February 4, 2000

Engineer finds sweet travel deal in cups of pudding


By Kathleen Holder

David Phillips says he still likes eating the chocolate pudding that helped him win more than 1 million frequent-flier miles.
Tony Novelozo/Axiom photo

In the mileage-hungry realm of frequent fliers, Facilities Services civil engineer David Phillips is now an international legend.

Phillips–also known as the "Pudding Guy"–has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the London Times, on the "Today Show" and on radio programs as far away as Italy. He’s a hot topic of Internet bulletin board exchanges. Friends and associates seek his advice on the latest promotional contests.

All because he parlayed $3,140 worth of chocolate pudding cups and other Healthy Choice products into 1.25 million frequent-flier miles. That’s enough for 50 roundtrip flights anywhere in the United States, 21 trips to Australia and back or 31 trips to Europe–worth, by Phillips’ count, as much as $150,000.

"I’ve done similar things in the past but nothing that’s worked out this well," Phillips said.

Last May, Phillips noticed a Healthy Choice promotion that offered 500 miles for every 10 bar-code labels sent in by Dec. 31. An early-bird special offered double the mileage–1,000 miles for every 10 bar codes submitted by May 31.

With just three weeks to meet the early-bird deadline, Phillips went through much of the Healthy Choice product line–from soups to cereal, popcorn and pasta sauce–before finding the gold mine: chocolate pudding cups selling for 25 cents each at a discount grocery store in Woodland.

With help from his mother-in-law, he hit every Grocery Outlet store between here and Fresno, filling a van with thousands of pudding cups.

All in all, he bought 12,500.

Phillips and his wife, Cindy, peeled off most of the bar codes themselves. But with time running out, he made arrangements to donate the remaining pudding to the Salvation Army and have their volunteers remove the labels. In donating the food, Phillips also earned himself a sizable tax deduction.

While many of Phillips’ co-workers liked the pudding he brought to the office, he said his 5- and 7-year-old daughters are sick of it–"Too much of a good thing."

His wife thinks the whole episode is funny, he said. "She never thought we’d get the miles. I got the feeling she was just humoring me throughout this whole thing."

During spring break, he and his family will use their first free air miles for a trip to Milan, Barcelona and London.

A first-class trip to New Zealand is planned next year as a payoff to his wife, Phillips said. "She got blisters pretty quickly from peeling off the labels, so that was my bribe."

Phillips’ experience in recognizing a good gamble goes back to his undergraduate days here.

When he was earning his engineering degree, he became an avid blackjack player and learned several card-counting techniques. He said he might have become a professional player except for the cigarette smoke in the casinos.

Some of his job skills also came in handy. He used spreadsheets to track and plan every detail of the project: How many cups of pudding were needed for a ticket to the Caribbean island of Aruba? 300. How much pudding will fit in a Mercury Villager? 3,456 cups. And because he monitors the campus’s compliance with conditions of its environmental permits, he said he was well-versed in reading the fine print.

But the worldwide media attention is new. "The last time I was in the newspaper for anything I did was during high school when I plugged up an irrigation canal in Fresno. That article wasn’t too positive, but I suppose it was the start of my career as a civil engineer."

Now he’s considering a new frequent- flier promotion offered by a group of airlines in South and Central America: Fly all 10 airlines in six months and win a million miles.

"I’m thinking about a 48-hour run to Central and South America–10 airlines and nine different countries."


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Dateline UC Davis is the faculty and staff newspaper for the University of California, Davis.