60 Seconds with Frequent Flyer legend Steve Belkin, aka beaubo

60 Seconds with Frequent Flyer legend Steve Belkin, aka beaubo

Steve Belkin (aka beaubo on milepoint.com) is a legend among frequent flyers. His most well-known mileage-earning stunt was set in motion when he hired local rice farmers to be surrogate flyers on inexpensive flights between two cities in Thailand. His “baht run” lasted for two years, drew the attention of the DEA (who initially thought he might be smuggling heroin) and earned him five million miles. If there’s a loophole in a promotion, Belkin is likely to find it, but he’s also very careful to follow the terms and conditions, allowing him to keep his extraordinary earnings.

InsideFlyer
What were some of your favorite promotions of the past year and how were you able to put them to use?
Belkin
Very obscure! Cathay Pacific Asia Miles online shopping mall offered a 9x bonus for purchases, but capped it at 30,000 miles per Cathay Pacific account. I recruited dozens of friends and family to open Asia Miles accounts to house each 30,000 miles of purchases I made. Overall, the promotion generated about three million miles for about $49,000 of spending and $46,500 of recoupment. That’s $2,500 of net outlay for a cost per mile of about 2/100 of a cent. By aggregating six 30,000-mile Cathay Pacific awards, that’s a business class ticket U.S.-to-India roundtrip for the equivalent of $360!

IF
What missteps did you see loyalty programs make this past year?
Belkin
The relentless onslaught of fuel surcharges on award tickets, introduced and intensified by European programs, now being adapted by Air Canada, Delta, ANA and Virgin Australia. Often over $600 per ticket. Ouch.

IF
What elements do you look for when identifying promotions that can be maximized?
Belkin
Cost per mile, of course. And scaleability by aggregating the value of a promotion across multiple accounts, instead of just figuring out how to bulk up my own individual account. (Like the Cathay Pacific Asia Miles promo I just mentioned!)

IF
When trying to max out promotions, what missteps have you made that readers might learn from?
Belkin
Being too transparent. My conduct is always legal and ethical, if not always the intent of a given promotion. Since I’m not doing anything wrong, I like to use one credit card, one computer and one username/password across multiple accounts. But, I think that a little subterfuge in my account set up and purchasing patterns would create fewer headaches down the line.

IF
Which promotions have been your most lucrative in earning
miles/points?
Belkin
The US Airways shopping mall “Track-It-Back” luggage tag promo of 2010: a stackable promotion whereby luggage tags were being offered at 40 miles per dollar spent, a very generous ratio, with no purchasing caps. Plus, it was stackable with a shopping mall promotion offering a 250-percent bonus on all purchases (no caps as well) for buying five different qualifying companies’ products. So, you could spend a few dollars on the first four qualifying products and go bonkers (I bought 4.2 million miles worth) on buying the Track-It-Back tags for 140 miles per dollar or about 8/10 cent per mile. But it got better. I donated the luggage tags to a bonafide charity that used them for soldiers’ duffle bags, and the charitable deduction knocked my cost per point to about 6/10 cent per mile. So, flying my parents to Europe last summer in business class had the cash value of $600 roundtrip.

IF
What is the best redemption of miles/points you’ve ever made?
Belkin
Before KLM got swallowed by Air France, they had 50-percent Promo Awards from the U.S. to any qualifying city during that time period (as opposed to today where they are restricted U.S. to Europe). KLM did not have a first class, but their partner Malaysia Airlines did. The awkward booking engine of KLM could not process the award booking I was looking for, so a top-level executive at Flying Blue manually booked me and my two children CLE-LAX-KUL in first class for a Promo Award of, wait for it, 45,000 miles!

IF
What have been the worst?
Belkin
Heresy!!! No double-mile awards ever in 20 years of playing the game.

IF
What other advice do you have for members on taking advantage of promotions?
Belkin
Think beyond your own account. If a promotion is worth doing, it’s worth replicating in multiple accounts of real people whose PIN you control for virtual management and award redemption.

IF
What would you like to see happen in the loyalty program industry in the coming year?
Belkin
Stability. I’m not looking for things to get better, I just want reassurance that they won’t get any worse. I think the first program that makes a multi-year (i.e., three-year) commitment not to improve nor devalue their award program, will have a compelling value proposition.

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