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Book review: Mileage Maniac by Steve Belkin, the man who earned 40 million miles

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This is my review of Mileage Maniac, the story of how Steve Belkin acquired 40 million frequent flyer miles.

We don’t often do book reviews on HfP – I think this is our 3rd in almost a decade – but if ever a book cried out to be covered by us it was this one.

You can order Mileage Maniac for £8.33 on Amazon here. I think they are shipping in copies from the US on demand, hence the 6-10 days delivery period even for Prime members.

Mileage Maniac Steve Belkin book review

This book is the story of Steve Belkin and the various promotions he has pushed to the limit over the years in his desire to earn frequent flyer miles.

(For clarity, I don’t think I have ever met Steve. I do know various other people mentioned in the book, but not Steve. I paid for my copy of Mileage Maniac.)

The book isn’t about one particular mileage scheme or loophole. It is the story of many, many mileage promotions that Steve has exploited over the last 15 – 20 years. He has a very particular way of looking at mileage offers – most are dismissed out of hand, but when he decides to go for it, he goes for it hard.

Steve is best known for flying to Thailand and hiring 20 disabled Thai rice farmers and masseuses – on a substantial salary by local standards – to each fly 200 $8 domestic flights on Thai Airways to earn generous top tier benefits (x 20) from Air Canada’s Aeroplan programme.

A good promotion would often require Steve to drop everything and fly to the other side of the world immediately – literally within hours – to put it into action before the airline woke up to what it had unleashed.

You may have heard the Thai rice farmers story before, especially the bit where Steve is accused by the US Government of running a group of drug mules. If you have, you haven’t heard the full version as outlined here. The full story is more bizarre, and indeed sadder, than the short version often circulated.

The book contains multiple stories like this, including a section dedicated to good old bmi British Midland.

It is hard to explain today how generous the bmi British Midland Star Alliance reward chart was. The airline, having virtually no long haul routes, priced its reward flights at levels which were achievable by short haul flyers. Those who credited long haul premium cabin flights on other Star Alliance airlines – or did huge amounts of credit card spend as I did, earning 2.5 miles per £1 on a Mastercard – were laughing. These were also the days when HMRC accepted personal credit cards with no fees ….

In my case, as my group of oldest friends all hit 40 between 2009 and 2011, I paid for all four of us to fly First Class to Dubai, Cape Town (for a weekend, as you do) and New York over three years. It didn’t make a serious dent in my bmi miles stash and I still had 1 million Diamond Club miles when the British Airways acquisition took place.

His best bmi ‘earn’ was a 26 SEGMENT $2,500 First Class flight from Colombo, one of the cheapest places in the world to start flights at that time, to San Diego. Yes, 26 segments – 13 flights in each direction. The routing was Colombo – Bangkok – Seoul – New York – Washington – Cleveland – Chicago – Kansas City – Denver – Salt Lake – San Francisco – Santa Barbara – Los Angeles – San Diego. And back.

Because of the high minimum mileage earning per segment which bmi awarded, plus the huge First Class and elite status bonuses, Steve earned 252,000 bmi Diamond Club miles from this one trip. As bmi only required 37,500 miles for a return Business Class flight from the US to Europe using ‘cash and points’, this one trip earned enough miles for SIX transatlantic Business Class redemptions.

The book also covers the development of frequent flyer miles over the years as the airlines finally woke up. Steve’s plans are always based on the cost of earning 80,000 miles for a ‘no taxes’ Business Class reward flight from the US to Europe. Today, with the legacy US airlines abandoning fixed mileage charts, those flights will often cost over 200,000 miles.

At the same time, US credit card sign-up bonuses have got out of control. The British Airways US Visa card, for example, currently has a bonus of 100,000 Avios for just $5,000 of spending and a fee of $95. The Aer Lingus and Iberia US credit cards have identical deals. Why hire a small army of Thai rice farmers when you can (as Steve did in later years) sit at home and earn 5 million miles purely by taking out multiple US credit cards for himself, his wife and his children?

The US airlines also woke up to the fact that their most profitable customers are not necessarily those who fly the most. For better or worse, elite status with US airlines now requires a minimum cash spend on top of a minimum number of flights.

You can run your own business and voluntarily choose to put 50 economy short haul flights per year to American Airlines but you may not spend enough for top tier status. An investment banker whose firm pays for fully flexible tickets between New York and London will hit the threshold in two trips. The game moves on, however, and players like Belkin adapt.

As well as covering multiple crazy frequent flyer mileage schemes, Mileage Maniac also gives an interesting insight into Steve’s own life and businesses which inevitably intertwine. One of his current ventures is running the award booking service for US blog View From The Wing.

If you are reading Head for Points then you can’t fail to get £8.33 of entertainment value from Mileage Maniac. I can’t think of anything better to read on your sun lounger this Summer.

You can order Mileage Maniac from Amazon here.

Comments (70)

  • Polly says:

    Often follow his articles, and love his zest for beating the system. Wish we had his energy! But when is enough, enough tho…. And yes, BMI were a dream, all our Dub Trips…say no more.

  • Colin MacKinnon says:

    Good old BMI – that was what led me to miles and points.

    I managed the Madrid to Nepal one – 40,000 BMI miles in economy to Bangkok on Thai or 40,000 miles for First to Nepal, via Bangkok, with stopovers allowed!

    My only regret. |I was a late joiner and never made the famed intra-Europe redemption to Vladivostock via Japan before the party ended.

    • 1ATL says:

      You forgot the best bit: Sending off your boarding pass stubs to Castle Donnington upon your return from your redemption trip as a missing miles claim and having the miles added again to your Diamond Club account.

    • BJ says:

      I (actually) went to Nepal 5 times, amazing. Also missed out on Vladivostok though.

    • Andrew M says:

      It was actually possible to have a stopover in Seoul on the way to Vladivostok on that intra Europe flight!

    • Andrew says:

      Loved BMI.

      They did staff deals with my employer with fixed price fares, it was £79 return between London and Edinburgh right up until they end. The number of times I paid £79 for a return ticket for a Friday/Sunday then got handed £50 cash (or £100 voucher) in an envelope because I was willing to be “bumped” on a Friday night.

      Had a few trips to Canada on the back of my domestic BMI travel.

    • Mr. AC says:

      Wow! I’d love to read a blog or forum post from those times describing this. Rob, you should do a one per month / quarter retrospective article about the good old days for youngsters like me…

      • Rob says:

        Ah yes. Russia was treated as Europe, so IIRC redeeming to Vladivostock cost the same as Paris. The only Star Alliance route to Vladivostock was via Tokyo.

        Obviously you had to be hand baggage only and it only worked on the outbound. On the return from Tokyo you’d obviously need a full price ticket, assuming you didn’t want to go through the many hurdles of doing a turnaround in Vladivostock.

        It was only about 2 years ago that Avianca (?) closed the loophole that put Caribbean Islands in the same price bracket as their ‘parents’. Curacao was treated as Dutch, so UK – Curacao would price at UK – Amsterdam. Barbados was UK, so UK – Barbados would have priced as a domestic flight. The issue was that Star Alliance had no way of getting to most of these places.

  • BJ says:

    This game is driven by present and future opportunities, not the past. The review makes the

    • BJ says:

      …book sound like it is little more than a tedious trip down memory lane of long-gone opportunities.

      • R01 says:

        Websites like this one are for present and future opportunities. This book probably isn’t for you by the sounds of it; or the history/biography genres in general

        • BJ says:

          Probably right. I never read them. Besides I’m unconvinced 40 million miles was all that spectacular in USA way back then. In late 90s it was very simple to earn a million miles in UA MP alone just by flying. The other thing that struck me from Rob’s review is that Belkin followed a very active game strategy while I personally think the most satisfaction can be derived from our hobby by trying to find the more passive less active sweet spot where reward for effort is optimal. I just don’t think I would find the hobby satisfying were I to follow a hard core active strategy like Belkin. But no problem with people who do.

          • Rui N. says:

            Like Rob explains in the article, it’s totally the other way around. Back then to rack up miles you either had go fly a lot, or do a lot of creative stuff using the various promotions that show up. Nowadays (ie since after the 2008 financial crisis) you can just sign up for credit cards and you can get a few hundred thousand miles per year. If you want to do MS, even light one, or if you are a high spender, it’s not difficult to get 1 million per year – and today is relatively worst than it was a few years ago (because some banks have limits on sign up bonuses); around 2012-2014 was the peak in terms of opportunities (I was getting 500k hilton points per year with free credit cards and no MS; I was able to do $240k MS per year between myself and the Mrs by spending 30 min per month).

          • BJ says:

            @Rui, in 96 or 97 I flew to Rio via stopovers in NYC and Miami on AA simply for buying a case of wine costing around £50, there was nothing creative about that. The best part was getting a letter from AA a few weeks later with paper reward vouchers IIRC that I then used for another trip to Toronto and Montral with stopovers in NYC again. Details are a bit sketchy, so much water under tge bridge since then but that is roughly what I got out of it.

          • will says:

            Rui I totally agree.

            It might have seemed “easier” to earn miles/points back then but the reality is that information was not available like today and you had to be willing to do some pretty extreme things by most peoples standards.

            Even now there’s people who hesitate even for signing up to credit cards for the bonus or taking a punt on going to town on a particularly good offer needing to check with others before jumping in. I can’t imagine them jumping onto a 26 segment flight at a moments notice or arranging a small army of paid frequent flyers.

            Still some amazing opportunities out there if you do things that are a bit beyond the norm.

            Personally flew 4 of us first class to Japan for the rugby world cup on the back of a joker from GGL which I attained through a couple of TP runs. We boosted our avios stash with the tesco christmas saver offer. The sands shift but there’s usually something out there if you keep an eye out.

  • Nick G says:

    Sounds like a film script….

    • Andrew M says:

      Been done already, well a documentary.
      Steve is the first person you see in the film.

    • BSI1978 says:

      Possibly, although not sure in this climate that any 🎥 purporting to glamourise extensive overseas travel (even if depicting what has already occurred) will do too well…

  • CarpalTravel says:

    “Matt, Damon”

  • Roger Everitt says:

    For those that can’t wait for Prime, the book is also available on Kindle….for £5.67

    • BJ says:

      Check if it is on Audible or Kobo; if so then you could listen for free on a trial.

  • Anna says:

    The book is available for Kindle (a couple of £ cheaper than the print version), I might get it for my limited luggage Ryanair flights!

  • Ls says:

    I’m always amazed to the extreme lengths some will go.
    The worst I did was ordering some several hundred used ink cartridges off eBay to send to Tesco. Which will automatically put me in the top 1%, but light fry compared with this!
    There seem to be very few ‘gaming’ opportunities at present though. It is these unusual sweet spots that make it fun. But they seem to have stopped.

    • Polly says:

      My shame was the 2 Tesco printers, we sadly discovered we didn’t need after all. And the pre game orders at a fiver each… going to the till with the list of order numbers, very kindly supplied by others on here…

      Too late to the party with the hotels now, it seems….

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