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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)

  • Sussex bantam says:

    Currently showing as out of stock _ hope you’re on a commission Rob !

  • Jimbob says:

    Damn, out of stock, and I don’t have a Kindle

  • ChrisW says:

    Reminds me of the good old days of US Airways Dividend Miles program with their very generous 100% bonus miles sales and geography-challenged redemption agents!

    • BJ says:

      The greatest thing about US was you could always count on getting a flat bed in Y before they were invented in J 🙂

  • Will says:

    It was available paperback early doors and the magic of HfP has ensured it’s sold out. Nice job. I am sure there are still opportunities on the multiple partner/stopover avios tickets that are not well understood. An article on this would be great

    • BJ says:

      There is such an article. I went to get it for you but it appears to be linking to the wrong page from Google.

      • BJ says:

        It is called ‘How does the BA multipartner award chart work but it is currently linking to another article ‘ How many aviis do I need.. ‘.Hopefully Rob or Rhys can fix it, it was a good article and may be very pertinent when we get creative with multiple 241s issued from September.

  • Can says:

    Makes me sad to hear yet another “good old days” story and how “great” the US credit card market.

    • Mikeact says:

      Here’s another one ! I’m down to my last million plus miles on both Avios and KL/AF, and that’s after many redemptions with my wife to many, many places including three times down under, and bar one that comes to mind, all by turning left. The airlines, hotels, banks etc., made it nearly impossible to not rack up numerous miles/points…in the US particularly.
      ps Anybody want over five hundred NW boarding cards !

  • LS says:

    Ah yes. I forgot my BA avios SYD – SIN flight redemption I did. Via London. Great one that one!

    • Andrew M says:

      I thought Avios flights were charged by segment? Are you saying you were charged the SYD-SIN mileage for a SYD-SIN-LHR-SIN redemption?

      • LS says:

        Yup. Used to be charged point to point, but changed 5 or so years ago. I think it went SYD-LHR (direct flight per the booking system, but of course technical stop in SIN), then LHR-SIN. Couldn’t stopover in SIN on the way out, but could stopover for as long as you wanted in London. Avios availability was the only issue, and was slightly better in F than J.

        • Will says:

          AFAIK it’s still possible to ask nicely and get LHR-SIN-SYD for same miles as LHR(-SIN)-SYD – if you are on the phone as they are released – you can then get 4 seats (maybe 8 now that BA release more per flight)

          I got this once for 4 of us. Maybe I just got lucky…

  • T Butler says:

    He sounds a very sad character with psychological issues. You have prompted me to want to read more about him.

  • Jody says:

    Sounds like a really interesting book!

    I was much more of a couponer back in the day (I’m sure Rob and probably others on here remember the paid to shop forum!).

    I became a single parent when my kids were aged 2 and 3, and joined the police the same year. A combination of couponing and gaining huge amounts of clubcard points (anyone remember the great Johnsons baby talc deal?) meant that I got to take my kids to Orlando twice, Lapland, buy a car from motorpoint all on clubcard points, things I would never have been able to do otherwise.

    I also managed to pay huge amounts off my mortgage from the money I saved by using coupons, and after around 7 years in the job go down to 30 hours a week. It certainly meant we got by very well, and I’m very grateful for that period of time.

    I always remember Rob being very helpful on PTS, and my first (and only) experience with being able to get business class flights for me and the kids was with Aer Lingus, as it was when it was a much lower amount of avios to get to Boston I think it was? We used it as a base to travel round. Could only get 2 business seats each way, so the kids had to take it in turns in business with the other one in economy. What a mean mother!!

    My circumstances have changed a lot since then, but I fondly remember going to Tesco at least twice a day accumulating points and paying hardly anything using coupons. And going to the Good Food Show to collect hundreds of the coupon booklets they used to give out.

    Ah, the good old days!

    • Mike says:

      Jody – thank you for your service.

      • Jody says:

        Thanks Mike, that’s very kind of you. Been medically retired coming up 3.5 years now after 16 years of service. Sad to say I don’t miss it at all, really wasn’t the job I joined.

    • Jimmy says:

      Yes – thanks for your service.
      What a great story too! :).

      • Jody says:

        Thanks Jimmy! It was a great time, used to love sorting out my coupon stash ready for my trips to Tesco. Always a bonus when the Daily Mail used to print money off coupons for magazines, and I’d be down at Tesco buying a pile of 20 of them (using coupons to pay of course!).

        Even my kids got involved, our store was very coupon friendly, and I would give them a pile of coupons to get treats for holidays, or to buy Christmas presents for their friends (and their Mum, as my ex never did bother, but that’s an entirely different story!).

        It made life easier for us all – I got to drop my hours and spend more time with the kids, particularly in the holidays (again, no help from ex so it all fell to me), and we were able to enjoy holidays and extra treats that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford. And of course, the benefit of saving money and paying it off my mortgage.

        I’ll never be a big hitter in the Avios game, although now I’m married and we can churn cards, refer each other etc (definitely easier to accrue miles than when I was single!), and we’ve done a couple of business class trips (including our wedding in Orlando). Pretty satisfied with that.

        I’ll always look back on those coupon days fondly though!

    • LS says:

      Whatever happened to the PTS forum? I just stopped using it, and on looking now it has disappeared!

      • Jody says:

        I think it disappeared a few years ago. Once the couponing stopped (when Tesco and Waitrose would take any coupons even if you didn’t buy the product) and the extra clubcard points dwindled, then the forum got very very quiet.

    • Lyn says:

      Jody, what a lovely story. Good for you.

      Somehow I imagine there are a few of us that read your story with more interest than they can summon up for reading the book. It seems so much more real.

      • Jennifer Fletcher says:

        Heartily agree! Great to hear of a story that hasn’t just benefitted a senior exec in a global corp, good for you. Agree with Lyn, would love to hear more HFP reader stories!

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