Meet the ‘homeless man’ who flies the world first class

Editor’s Note: ‘The Silk Road: Past, Present, Future’ travels east to west along this ancient trade route, exploring how traditional culture, arts, and trade have developed in the 21st century. This month we visit the United Arab Emirates.

Story highlights

Ben Schlappig sees first class flights on Emirates as his "home"

Uses elaborate system of air miles and credit card points to fly virtually free

CNN  — 

For the last year and a half, Ben Schlappig has been essentially homeless. The 25-year-old American has no fixed address, nor the keys to his own front door. Why bother paying rent, he figured, when a bed was only ever a first class ticket away?

Schlappig is a “Hobbyist,” as those in the game call it – a professional traveler with an almost obsessive attention to fine print, who uses a mixture of frequent flyer miles and credit card reward points, to zoom around the globe for a fraction of the cost.

And in the kind of luxury mere mortals could only dream of.

Since he first started racking up air miles a little over a decade ago – yes, he was just 14 when he started this – Schlappig says he’s never flown economy on an international flight.

Which is no mean feat, considering the native New Yorker typically flies 400,000 miles a year – enough to circumnavigate the globe 16 times. Schlappig spends an average four hours on a plane each day, and takes at least one international flight per week.

When he is on land, the marketing graduate rests his head in similarly opulent hotels – though he doesn’t like spending more than three days in one place.

“The airplane feels like home now,” says Schlappig, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where in typical style he’s preparing to fly to Madrid the following day.

“I feel as at home in Emirates first class, as I do anywhere else. I know every aspect of the seats; there’s a certain familiarity with the staff; I tend to run into the same crews.”

Indeed, scroll through Schlappig’s Instagram feed and you’ll find photo after photo of obscene onboard luxury – shower spas decked out in marble finishing; double beds in private suites; silver service meals with enough champagne to make his 36,000 followers giddy with jealousy.

But as Schlappig is quick to point out in his hugely popular blog, called “One Mile at a Time,” this level of opulence is not beyond the means of the average traveler – they just need to be prepared to do their research.


1.) Credit Card Reward Schemes

  • “In the U.S., credit card companies have very lucrative programs where they give big sign-up bonuses. So you can get 50,000 or 75,000 miles just by applying for a credit card and completing a minimal amount of spend,” said Schlappig.
  • 2.) Mileage Running
  • “This is basically flying for the purpose of collecting miles. So I will find cheap fares and then specifically fly wherever those fares are – Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, wherever it might be –and you earn more miles for that, than the money you’re putting into that ticket,” Schlappig said.
  • 3.) Airlines selling miles at a discount
  • “American Airlines often sells miles for less than 2c each. Meanwhile, Etihad have the A380 they fly to London (that’s the one with the first class apartment everyone always talks about). So for example, you could buy 40,000 miles from American for less than 2c each, and use them on the first class apartment on Etihad,” explained Schlappig.
  • “Basically you’d be paying $800 for a first class ticket from London to Abu Dhabi. But if you were paying cash, that would cost you about $5,000.”

    “If it was easy and straight forward then everyone would do it,” he says, adding that Hobbyists are people who “enjoy reading the fine print,” and range from college students to 80-year-olds.

    “I think a lot of people are skeptical because we’re taught in our lives that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and that if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is. “

    Collecting miles is one thing. Redeeming them is “where it gets tricky,” said Schlappig.

    “The airlines make it extremely difficult to redeem those miles, by design, because they want you to be hooked on this currency.”

    And if anyone is willing to go the extra mile to maximize their points, it’s Schlappig, who became “voluntarily homeless” last year after moving out of his Seattle flat for good.

    READ: The best U.S. airline rewards program is…

    His obsession started as a 14-year-old when he saw a United Airlines flyer offering 5,000 extra miles for every segment flown.

    Schlappig convinced his parents to let him spend the summer flying across the country racking up points, promising their next trip to visit family in Germany would be on a first class ticket.

    By the end of the summer, the teenager had rarely left the airport, sometimes making eight flights over one weekend, and emerged with an elite airline status.

    How on earth did he get his parents onboard with such an extreme mission?

    “My older brother passed away at a young age, and before that my parents were always very focused on school and being successful later in life,” explained Schlappig.

    “And then with me, they were like ‘OK, you should enjoy your life,’ and saw that it was something I was really passionate about. I don’t think they ever thought I would turn it into a career. It was just a childhood obsession.”

    Read: Would you pay $35m to live like a cosmonaut?

    But when your home is always the nearest hotel, doesn’t it make it difficult to maintain relationships?

    “Frankly, I have a hard time maintaining relationships even when I’m in the same place,” says Schlappig. “So it’s hard, but my good friends understand what I do. As for romantic relationships, it’s a little more difficult.

    “But the bizarre part is I develop friendships with people that work all over the places I frequent. You might see them once a week for two minutes at a time, but in a weird way you pick up where you left off.”

    Even after flying some five million miles in his lifetime, Schlappig says he’s still just as awed by the experience as he was when he was six-years-old.

    “I get just as amazed as when I see a sunset from the sky,” he says.

    “Every single time, my eyes are glued to the window. And that’s something I don’t think will ever change.”

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