Parked in the alley behind my apartment in Los Angeles, I sat with an X-Acto knife in one hand, a pair of scissors in the other and as many boxes of cereal as I could cram into my compact car. I had very little time to come up with the 16,000 miles I needed for free air fare to India. These 160 boxes of cereal were just the ticket.
I had planned my trip to India based on how far I could get with the miles in my American Airlines frequent-flier account. I had 94,000; I needed only 70,000 for a coach ticket to New Delhi, thus saving me about $2,000 in air fare. I planned to go during the Christmas holidays, and even though it was only August, flights were beginning to fill. Taking one of the few remaining coach seats on Japan Airlines, or JAL, an American affiliate, with availability even close to when I wanted to travel, I reserved my seat and began planning the land part of my trip. JAL holds reservations for up to 30 days, but you can call back and reserve them again for another 30 days up until two weeks before departure.
I had remembered to re-reserve my ticket in September, again in October, but by November I was so engrossed in planning that I forgot to book my ticket. When I checked again on the first Saturday in November, my reservation had expired. The only seats were in business class, which required 110,000 miles. I was 16,000 miles short. I had already put down a nonrefundable $5,000 for my land costs, so I begged the agent to check for anything even remotely close to my now etched-in-stone land travel dates. Nothing. My options looked dismal. I could buy a business-class ticket for $4,487. Or I could try to earn 16,000 miles.
My credit card is linked to my miles at a dollar-per-mile rate, but a $16,000 shopping spree didn’t seem cost effective. My long-distance service pays five miles per minute. To make it, I’d have to talk for 53 hours. Pass. But halfway down the page on my mileage summary statement was a promotion: Earn 100 miles per box on participating Kellogg’s cereal on a promotion that lasts until November 2002 (or while supplies last). At 100 miles per box, I could get 160 boxes of cereal at, say, about $4 a box, for $640. That was better than a $4,500 ticket. My quest had begun.
I zipped to the supermarket. Making eye contact with no one, I nonchalantly pushed my shopping cart to the cereal aisle, searching for the American Airlines airplane on the front of the boxes that read, "Earn 100 AAdvantage miles." The "participating cereal brands" were not the kinds of cereal I would actually want to eat. No, this offer was good only on the many brands formulated to promote health and regularity. Cracklin’ Oat Bran, All-Bran Extra Fiber, Bran Buds, Just Right, Complete Wheat Bran Flakes, Raisin and Strawberry-filled Mini Wheats, Product 19, and Mueslix. I began to pile boxes into the cart, managing to cram in about 50. In line, I pretended I was just another shopper. No one said a word at the first two grocery stores.
At the third and final store, the cashier asked, "Is this for your own personal use or a group?"
"Group," I said matter-of-factly. I would worry about which group later.
No one thought to list it in the specs of the car owner’s manual, but you can fit a lot of cereal into a Saab—160 boxes, actually, with just enough room to see out of the rear window. How would I explain this if I got stopped or had a wreck? Fortunately, I never had to work that one out, but I did have to figure out how to get the coupon off the back of all 160 boxes. Arriving home, I calculated the number of trips it would take to get 40 bags (four boxes per sack) to my second-story apartment and decided instead to remove the coupons in the car.
The operation entailed opening each box, prying the wax paper bag of cereal away from the sides of the box, then removing the bag without splitting or spilling it. Next, I used an X-Acto knife to cut two sides of the dollar-bill-sized coupon on the box, allowing just enough room to get my hand in to cut the remaining part with scissors. Then I put the cereal bag back in the box and closed it. One down, 159 to go.
By the time I reached 160, my thumb and index finger were swollen and numb. Foot-high stack of cardboard coupons in hand, I went upstairs to begin filling them out. A roll of address labels took care of some of the writing; I added my frequent-flier number, and I was done. Then I saw the fine print on the bottom of the coupon: "Allow six to eight weeks for processing." I was leaving in three weeks. I would call Kellogg’s on Monday to sort things out.
By now I was late for a party, a slightly overdue celebration of Mexican Day of the Dead. Guests were to bring a memento of a loved one and place it on an altar above the fireplace. Reverently, I placed a box of each kind of cereal on the mantel. "In honor of Gandhi," I whispered. It was a sure-fire conversation starter and a perfect segue to getting complete strangers out to my car to buy my cereal. "Hi, I’m Lori. Say, are you folks breakfast eaters?" Perhaps not the best icebreaker, but next thing I knew, those who recognized a great bargain when they heard one were out front buying eight boxes for $20, a steal for them, a small return on my investment for me.
Two people said they would love to help me but didn’t have any cash or a checkbook. I gave them my card, said they could mail me a check and sent them on their way with arms full of fiber. One guy never sent me a check; I figured it was his karmic debt to pay in the next life. I drove home 60 boxes lighter.
Monday morning I phoned Kellogg’s headquarters in Battle Creek, Mich. The customer service rep told me my award coupons could not be expedited, explaining, "If we make an exception for you, we’ll have to make one for everyone."
"Everyone who goes out and buys 160 boxes of cereal? I somehow doubt that’s going to be a problem," I barked, holding my bandaged hand to the phone. Following my motto of "the squeaky wheel gets the grease," I hounded Kellogg’s day after day, demanding to speak to a higher-up. Finally I got someone to expedite my claim and give me an actual person to whom I could express-mail my coupons.
With that part of the problem solved, I now had 100 boxes of cereal in my car to contend with. In the warm Southern California sun, that new car smell had begun to be replaced with the sickly sweet smell of toasted wheat, whole wheat with crunchy fiber, strawberry and raisin filling, and whatever those gooey yellow things are that stick to your teeth in Mueslix.
By now I had told some friends and family what I had done. They greeted this news with long silences. No, my brother didn’t want any cereal, and he would not ask his co-workers whether they wanted some either. I considered carting a trunkful to Phoenix for Thanksgiving for my mother to hawk to her bridge friends, but now I just wanted to be rid of those boxes. It was like driving the streets with a dead body in the trunk, only weirder. Driving in downtown Los Angeles, I spotted a Salvation Army store. The organization would love a donation of cereal, it turned out. I unloaded the goods and was later sent a receipt for a tax deduction.
While the blisters on my hand healed, I took time out during the next two weeks to check out JAL’s Web site. Under "Our Aircrafts" was the seat plan of the 747 I would be on: 315 coach seats crammed side by side and only 78 spacious, inviting business-class seats, of which I had one. Besides just getting my ticket, I was now getting to fly business class instead of coach. For twenty hours of flight time trapped in the cabin of a plane traveling halfway around the globe, this could be well worth the upgrade adventure.
Finally on board the plane, stretched out in my comfy seat, I was awakened by the flight attendant asking whether I wanted a Japanese or Western breakfast.
"What’s your Western breakfast?" I asked.
"Cereal," she said—Kellogg’s Product 19.
Who could resist the fruits of my labor?