When he was just 15, Ben Schlappig flew alone from his home in Tampa, Fla., to Washington, DC — and then on to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Departing on Saturday morning, he returned to Florida via the same four cities by Sunday night, in time for school the next day.
“What safer way is there for me to spend my weekend than to drop me off at the security checkpoint?” asks Schlappig, recalling how he convinced his parents that his “twisted” fixation with planes, aviation and getting the most out of frequent-flier miles would cause no harm.
It would actually help them out. After scouring blogs, Schlappig determined that if he strategically airport-hopped around the US every weekend, racking up miles, he could earn four first-class tickets for his family’s annual vacation on swanky Lufthansa. “We would end up paying less,” he tells The Post. “And [Lufthansa] drives you to the plane in a Porsche.”
And so began Schlappig’s obsession with maximizing miles. Now, at age 25, he runs a company called PointsPros that teaches customers how to do it too.
With 5 million miles and 50 countries under his belt, the “Up in the Air”-style traveler hasn’t called any one place home since April of last year. That’s when he departed his home base of Seattle on a globe-trotting adventure fueled primarily by savvy transactions involving credit card points and airline miles.
If he’d paid for the sprawling journey out of pocket, Schlappig says, it would have cost more than $1 million. But, in reality, he’s spent a fraction of that total — “pennies on the dollar” — and is loving every second.
“I always wanted to be a pilot,” he tells The Post. “Almost 5 million miles later, I have the same kind of amazement by planes.”
Schlappig has spent years honing his techniques, continually refining and updating them as airlines change their rewards programs. Of the 560,000 miles he’s tracked since his most recent trip started, about 400,000 have been paid for with miles.
“My philosophy is always to earn and burn,” he says, likening letting miles pile up to keeping money in a bank account that earns no interest. “To travel internationally, I use miles and points — points earned through a combination of miles, credit card sign-up bonuses and credit card spending.”
Investing a little time and money results in a lot of luxury. Schlappig, who also earns VIP status at upscale hotels, describes how he seized upon an old promotion.
“After every two hotel stays, you got a free stay at any Hyatt in the world,” he says. “My local Hyatt [in Tampa] was $80 a night, and the Grand Hyatt or Park Hyatt in Sydney or Tokyo was $800 to $1,000. You were spending $160 to get a night at a $1,000 hotel.”
Plus, he’s turned his hobby into a full-time job, managing an eight-person consultancy team at PointsPros, and he earns income through ads on his blog, One Mile at a Time, which he tries to update eight times a day.
The strategies are endless, constantly changing and utterly intoxicating — as are the destinations they enable Schlappig to visit.
“As much as I love planes, they’re a means to an end,” he says. “The goal of all of this is to see new places.” Favorites include Bavaria, and New Zealand’s South Island.
But what about the pitfalls? The isolation? The uncertainty? The jet lag?
“For the sake of my health and remaining sane, I have to stop what I’m doing eventually,” says Schlappig, turning serious. “I don’t want to be 65 and traveling nonstop, alone. That doesn’t sound fulfilling. At some point, I would love a house and a dog and to be in a relationship.”
In the meantime, though, Schlappig is content to live out of a suitcase, taking off every few days and adding to his encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s airlines and airports.
For example, Thai Airways gives first-class fliers full-body massages before each flight, while Abu Dhabi-based Etihad offers apartments onboard. And Singapore’s Changi airport boasts a swimming pool and butterfly garden, while Norman Foster’s terminals in Hong Kong wow architecturally. Then there’s Emirates’ A380, which has a full bar, enclosed suites and luxe bathrooms.
“I may be jaded by now,” Schlappig says. “But showering at 550 miles per hour, 7 miles above the Earth’s surface — that’s pretty darn cool.”