Airline mile programs may not be as lucrative as they once were, but one man proves loyalty can still pay handsomely.
Tom Stuker, who owns an automotive sales and dealership management consulting company, recently surpassed 19 million miles on United Airlines, the most of any flyer in the 37-year history of the MileagePlus program.
To say that Tom Stuker has traveled a lot would be a gross understatement. Stuker began flying on United in 1970, when he traveled regularly from Chicago to Hawaii and cities across Europe for work. He recalls becoming one of the first to sign up for the carrier’s MileagePlus loyalty program back in 1982. Within months, he earned enough miles to join the Million Miler club, which is United’s program that acknowledges travelers who have flown at least a million miles.
“I get taken care of more than I ever expected by United’s employees,” Stuker told MagnifyMoney. “I have 30-plus years of friendship with many people at the airline.”
Since joining the loyalty program in the 1980s, Stuker has racked up more than 510,000 miles each year. Maintaining his mileage is a lot easier than it might seem. Stuker’s consulting job has him traveling the world, especially trips from Newark to Sydney, which clock in at nearly 10,000 miles each way. These days, he travels, on average, about 15 days a month. He also earns a higher number of bonus miles based on his fares, plus he gets a 50% bonus for booking flights in United’s business- and first-class cabins.
We managed to track down Stuker to talk to him not only about how he racks up hundreds of thousands of miles each year, but also all the ways he uses his miles.
The many perks of million-mile status
Statuses on statuses. One million-mile travelers get lifetime MileagePlus Gold status and can share it with a spouse or or significant other. Because of his miles, Stuker has lifetime Global Services status. United doesn’t release details about Global Services or how members achieve it. It’s a special designation given to flyers who, among other things, spend a lot of money on United’s premium cabin flights, control a large amount of corporate spending or have flown more than 4 million miles in their lifetime.
Party with United’s CEO. When Stuker hit 10 million miles on United on July 9, 2011, the airline threw a party for him at the United Red Carpet Club at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Those in attendance included his friends, family, United’s then-CEO and top leadership and United personnel.
Your personal on-call travel concierge. United Airlines does not reveal the perks offered to Global Services members, and Stuker, like many members of this elite club, didn’t want to reveal them to the media. However, we were able to get firsthand accounts from several GS members who agreed to speak off the record. Their accounts were confirmed by Henry Harteveldt, a former Global Services member and travel analyst for San Francisco-based consultancy Atmosphere Research Group.
“Members have their own dedicated phone number for assistance and reaccommodation,” Harteveldt said. “That number is served by a group of agents who are known as the best of the best for United. They are trained to know how to look beyond what they see on their computer screen to help Global Services members any way they can.”
Get an entire plane named after you. United named a Boeing 747 in Stuker’s honor for his 10-million-mile celebration.
Throw out the first pitch at a major league baseball game. United arranged for Stuker to throw out the opening pitch at the Cubs game at Wrigley Field on July 16, 2011.
First dibs on flights after delays or cancellations. The primary benefit of Global Services membership is that members get bumped to the top of the fly list regardless of the fare they paid when flight delays or cancellations happen, Harteveldt says.
Creature comforts. “You do also get priority upgrades and the benefit of boarding flights ahead of all paying customers,”Harteveldt said. “Global Services customers also get their first choice of main courses during meal service.”
First-class dining options is one perk Stuker didn’t mind talking about. The food served on his flights has forced Stuker to pick his battles in the war on calories. His favorite? The lobster mac and cheese.
A new travel family. Stuker said he was especially touched when United presented him with a photo book journal that listed all flights he took to get to 10 million miles. It also included notes from friends, family and United staff he knew from over the years.
What does one do with 19 million airline miles?
Fair question. We asked Stuker to tell us how he even begins to spend all his miles. Here are a few of his favorite ways to cash them in:
Charitable donations. Points and miles aren’t just good for booking vacations and scoring free gift cards. These days, charitable organizations routinely accept miles and points as well as cash donations.
Stuker says he feels strongly about donating his miles to charitable causes when he can. So long as his United card is open, his miles never expire, but even he acknowledges that realistically, he’d never be able to use them all.
“I have a friend in Australia who lost his son to brain cancer three years ago,” Stuker said. “So I donate between 1 million to 2 million miles, plus taxes, a year to auction off flights for four couples from Australia to the United States to benefit his charity.” After the couples are chosen, he uses his miles to book their trips.
In 2017, Stuker’s donation helped raise $58,000 for his friend’s charity, Bailey’s Day. “That was one of the happiest days of my year. I’m happy that I can do this with my miles,” he said.
The family vacation fund. For the lion’s share of his travel, he uses United’s MileagePlus website, where can book flights, hotels, cruises, rental cars, gift cards, dining, subscriptions and experiences. He supplements his miles by using a rewards credit card for hotels and car rentals, and points accumulated on the websites of their respective loyalty programs.
“Just this morning, I booked a weekend with my wife at one of the finest resorts in Mexico,” he said. “I also booked cruises on Crystal and Norwegian for my kids.”
Christmas is a lot of fun for Stuker, too, when he uses points to book family getaways. “The week between Christmas and New Year’s, my wife and I go to a resort. Last year, we went to a villa in Thailand,” he said.
Spoiling friends and family. Stuker isn’t stingy with his miles, and he’s willing to give them away with one condition: “I just ask them to pay the taxes.”
Thank-you gifts for his United family. And Stuker uses miles to support the United Airlines employees who he says do a great job supporting him and all passengers. He and his fellow Global Services travelers band together to buy gift cards and hand them out during the holidays to airline workers including the United Club lounges and crew members.
“These people are like family to me. I know about them and their loved ones. I’m loyal to the employer of all my global friends,” Stuker told MagnifyMoney. “So many employees know my family inside and out, and I want to show ways to thank them all.”
On his way to his next milestone
Stuker is on target to hit 20 million miles sometime in the summer of 2019. But despite all his travels, his favorite place to visit is home. “I’ll keep people posted via my FlyerTalk thread on the progress achieving that 20 million milestone,” he said. “But right now, my family and my health are number one.”
Of course, you don’t need to marry yourself to one airline to score travel rewards, especially with so many new ways to rack up travel points and miles with credit cards.