Free flights within Australia? Sounds too good to be true. But follow in Chris Broadribb’s footsteps and you’ll learn how to hone Mystery Shopping into an artform that will take you to the skies.

Mystery Shopping is the closest I’ve ever come to being a spy. It involves visiting a business acting as a normal customer, while secretly taking note of the cleanliness, stock, staff presentation and quality of service, then logging your comments via an online survey. Companies of all sizes use Mystery Shoppers to get a realistic assessment of how they’re performing – like a regular and unbiased report card.

It’s free to become a Mystery Shopper, but getting flights can be tricky since not all customer service evaluation companies handle airlines. But the one I’ve worked for, Customer Brand Services (, does. Even so, you’re not likely to land airline assignments right away. I had to build up a good shopper rating by completing numerous mundane, low-paid assignments for banks, pharmacies, insurance companies, mobile phone stores etc.

For the first two years I received emails about available flights every month or so and applied for a number of them, but heard nothing back. Then, finally, I received the reply I’d been waiting for: a free return flight from Sydney to Perth, followed later by two flights to Melbourne and one to Cairns. Even more recently I landed another Sydney to Perth flight – happily, just in time to visit family for my birthday.

Flight surveys are quite detailed, and there are six to fill out: three for the forward journey, three for the return. The departure and in-flight surveys are the longest (How long did you queue at check-in? Did the staff member give you a friendly greeting? What about hair and uniform; were they neat and tidy? Did they use your name to greet you?), while the landing surveys are the easiest. Although I usually have to rush to the baggage carousel to time how long it takes for the first bag to arrive, then loiter until the last bag appears. (I generally sit on a chair nearby and hope I don’t get challenged by security guards.)

The trickiest part is surreptitiously obtaining staff members’ names. The rules state all too clearly that, should you fail to do so, your surveys will be rejected and you’ll have to stump for the cost of the flights. So be ready with a plethora of stupid questions to lure staff close enough to take note of nametags. Even though I have a computer science degree, you’ll often find me feigning bafflement at computerised check-in kiosks, imploring someone for help. I’ve also played the impatient customer (to some acclaim), repeatedly approaching the desk at the departure gate to wonder aloud when for heaven’s sake everyone will be boarding, just so I could make doubly sure of names and scribble them down.

Soon enough you’ll become expert at furtively writing notes. Flight attendants frequently walk up and down the aisles mid-flight, and since other passengers generally just read books or magazines, filling out pages of survey sheets can look suspicious. However, I’ve discovered that there’s a window of opportunity during take-off, when the attendants are forced to belt in and sit down. It also doesn’t help that the rules require you to ask for an aisle seat at the rear of the plane – because the flight attendants’ rest area is also back there. I was once pencilling notes onto a napkin, thinking I was being discrete, when I looked around to see a flight attendant standing just behind my seat, watching me curiously. Oops.

They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch; however, these assignments do have a dining allowance. Although since it’s only $6 each way, it’s more of a snack than lunch, but at least you have time to note whether the staff members are polite and friendly, give the right change and provide receipts.

I always try to stay undercover, but there have been times when staff have been suspicious. Since my ticket is arranged by the airline, it shows their address instead of mine and a fare of zero dollars. One check-in agent asked me where I’d bought the ticket and if I was a contractor for the airline. I acted dumb (it gets easier after a while), and she let it pass. On another occasion, I walked past a staff member standing on the tarmac and tried to read her name badge, but it was obscured by her jacket, so I looked back to memorise her description, only to see her staring at me. Given the heightened security at airports these days, it’s not a good idea to attract that kind of attention.

The only slight downside to these free flights is that you have to arrange accommodation and airport transfers at your own expense – so it would be ideal to also get a mystery shopping assignment at a hotel or motel at your destination. If you do manage that magical trifecta, let me know how. And happy spying!

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