Recently, I lost my "premium" status with the airline. Something about having several credit cards under different assumed names... Regardless, for the business traveler, status is everything. It separates you from the "cattle" - the poor souls who have to stand in the regular security line, board in zone 4, gate check bags, sit in the middle seat at the back of the plane and pay $7.00 for a Miller Lite or some other crappy beer.
After spending a few years with various levels of status, I had grown accustom to perks. After all, I deserved it, going through all the unavoidable stress of travel for hundreds of thousands of miles. In fact, it has become a game with many business travelers, to the point where many have lost sight of what status really gets you. While there are many advantages to having status, a few can be gained through a little "creativity".
Anyone who knows me will translate that to a little Social Engineering. So, what follows are a few tricks I've picked up in the last 4 years of traveling with and without status. While most of these tricks are pretty harmless, all the usual disclaimers apply. Proceed with caution and don't blame me if you get busted...
It's always a pain to check luggage. Even on direct flights to the most efficient airport, having to stop at the baggage claim is just a hassle. And without any status, checking luggage is getting expensive. Most airlines charge you around $25 for the first bag. So, how does a hacker get around this? The easiest solution is carrying on luggage.
At first, this seems pretty simple, but times have changed. Where it used to be easy enough to carry on 3 or 4 bags and have plenty of room in the overhead bins, the airlines seemed to have gotten wise to this and instituted a few changes to squeeze out a few extra dollars from us travelers.
First, it is very rare that you will find a flight with more than a couple of empty seats and thus not much room in the overhead bins, since everyone else is maximizing their carry on luggage as well.
Second, the airlines have limited the carryon allotment to 2 items. The stated policy is something like "a carryon piece of luggage and a laptop bag, backpack or purse." They've even created an arbitrary size limitation on how large your carryon can be, presumably based on the size of the "typical" overhead bin.
So, here's where the hacker can apply some creativity. There is some ambiguity in what constitutes a laptop bag, backpack, etc. Wenger sells a pretty hefty backpack that expands to hold a lot of stuff. One thing I also like about the backpack is that it is collapsible, so if you have soft items or not as much that trip, you can put it under the seat if you run into a flight nazi/attendant. This bag also has outside pockets and loops on the straps to further extend its capacity. I know it sounds ridiculous, but sometimes every square inch of capacity counts.
Next is the carryon itself. After months of searching, I'm convinced that I have found the ultimate carryon. It's sold by a company called Eagle Creek, although I'm sure there are other manufacturers of similar carryons. The point is that the carryon includes a detachable backpack; so, is it one bag or two? Therein lies some ambiguity and with ambiguity comes opportunity to hack the system.
Story time: I was traveling in the UK with my special carryon and backpack. Since I was on a 3 week trip, I had really overpacked all my bags, but had somehow gotten out of the US without any problems. On the return trip, I noticed a sign indicating that all luggage would be measured at the security station. Hmmm, I wonder...just before getting up to the measuring device, I detached the backpack from my carryon. It was a tight fit, but the carryon (without the detachable backpack) just fit inside the measuring device. The security person looked at me sideways, but waved me on through. Whew!
Well, as soon as I rounded the corner, I noticed another sign reminding all passengers that they could only take on 2 bags. I quickly re-attached the backpack to the carryon and proceeded toward the gate. Luckily, the flight was running a little behind and the gate agents were trying to get everyone on quickly. If they'd had more time, I think they might have noticed how large my carryon was and busted me.
By the way, as a bonus, I've found that you can actually take a third bag, as long as you can convince the gate agent that it's just food. They seem to take pity on you since meals are very seldom served on flights these days. What they don't realize is that you can fit alot of "food" in a soft cooler.
Speaking of food, I recently discovered (quite by accident) a neat little trick to try on your next flight. I was flying home from somewhere out West on a red-eye and had planned on trying to sleep as much as possible on the flight because I had an event to attend just after landing. Wanting to be refreshed when we landed (and not starving), I thought I would ask one of the flight attendants if I could get a coke and some peanuts to keep at my seat for when I woke up, since I would likely miss the snack cart when it came by. Keeping in mind that I did sell it some by acting tired, etc., the flight attendant graciously gave me an unopened can of coke and several packs of peanuts. In fact, when I asked if they had any premium snacks for sell, he handed me one of those boxes and said, "It's on the house". Score!
Of course, when I got back to my seat, I quickly tucked all this food and drink away to avoid alerting any of the other passengers and tried to get to sleep. The coupe came when I just happened to wake up when the snack cart came by and was offered a drink and a snack by the same flight attendant. Go figure. I think that one reason the scenario worked was that I had boarded the flight before a lot of other travelers and the attendant wasn't very busy. Depending on your timing, your success may vary (see "boarding" section below). This trick has worked several times since, although one attendant seemed a little put out. I think she was just tired, and maybe I didn't sell it as well.
So, other than scamming extra food out of the flight attendants and taking plenty to eat in your "extra" bag, another trick I use is to take an empty bottle with me to the airport. After going through security (empty bottles aren't a threat to national security, so they let it slide), I then fill it up at a water fountain, or a fountain at a fast food restaurant (yeah, I know). The point is that I just don't like being held hostage and forced to purchase food or drinks at the airport. It's against the basic tenants of a free market system. </rant>
One other trick with food involves an accomplice. I was assigned a long-term project with several other consultants, one of which travels all the time and has double-diamond status, or something ridiculous like that. He also frequently books his travel at the last minute. While the boss doesn't like to pay a premium for the ticket, the consultant actually gets bumped up on the upgrade list, so he very frequently ends up flying first-class. Cool, huh?
Well, I'd be jealous if this guy wasn't so nice, and, as it turns out, we discovered a little trick. Basically, one time when the flight attendant asked him if he wanted something to drink, he said that he didn't drink, but could he send a friend a beer in economy class? To both of our surprise, the flight attendant said, "Sure. What seat is he in?" About mid-flight, the attendant shows up at my seat with a beer, compliments of my friend. Score!
One of the best advantages of having status with an airline is the ability to upgrade to first class and the opportunity to improve your seating in economy class. In fact, I recently found out how seriously the airlines take this after booking an international flight. I had picked seats that were designated "preferred" when booking the flight. At that point I had status, so there was no issue. The issue came later when I lost my status and the airline automatically moved my seat to another location. What? I thought there was some mistake and called the airline.
Sure enough, it's their "policy" to move passengers to non-preferred seats when they no longer have status. All right. So we're going to start playing this game now. The key to getting better seating is timing and observation. I've noticed on several occasions that the exit row will have empty seats on flights that are otherwise practically full. Why is this? Well, it turns out that the airline holds exit row seats for travelers with status and airline staff needing to ride along. I think they used to call it a dead-head (from the movie Catch Me if you Can).
So, if you watch closely and time it right, you can move from your seat to the exit row and end up with a free "upgrade". Everyone knows that the exit row is the next best thing to first class and therefore coveted by most frequent travelers. For me, it's the second exit row, isle seat, so I have plenty of room to type on my laptop (kinda like now :-)) unless I want to sleep. Then it's the window seat in the exit row so I can grab a bunch of blankets and make a little nest.
Anyway, the trick is to go soon enough to avoid being told to stay in your seat but late enough to make sure that the seat isn't taken by someone getting on the plane late. I also noticed one time that the airline had made the mistake of seating a young person in the exit row with his mother. Another passenger and I exchanges glances. We approached the woman and reminded her that for security reasons, minors are not allowed to sit in exit rows. We volunteered to switch seats with the mother and son before the flight attendant even noticed. Again, boarding early is key to this trick. Don't worry, boarding is next.
Allright, this may turn out to be the most controversial section of this post; so, if you get offended easily, you may want to skip it. I've never intended to hurt anyone or upset anyone unduly, but life is not fair and instead of complaining about other people getting things I don't think they deserve, I've always just tried to balance it out with my own sense of "justice".
So, with that disclaimer in mind and the fact that you've been warned, I'll let you in on a little secret...
There, I said it. Yes, I have discovered a way for a reasonably healthy, able-bodied male in his forties to board before all those travelers who paid all that money, or status, to fly first class. As usual, I came across this new trick somewhat by accident. Over a year ago, I had back surgery. While the doctor assured me that I should be able to recover in time to make a highly anticipated flight to Defcon (very poetic, right?), I wasn't taking any chances and really focused on my physical therapy. I was cleared to fly about 2 weeks early. I was in decent shape, working really hard at recovering and even jogging by the time I was cleared to fly.
The one caveat the doctor had was that I needed to wear my back brace on the flight, just in case we hit some rough air or something. I also needed to get up each hour during the flight to minimize the risk of blood clots. No big deal. I sometimes get restless on flights anyway, and being over 40, well... you know the rest. So, anyway, I didn't really think anything of it until I went through security and noticed the TSA staff treating me differently. You see, while I felt fine, I was walking somewhat gingerly with the back brace and had decided to change from my usual backpack to a rolling bag. I was surprised when the TSA person offered to lift my carryon onto the conveyor belt. Deciding to "seize the moment," I decided to let her help me. She even let me skip the metal detector, although she did "wand" me after I went through the handicap gate.
Hmmm. I wonder... Well, by the time I got to the gate, I had decided that I might be able to leverage this condition to even greater advantage. I shuffled up to the counter and asked the gate attendant if there would be someone that could help me with my luggage since the doctor had restricted me to lifting less than 5 pounds. She assured me that I could get all the help I needed, just to make sure I came up to the gate when she called for "pre-boarding". Of course I had noticed the old people, families with small children and people in wheelchairs before, but could I pull this off? Amazingly enough, it was actually quite easy. I just shuffled right up to the desk when they called for pre-boarding and voila! I was walking right past all those snobs in first-class.
During the 4+ hour trip to Las Vegas, I took several opportunities to remind the flight attendants of my condition, asking them to bring my bag down a few times to get stuff out of it. They were actually very accommodating and made it seem like they enjoyed doting on me, so I decided to see what other "rules" could be broken using this condition. During one period of turbulence the fasten seat belt sign came on. I noticed that one of the flight attendants was on her way to her seat, so I stopped her and apologetically asked if I could get up and go to the restroom. She said that I wasn't supposed to since the captain had lit the seat belt light. I explained that it had been over an hour since I had been up and reminded her of my doctor's orders... sure enough, she said, "You go right ahead, just be real careful, sweetheart." Noice!
So, the final coupe was coming up. Do I dare try to get off the plane early? Oh, what the hell. About 5 minutes before our landing in LAS, I got the flight attendants attention and told her I've really appreciated her help on the flight. I also slipped in how bad I felt that people would have to wait for me to get off the plane, but I had a connecting flight to catch in Las Vegas. She told me just to listen for the announcement when we landed. Sure enough, just after we landed, as we were approaching the gate, the attendant came on the PA and asked the passengers to wait in their seats when we got to the gate. As everyone watched, they came back to my seat, helped me get my bag from the overhead bin and escorted me off the plane before anyone else. I couldn't believe what was happening! As soon as I got out of sight of the gate, I texted my wife the whole story. Her response... "I bet you'll never fly without that back brace again". You'd better believe it!
Rental Car Return:
I had a recent situation that resulted in an interesting "hack". Since most rental car key chains have multiple keys on them and it's a pain to carry around the entire key ring, I make a habit of separating the rings. Well, when I went to return the car, I realized that another consultant I was traveling with had taken the unused keys with him when he got out of my car the previous day. After calling him and getting that all straightened out, I went back to my car and explained the situation to a supervisor. He asked me if I was in a hurry. Hmmm. While I wasn't in any particular hurry, I decided to see what he would say if I were. It turns out he had the ability to check in my car for me later and even give me a ride to the terminal so I didn't have to wait for the rental car shuttle. So, something to try if you are ever in a hurry to catch a flight or just don't want to wait to deal with all the crap at the rental car return counter. Just tell the person waving you in that you're late for your flight. They will rush you through the process and may even give you a ride to the terminal in your rental car.