Max Hodak Writings

Frequent flyer hacks

March 2011

I fly a lot. As in, I spend twenty hours a week on planes and made Diamond status on Delta in three months. Friends often ask me if there are any frequently flyer tricks they should know about, and the answer is “of course!”. I hear a lot about how much flying sucks (my favorite email so far: “Travel blows. Death seems easy by comparison. Never go anywhere.”), and there are definitely ways to make it more fun.

I fly Delta almost exclusively, so most of this article is Delta-specific, but not all of it. YMMV.

Always Fly The Same Airline

The first and most obvious thing is to make sure you always fly the same carrier. It’s stupid but a lot of people end up with a couple dozen thousand miles across a bunch of airlines, which are largely useless.

If you’re flying American Airlines a lot, you should start a Challenge. A Challenge is essentially a fast-track to status as long as you hit certain accelerated milestones; for example, earning 5,000 or 10,000 EQPs in three months rather than 25,000 or 50,000 in a year. Customer support sometimes likes to pretend like they have no idea what you’re talking about when you ask to start a challenge, and they’re not written about anywhere on American’s website or in other official materials. If frontline customer support isn’t talking, ask for their one-up, who should get you started.

Delta doesn’t have challenges, but they do have secret-ish promotions that if you figure out the URL and sign up for you’ll get bonus miles on certain routes. For example right now there’s RDU Bonus which gives you 5k - 50k bonus miles every time you fly in/out of RDU. There are a bunch of these going on at any given time; there’s also one that triples the miles you earn on SFO <-> NYC routes, and another that multiplies your miles by two or three for nonstop flight to non-hub cities, and so on. FlyerTalk usually knows about them, and sometimes you can find them on proper. Delta had at one point created a consolidated promotions page, but it moves around and can’t be trusted to be near exhaustive. Many of the promos I’ve made the most miles from I found on headrest displays cycling through as ads while taxiing. There’s also a Skymiles-for-companies program called SkyBonus. If you thought shell companies were solely the domain of large corporations trying to hide assets, you were wrong. Thanks to SkyBonus, a one-person LLC is like flying every flight twice! SkyBonus even has secret promotions of their own, to ensure you’ll be flying first for free next time you want to see China on a whim.

There are some programs, like FoundersCard, that can give you instant status on a few of airlines, but I don’t know of a neatly organized list anywhere.


Credit Cards are good for signup bonuses and multipliers, but your actual spend isn’t a good way to really efficiently earn miles.

If you’re just short of a status that you want to achieve before some deadline, an option is a mileage run. MRs were figured out by FlyerTalk and the basic idea is to find a route that covers lots of ground and is unusually cheap due to whatever strangeness of the market determined pricing. The point is that you can spend a weekend flying some cheap itinerary for the sole purpose of earning miles (and, I guess, seeing new places) and doing it with really high efficiency; the key metric is miles per dollar. The four-minute-mile of mile runs is the two-cent mark.

Avoid lifestyle airlines that don’t have the network you’ll want when redeeming your award tickets (this means you, Virgin America) Why would you ever earn miles on an airline that doesn’t fly international? Status makes flying nicer, but a few hundred thousand miles on hand makes the Jetsetter deals seem like even better ideas than they already were.

At each level of status you get bonus mile multipliers, so it compounds. Once you’re Delta Silver you get a 25% bonus on whatever miles you fly, up to 125% at Diamond. It’s always easier to make money once you have it.

A perpetual fascination of the frequent flyer community is finding new exploits in incentive loyalty reward programs. This was started by Pudding Guy and the most famous example (other than pudding guy) was when a bunch of people figured out that you could buy new dollar coins from the US Mint on rewards credit cards and immediately deposit them to pay off the credit cards. These usually get plugged as soon as they’re written about the in the news, but a new one or two usually comes up every year with a three to four week window to go crazy.

Free Upgrades

I only fly Delta so it’s the only one I can comment on here, but for upgrades:

If you’re flying a multiple-leg trip, make sure you ask the gate agent about the upgrade list before check in starts at each airport and mention your status. They often (>50% of the time) lose track of your status between legs, so if you’re Platinum you might end up slotted for upgrade as if you were a Gold for some reason until you ask.

The 90% estimate for Diamonds is actually probably low. I’ve only missed upgrade two or three times as a Diamond, and I’ve even made it when I’d originally missed my flight (with upgrade confirmed) and got thrown into the standby-upgrade list for a later flight. Eight times out of ten when the gate agent says that first is checked in full an hour before boarding, you actually still get the upgrade; someone will miss a connection, or change flights, or a passenger is a “virtual” (i.e., rebooked on multiple flights to keep options open for a disrupted traveler), or something else.

Same Day Confirmed Fee Waivers

Gold, Platinum, and Diamond status on Delta brings with it a permanent Same Day Confirmed fee waiver. “Same Day Confirmed” is a fancy term for “you can make changes to your flights the day-of, but not earlier, and you still have to depart on the original day.” I used this rule to great effect whenever I wasn’t sure what time I’d be ready to leave: if I had long problem sets due on campus, or if I had meetings or dinners that might run late in CA, for example, I’d book an arbitrary early flight I didn’t have much intention of catching, and then just call Delta to alter the reservation to the flight I actually wanted to leave on when I was ready to go. Very useful!

The “you have to leave on the original day” bit me once when I was visiting Boston on a daytrip and missed my return flight, which happened to be the last flight out of the day. Remembering that there are thousands of ways to fly between two points via airlines, the standard hack to avoid this was to find a cool person on the Diamond Desk (most of them were!) who would book me through to a hub, at which point I became the airline’s problem. (The Diamond Desk once even booked me through to Atlanta knowing full well I’d be stuck there due to the connecting flights being sold out, but that Delta would put me up overnight and I’d be able to continue through on the same ticket the next morning!) However, in that one case there was no credible story of a connection being available through any of the hubs that night, and I had to buy an entirely new ticket at full price to leave the next morning, which was painful, if deserved.

Operational Upgrades

Official policy is that there are no complimentary Medallion upgrades on Delta when flying internationally. However, the operative words here are “complimentary Medallion”: they give a different kind of upgrade, the operational upgrade or op-up, all the time. Whereas a Medallion upgrade is meant to be a reward for frequent flyers (and, anecdotally, I’ve heard from many gate agents that on any given domestic flight the vast majority of the first class cabin are upgrades), an opup is used to resolve oversold situations.

Airline passengers are notoriously unreliable, and miss their flights all the time. So much so that if a flight is sold out, it’s in reality probably nearly 1.5 times sold out. Because passengers are so fickle, this usually works out just right at departure time, and obviously the airlines track the relevant data to build models to help them optimize passenger loads.

Anecdotal evidence for the frequency of opups is scattered, and there’s no real data on it that I could find. For what it’s worth, for two transoceanic legs in the past 6 months, I’ve been offered an upgrade twice. In the second instance, my girlfriend was flying with me and even though she wasn’t on the same ticket or a Skymiles member at all, they were able to get her a matching upgrade, too. So, though my experience here is limited, I’m led to believe that opups aren’t nearly as rare as one might be told.


Inflight wifi recently took off and it looks like it’s a winner-take-all market with Gogo / Aircell cleaning up. It only works within 100 miles of the coastal US since it’s ground-based (!) rather than satellite-based, and it’s generally pretty fast and reliable. Gogo has a list of participating airlines and the specific classes of aircraft that have it installed. Always check the aircraft make and model when you book your ticket! The difference between SFO -> DTW -> CLT and SFO -> ATL -> CLT might not seem meaningful, but it could mean the difference between having internet or not. Note that since Gogo is outfitted to an entire class of aircraft at once for each carrier, and you can confirm the aircraft type when you book your ticket, missing WiFi is totally Skykit worthy.

The inflight WiFi actively throttles connections so if you try and watch YouTube expect to be cut back. Skype doesn’t work well at all, but Gtalk can actually support videochat without much noticeable lag, or triggering throttling. I may or may not have heard a story once about someone bringing a femtocell on a flight with inflight WiFi and tunneling it through their Gogo-connected laptop to provide a 3G signal at 30,000 feet. (I’m pretty sure that’s against about 9,000 FAA regulations, though, and those fines aren’t cheap.)

As a side note, airport WiFi is hit-or-miss. It’s virtually always there, but often exorbitantly expensive. Luckily, there’s a workaround: sit near a Delta Skyclub. SSID tmobile provides free WiFi for the club, which is generally detectable at the gates immediately adjacent. The same thing is true for many airport Starbucks.

All of this obviously kills your battery, which brings me to:

Inflight Power

On Delta, first class 757s usually (but not always) have full power outlets at the seats. Cross country flights on 757s virtually always do, since they’re international-class aircraft typically continuing on to an ocean crossing. Every airline seems to fly their nicer planes and trimmings through New York as opposed to any of the other major hubs for some reason. First from Atlanta to the West Coast means a slightly bigger seat and an outlet. First from JFK means BusinessElite with lie-flat beds.

Even if you’re not in first class, there are still outlets, though they’re hidden: flight attendants have 120 volt sockets in each of the galleys. It’s obviously hit-or-miss, but if you know what you’re looking for and are polite it’s rare to actually get turned down. They’ll tell you that they’re “unregulated” and might spike, killing whatever you’ve plugged in, which I don’t think is actually true. They’ve never killed anything I’ve plugged in, even in storms, and I actually looked once at the noise spectra on the line from a galley outlet and the noise from a seat plug in BusinessElite first, and they were identical. I’d be surprised if they’re not actually on the same bus.

Check-in cutoffs

At thirty minutes prior to departure, Delta closes check in and kiosks will start refusing to print boarding passes. At this point it’s true that if you have luggage to check, you’ve missed your flight. If you only have carry ons, go talk to the agent at the desk. For the next five minutes it’s still completely within their power to print a boarding pass and send you on your way. After that, once the gate takes control of the flight to start boarding passengers the front desk won’t be able to print boarding passes anymore. They can still call the gate and get “secondary authorization” from the gate agent in charge to do it, though. Whether or not they will generally depends on your level of status. I’ve never been turned away from a flight that hasn’t physically departed the gate by time I arrived at the airport, which is really more a reflection on how well Delta treats Platinums and Diamonds than anything else; but, being as little as a Silver can make a big difference when it comes to being five minutes late to the cutoff.

Which airline?

The first thing I said in this post was to pick one airline and stick with it, even if it’s a little more expensive every now and then (if it becomes always more expensive, though, it might be time to look at changing carriers). In general this is the major international airline who’s hub you’re nearest to; a quick way to guess at this is to see who’s reliably the cheapest on Kayak for the routes you most commonly fly. Going with a major international airline has the benefit of giving you the greatest flexibility in where you spend your miles, but more importantly they have a long track record of (a) not shafting their elites and (b) existing. If an airline goes out of business, your miles are perks are gone. Airlines are also known for downgrading privileges when the price of oil goes up or the economy is otherwise generally weak; the longer an airline has been around, the more likely they are to be somewhat insulated, and at any rate you’ll be able to get a better idea of what you can expect to happen to your miles and status in the event they decide they’re hurting for cash.

For what it’s worth, I’ve flown a bunch on US Airways, Continental, Virgin America, Jetblue, and (obviously) Delta, and Delta wins by a long shot. I wish Virgin American would merge with Virgin Atlantic, and that they’d add more routes all over the world. It’s an awesome airline, but they don’t have nearly the coverage (they don’t fly at all to RDU, which is where I spend half my week). Jetblue is sort of the same story, except not as awesome. Continental is a good, standard, boring airline; not quite as nice, often more expensive, and miles redemptions are subject to more constraints. As for US Airways, I’d never realized that airlines have implicit cultures before I flew US. US Airways has a very distinctive “middle-American” culture that contrasts starkly against Virgin, or even Delta, and I have to spend twenty hours a week there. But, that’s an individual thing and there are definitely people who prefer the opposite.

Grey Areas

This last part I’m a little mixed on writing. I don’t want to encourage these tactics, and if the airlines discover that you’re using them they can cancel your existing miles balance. I haven’t applied these methods, but I’m sure they work; and they’re interesting in that they give away information about the airlines’ businesses.

Throwaway tickets: For various reasons, roundtrip tickets are often cheaper than one-ways; so, if you want a one-way ticket, book a roundtrip and throw away the second half. Pretty straightforward.

Cheaper reward tickets: This is a variant of the throwaway ticketing idea, and stems from Delta’s incredibly silly reward ticket pricing algorithm. Basically, the price of an award ticket is the average of the price in miles of each leg, unless you’re trying to book a one-way ticket, in which case you pay the outright leg price. Therefore, not only is it virtually never cheaper to book a one way over a roundtrip, but you can always make the ticket cheaper by adding a throwaway leg, say three months from now at six in the morning. So, for example, say NYC - SFO is 60,000 miles and SFO - RDU is 20,000 miles, and you only want to fly NYC - SFO. You can either book NYC - SFO for 60k miles, or NYC - SFO - RDU for 40k miles. Yes, seriously.

Hidden cities: Similar to throwaway ticketing above, here you don’t even complete your one-way. Look at the cities that your destination connects to: is there a much cheaper ticket through to any of those connecting through your destination? If so, book that and get off halfway.

The moral: Always call the airline when you’re trying to book a complex ticket. There are literally tens of thousands of itineraries that will accomplish your intended travel, and the booking agents will know all the permissible tricks and can see all the options for creatively booking routes that may be vastly cheaper than what you’ll find neatly packaged online. They won’t suggest throwaway ticketing, but they may, for example, break up a complex trip into nested partially overlapping subtrips in a way that comes out much cheaper.


I get asked a lot how I can deal with flying so much. Really, it’s not that bad. If I weren’t on in an aircraft seat I’d probably be sitting in a less soft chair at a Starbucks somewhere, equally far from my laptop. Cheap air travel makes the world a much smaller place in reality than it may feel: if someone you need to talk to is in Texas, and you’re in New York, you can be there talking to them 5 hours later. Instead, for some reason, people let these things get in the way of actually getting stuff done. Air travel is really, really cheap, especially considering how much more effective it is to meet in person.