My 4 Continent, Free Flight Adventure

The following story is an excerpt from my book, Winning the Airfare Game (published by Hawk Ridge Press in 2001). It shows how using all three principles of getting lower airfares—being flexible, resourceful, and assertive—can result in a great travel experience. I turned travel problems into opportunities. Well, read on…

Putting It All Together

One summer I wanted to fly to a new country, as inexpensively as possible. Someone recommended that I try a courier flight. As a result of research and good fortune, I ended up taking several flights—to South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Hawaii, Australia, Europe, and Florida (all from California)—AND earned 50,000 frequent flyer miles without PAYING A DIME. In fact, I was paid to fly to all of these places.

At that time, Northwest Airlines offered 5,000 bonus frequent flyer miles for each transpacific segment; a round-trip flight earned 10,000 extra points. Hong Kong was the destination that I selected, since the points—over 25,000 with the 10,000 point bonus—would be enough for a free flight. I even decided to fly to Florida later that year with the award.

IBC-Pacific offered courier flights between Los Angeles and Hong Kong on Northwest Airlines for $350. Their flights stopped in Seoul, South Korea on the way to Hong Kong and in Tokyo on the way home. Quickly, I decided that $350 for flights to Hong Kong and Florida was a great deal. Unfortunately, IBC no longer offers courier flights. After using my credit card to hold my reservation with IBC’s travel agent, I called the airline, verified the itinerary, and requested a seat assignment. Being able to pay with a credit card and call the airline eased my concerns about the legitimacy of the courier operation.

Between making the reservation and the travel day, I paid for the flight, received a packet of instructions, and reconfirmed the itinerary several times. As required by the instructions, I checked in at a specific Northwest Airlines counter three hours before the scheduled departure time. The counter agent checked my passport, verified my seat assignment, and told me an IBC employee would appear soon. About 20 minutes later one showed. He gave me a manila envelope with the shipment manifest and nametags—so representatives in Seoul and Hong Kong could easily identify me.

In Seoul, I cleared Customs and met a local representative. A big relief was that I did not have to retrieve the cargo. The representative took the envelope and drove me to a downtown hotel; IBC paid for the Seoul hotel stay. I converted $20 and had dinner close to the hotel. The next day, I took a taxi to the airport, flew to Hong Kong, and met another representative. He told me to call the Hong Kong office two days before my return flight.

Eight days later, I called and was told to meet someone at the Northwest Airlines information counter 2 1/2 hours before the flight departure. That representative collected my departure tax (about $20), passport, and ticket, then checked me onto the flight. Having someone else take care of the check-in process for an international return flight is a true joy; it was one of the best benefits of the courier process. He told me that I had no duties for the return trip and left. I ate breakfast, bought a couple of duty-free items, and flew to Tokyo.

The Tokyo-to-Los Angeles flight was overbooked and I was the first passenger to volunteer to be bumped. In exchange for taking a different flight, I received a $400 check, a $600 travel voucher, and dinner at the Tokyo airport. I was concerned that being bumped would be a dereliction of my courier duties. However, since I had no duties for the return trip, my biggest risk was losing the $500 deposit. The $1,000 compensation for being bumped alleviated my fears of losing the deposit, so I let the airline bump me. About two weeks later I received my deposit.

All Northwest flights were full that day and I ended up on a mostly empty Singapore Airlines flight, with an entire row to myself. Even though I was bumped from the Tokyo-to-Los Angeles flight, I received the frequent flyer and bonus points from Northwest. In addition, I received points for the Singapore Airlines flight, which were transferred to a partner carrier’s program.

The following summer, I redeemed the $600 travel voucher for a Los Angeles-to-Sydney flight with a stopover in Honolulu. The cost was $626, so I had to pay $26. I had more luck, as the Los Angeles-to-Honolulu flight was overbooked and I was again bumped. This time I only got a free domestic ticket—which I later used for a San Francisco-to-Miami flight—and a comfortable flight on a half-empty Delta plane. Again, I received frequent flyer points for both flights.

In total, I spent $376—$350 for the courier flight and $26 for the Australia trip—and received $400—from the bumped Tokyo-to-Los Angeles flight. I came out $24 ahead. OK, counting the $20 departure tax in Hong Kong, I only came out $4 ahead. In addition, I received frequent flyer points for all except the Florida flights. I added over 50,000 points to accounts.

Originally, I planned on getting a free flight to Florida by redeeming 25,000 points earned from the Los Angeles-to-Hong Kong courier flight. The two bumped flights gave me a free flight to Florida—from the Los Angeles-to-Honolulu flight—and 15,000 more points—from the Los Angeles-to-Sydney round-trip flight. Instead, I exchanged 40,000 Northwest points for a San Francisco-to-Europe flight. However, there were no bumping incidents, so my free flights adventure came to an end.

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