ignite talk given at OSCON 2010 on hacking frequent flyer programs.

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  • Hacking frequent flyer programs, now how to break in to the system and give yourself miles, but old school perl hacker style hacking. Manipulating the system for fun and profit.

  • Because it’s fun. Makes travel suck less, fly for free.
  • Oh yeah, and you’re killing the planet. I live in a place with %10 of the carbon emissions per capita of the US. I ride a bike to work, don’t have a car, etc... but my flights more than make up for all of that. What’s worse, by flying business, you take up much more space, that’s why it’s nice, and have more than twice the carbon footprint for the same flight.

  • I bought a domain name, milerunners.com a few years ago, but i can’t bring myself to use it because encouraging people to fly more seems like a bad idea. Even if i fly a lot. Well over a 100,000 miles a year, 4 times around the earth. My son made platinum on American, flew over 50,000 miles when he was 1.
  • So why? Basically two reasons, free flights, and nicer travel. With miles you can, using a complicated set of rules, fly for free. And nicer travel, most people in first class bought a cheap economy ticket, and got upgraded due to their status. Lounges for layovers, with showers, internet, and sometimes with free food & open bars. Separate faster security checkins, no lines for checking in at the airport, etc...
  • Airlines aren’t single companies, they’re more like cartel’s. These cartel’s are called Alliances. And for frequent flyers, this means you can get your status recognized by airlines within the alliance. And also earn miles by flying on affiliated airlines.
  • So the most basic thing to know about is each airline has various levels of elite status. The names vary, gold, platinum, executive platinum, or Premier Associate, Premier, Premier Executive, and 1k.
  • The upgrades are complicated. There are many kinds of upgrades. Some you can control, and some you can’t. Sometimes airlines just upgrade you without asking, because for example, economy is full, but business isn’t. That’s an Operational Upgraded, an OP. The next most common one are 500 mile upgrades. These are ‘stickers’ which entitle you to request an upgrade for 500 miles worth of travel. So if your flight is PDX to JFK, that’s 5 stickers.
  • Sometimes, on high competition or low volume routes the cost per mile flown drops down quite low. The cost per mile, the CPM, can get down to 2 or 3 cents. Airlines consider an award mile to have a value of about 1 cent per mile. If you’ve got elite status earning double miles, or are during a bonus period, then you actually can get one free flight for every flight flown.

  • With some focus, timing, and a couple weekends of flying, you should be make it to being a top level elite for about $2k. You’ll earn enough miles to

  • To maximize status and earn more miles you can choose to book the least direct flight possible. I flew from Uruguay, in south america, to johannesburg south africa, not on the direct 8 hour buenos aires or sao paulo flight. I flew to New York, then to London, then down. I got a layover in london, caught a day of FOWA, and racked up a ton of miles. For the same cost as a direct flight.

    I flew 30,000 miles the round about way instead of the 10,000 miles on the direct flight.
  • So flight costs are funny things. Airlines don’t charge a flat rate of 10 cents per mile. If they did, the PDX-JFK flight would cost $245 one way. PDX SFO would be $51. The longest direct flight out PDX is to Amsterdam, and costs $890 round trip. that’s a cost of 11 cents per mile. Not Cheap.
  • Airlines oversell their flights. Some percentage of people don’t show up, buy a round trip only intending to use it one way, or get delayed. Because of protections Ralph Nader got passed, they are required to give all sorts of compensation if you involuntarily bumped. So airlines offer incentives, free upgrades, hotel stay’s, food, vouchers for future flights, to get people to voluntarily give up their seats and take a later flight. I got $1400 in vouchers in one weekend between Chicago and SFO. To do it intentionally you book flights long ahead of time, on routes and dates you know are going to be very busy.
  • So not all miles are the same. Elite qualifying miles count towards status. Redeemable miles are useful for upgrades or free flights. You need to fly for elite qualifying miles, but can get redeemable miles all sorts of ways.

  • In general there are up to three classes of service on an airplane. There’s First, Business, and Economy. Sometimes Economy plus, meaning less sucky economy, but still economy.

    Within those there are fare classes, single letter codes. That indicates what kind of ticket you’ve got. For a single flight, airlines assign seats to each fare class. So, 10 seats super discount economy, 10 seats kind of discount economy, 10 seats normal economy, and 10 seats expensive economy. Then 3 seats super cheap business, etc... Sometimes the cheap business tickets are cheaper than the expensive economy seats. In general when you see a price shoot up, it’s because all the seats in that fare class have been sold. When it drops, they added more inventory to the low cost fare buckets. Reward travel, comes from a separate bucket, so even if the plane is half empty, all of the reward seats might be taken.
  • It’s possible to earn miles without ever getting on an airplane. Most miles are never used, so they sell them like candy. Airlines sell these miles for less than 1 cent per mile. You get one mile for each dollar spent on a credit card, or for buying flowers. Most of the time, earning miles via these things are just a scam. But sometimes there’s gaps in the system. For example, you can get 30,000 miles from signing up and using a citibank credit card.

  • So there are two kinds of miles. Miles which count towards status, generally those are miles sitting on an actual airplane flying. And there are miles which count towards status, and miles which count towards awards. The kind of miles you earn from credit cards and other points
  • Citibank for example gives you 30,000 miles if you sign up for a credit card and spend $750. Then you can cancel the card and do it again, and again, and again.
    It’s called Churning. Careful if you do it with Delta, there’s been problems recently.

  • On american you can get lifetime gold with just 1 million miles, regardless of how you earn them, platinum at 2 million. Pretty easy to do with things like the credit card trick. With other airlines you need a million miles flown. That’s a LOT.

  • You can get status by number of flight segments, not distance. Usually 100 for the top level. That leads some people to take 10 or more flights a day on super cheap routes. MOST of the time segments is not a cheap way to get elite status. Folks did this in Thailand in 2000, $18 round trip, and called in a Bhat run. These deals come and go. People also did Vancouver - Victoria, as part of a backtrack on round the world ticket.

  • ITA was just bought by google, they’re the backend to many of the booking engines and travel agent software. They’ve got a site, matrix and matrix2, which they use to try and hire developers. It lets you get access to their underlying system. It’s just for searching, not booking. But they let you create super cool complicated routes.

  • If you want to learn more, the flyertalk community is the place to go. It’s disorganized and intolerant of infrequent flyers, but it’s a treasure trove of information.
  • Hacking Frequent Flyer Programs

    1. 1. Hacking Frequent Flyer Programs Rabble - Evan@Protest.Net
    2. 2. Hacking Frequent Flyer Programs source: http://flic.kr/p/5QuJJG
    3. 3. Why?
    4. 4. Killing The Planet? source: http://flic.kr/p/TwQQ
    5. 5. Why Do It? source: Singapore Airlines
    6. 6. Three Cartels
    7. 7. Elite Status
    8. 8. Upgrades source: Singapore Airlines
    9. 9. Mile Runs source: http://flic.kr/p/29jius
    10. 10. $2000 To Top Elite Status source: http://flic.kr/p/6xYKmC
    11. 11. Crazy Routes source: http://gcmap.com
    12. 12. Bump Runs
    13. 13. Qualifying vs Redeemable source: http://flic.kr/p/4ob8eT
    14. 14. Miles Without Flying source: http://flic.kr/p/4DRfcu
    15. 15. 30,000 Miles Per Credit Card source: http://flic.kr/p/5Zp1aM
    16. 16. Life Time Status source: http://flic.kr/p/Gnyi8
    17. 17. Segments source: http://gcmap.com
    18. 18. Tools source: http://milecalc.com
    19. 19. matrix.itasoftware.com
    20. 20. ExperFlyer.com
    21. 21. FlyerTalk.com