This weekend Rolling Stone ran a great story about “hobbyists,” or people who game the airline industry and manage to fly all over the world for almost nothing. The focus of the story is Ben Schlappig, a guy in his 20s who has apparently managed to become a millionaire blogging about this lifestyle.
These hobbyists use a variety of techniques to rack up free miles, including things like putting charges on airline credit cards without actually buying things, and this:
Take the practice of “hidden-city ticketing” — booking your layover as your final destination, like buying a ticket from Point A to Point C, then sneaking away at B — or “fuel dumping,” a booking technique that confuses the price algorithm to deduct the cost of fuel from a ticket, often at an enormous discount. In this strange and risky world, black markets exist where brokers buy and sell miles, and Hobbyists pay others to fly in their names.
They also write custom code to hunt the Web for “mistake fares” posted accidentally by airlines and hotels.
The story ultimately feels like it’s halfway between Catch Me If You Can and Up in the Air, but for the internet age. If you’re at all interested in travel, it’s definitely worth reading.
Of course, as the author strongly suggests, and as many commenters have pointed out, the hobbyist lifestyle seems like an exceedingly lonely one. Schlappig spends most of his time alone in first class and in luxury hotels. And though I’d love to fly first class more often, I’d never substitute the mom-and-pop experiences I’ve had on the road with more stays in generic Hyatts and Hiltons.
In any case, what I took away from the article is that “budget” travel is more than just finding inexpensive hotels and flights. It’s also figuring out the ways to harness the system, to be smarter, and to be more creative. I have no plan to become a hobbyist, but I suspect travelers of all stripes could learn from them.
— Jim Dalrymple II