There are tricks and then there are tricks. This is one of the dirtier ones.
The great thing about first-class tickets is not only the first-classiness of it all but it often includes lounge access. These tickets are also fully refundable.
Do you see where I'm going with this? It's something that verges on tawdry and ingenious. Last year, this became big news when a Chinese man bought a first-class ticket on China Eastern Airlines and repeatedly used it to gain lounge access, eat to his heart’s content and then would change the date before the plane departed (for free). Rinse, repeat, and that's how you get lounge access without jumping through all the hoops.
FOX News explains how this works:
The man flashed his ticket (which was legit) to lounge staff before his trip, hung out and ate a meal just like any first class traveler would, and instead of getting on the flight would change his flight's departure to another day. The next day he would show up with his newly issued ticket for the revised date, stroll into the lounge, eat hang out and change his ticket date again. He did this over and over again.
He actually did this over 300 times before the airline finally caught on.1
But there’s nothing in the rules that technically make this against the rules. And isn’t that what travel hacking is all about, working the system in your favor? Isn’t that something Wall Streeters do? Exploiting the loopholes in the system?
In fact, it wasn’t until Elite Daily posted this video of this travel hacker by the name of Justin Ross Lee who uses some of the dirtiest tricks in the book—and clearly just wants some attention—that it sparked a huge debate over at points and miles blog One Mile at a Time. Though most of the comments were clearly negative, it did bring up a lot of interesting points in what behavior was acceptable and what wasn't. (Personally, I'm not into it.)
Surprisingly, some people 'fessed up. Commenter Allison Bourne admits the lounge trick is actually a tactic that she uses frequently:
I sometimes buy a refundable ticket and go to the First Class lounge to watch a big hockey game, do some duty free shopping, have some nice food and wine. Then you just tell them that you left your medication at home and can’t travel without it and leave and refund the ticket.
I get it, and trust me, I see the appeal of basically eating and dining to your heart's content. But it requires a more-than-average predisposition to put with the hassle of going to the airport if it's clearly out of the way. But some people backed her up, chiming:
I don’t think it’s unethical to book full-fare first class tickets to use the lounge and then cancel after such use. That’s the way the system is rigged and he smartly takes advantage of that. I wouldn’t want to spend so much time at airports but to each, their own.
Is what Justin Ross Lee does any different from the average “travel hacker”? If you’ve followed the blog for a while, you’ll know we don’t really advocate manufactured spend or credit card churn. That’s because, in addition to encouraging a lot of potential fiscal irresponsibility, it raises a lot of ethical questions. (I’ve mostly earned my huge cachet of miles the old-fashioned way.)
One Mile at a Time commenter Ben pretty much hits the nail on the head for me:
I almost went off on a rant on my moral high ground about how this is really unethical [but] then I thought about it some more and realized this is not too different from people who sign up for the AA Executive card for the 100K sign-on [bonus] and cancel the card right after the miles post and get their annual fee back. I didn’t do it but I didn’t have an issue with that. I can’t quite point my finger on why the lounge access trick is unethical to me but the 100K sign-on thing is not.
Is it the multiple abuse of this policy that we’re so deeply against? Or is it just the fact that instead of being subtle about it—while the rest of us just hang out on Boarding Area and FlyerTalk—he just openly manipulates the system? And just because the party that gets hurt the most in the process is a multimillion-dollar company, does that make it any better?