Who Should Mileage Run?

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Thanks to nearing the end of the (elite status) year and the upcoming merger of the frequent flyer programs of US Airways and American Airlines, I am getting more questions about mileage running.  Most of the questions are coming in the form of “here is my situation”, should I mileage run?  Since this is a topic that seems to be on the minds and finger tips of several of you, let’s dig into the question of “Who Should Mileage Run?” a bit together.

What is a mileage run?

With almost 100% certainty, if you have to ask what a mileage run is, then you are a normal and sane person who should not do it.  A mileage run is a flight (or flights) that are taken not because you need or want to visit a destination, but purely because you want to fly around and earn the elite or redeemable miles that come from flying on most paid fares.  The goal of most mileage runs is elite status with an airline.  Many pure mileage runs result in the traveler not even leaving the airport, but instead going straight to another gate for another flight.  These days, it is the elite status miles that most are after on mileage runs, though the redeemable miles don’t hurt.

Do people really fly around without actually going anywhere?

Yes, people really do this.  Some (like me) do a few very simple mileage runs within the United States where you fly from your home airport to another and then right back in the same day, often on the same plane.  I have two mileage runs (in first class!) from Houston to Detroit this year where I head to the airport after getting my kid off to school, and return when school is done.  Those mileage runs were purchased for around $135 each round trip, and they don’t require me to miss very much at all on the home front.  This is the ideal mileage run situation for our family.

However, other mileage runs involve transiting many continents over a course of many days.  In other words, they can be very short and simple or last for days and involve tens of thousands of miles of flying.

Mileage running to get to the next elite status threshold:

Most of the time, the people who should consider mileage running are the ones who need another flight or two to get to the next elite status level.  This is the category I fall into.  I naturally would have ended the year a few thousand miles short of the 75,000 elite qualifying miles needed for United Platinum elite status.  There are tangible benefits at the Platinum level over the 50,000 mile Gold level that I will utilize, so instead of falling a bit short of that threshold, I booked a couple very inexpensive mileage runs to get me over the 75,000 mile hump.  Since I am online much of the day, I can often be in the loop on very low fares out of Houston on my preferred carrier (United), so my out-of-pocket cost for these mileage runs is just a few hundred dollars.

Earn elite status by mileage running

Earn elite status by mileage running

I do not think it would not make sense from a financial or time invested point-of-view from me to mileage run from 70,000 elite qualifying miles all the way to the 100,000 elite qualifying miles that would be needed if I was going to retain top tier United 1K status, but to get over the very next status threshold it can make sense.

If your carrier has a revenue component to elite status as United and Delta do, you need to also be aware of the revenue component for the different status levels.  For example, with United at the 75,000 mile Platinum level if you have a US address, you have to not only fly 75,000 elite qualifying miles, but also spend $7,500 in eligible dollars with the airline or have a co-branded card United card that you spend $25,000 on annually.

Mileage running to take advantage of an elite status challenge:

If you are starting from zero or changing your airline carrier allegiance, then it can make sense to mileage run as part of a limited time status challenge.

United MileagePlus Premier Status Match Challenge (relevant info available on the link), you will receive the status you are challenging for during the challenge

Delta Medallion Status Match Challenge (relevant info available on the link), you will receive the status you are challenging for during the challenge

American Airlines Elite Status Challenge: To request an American Airlines status challenge, you will need to call 1-800-882-8880.  There will be a fee and you will have 90 days to earn enough elite qualifying points to retain the status.  You do not get the perks of the status you are challenging for during the challenge.

Alaska Airlines Status Match: Now is a great time to request a match to Alaska Airlines elite status (this is a match, not a challenge that requires a minimum amount of flying) as it will be good for all of 2015 since it is after their November 1st cutoff.  Send an email with a copy of your current elite status with a competitor to elite.flyer@alaskaair.com.

US Airways Trial Preferred: Pay $200 for Silver, $400 for Gold, and $600 for Platinum status trials.

Then, over the next 90 days, fly a minimum number of miles on flights operated by US Airways or American Airlines to keep your Preferred status through February 29, 2016. If your trial began on or before June 30, 2014, you’ll maintain your Preferred status through February 28, 2015.

  • Silver: Fly 7,500 miles or 10 segments
  • Gold: Fly 15,000 miles or 20 segments
  • Platinum: Fly 22,500 miles or 30 segments
  • Chairman’s: Fly 30,000 miles or 40 segments

This means if you participate in a US Airways Trial and fly the 30,000 miles in 90 days to earn Chairman’s Preferred Status for 2015 that you will ultimately become an American Airlines Executive Platinum in the second quarter of 2015, complete with 8 system-wide upgrades that come with that status, along with the two that come from having US Airways Chairman’s Preferred Status.  Frequent Miler outlined this “Last Great Mileage Run” here, and that post is actually what promoted some to ask me if mileage running is worth it for them.

Mileage running and elite status are only worth what you get out of having the status:

When I first started going to miles and points events years ago, people would introduce themselves to me and say “Hi, my name is SuzySEA and I’m a United 1K/American EXP/Alaska 75MVP, what do you fly?”.  I would answer something like I’m Summer from East Texas and I like United (then Continental) miles.  I had no elite status and was totally unfamiliar with a world where airline elite status factored into an introduction.  For some this was just a conversation starter, but for others in this hobby elite status is a part of their identity.  That works for some, but for busy parents I don’t recommend going down that path at this point.  Assuming it isn’t a part of your self-worth or identity, your elite status is only worth the benefits you will get out of it the following year.

That means that before deciding whether to go for the US Airways Trial Preferred or any other offer, you have to do some real math involving the exact perks you will get from status, based on your travel patterns with that airline through the following year.  I will likely have 1-2 trips on US Airways/American Airlines in 2015, so even though getting Chairman’s Preferred Status looks great on paper, I will have no shot at recouping the time/money spent to earn the status if I have just a handful of trips on US Airways/American in 2015.  I could pull a handful of additional trips away from United and toward American to eek a little more value out of the status, but since I have Platinum United status next year, that doesn’t really make sense either.

If you are going to spend $2500 to earn elite status, you better get more than $2500 in actual benefits out of having the status.  This can come in the form of additional miles earned on paid flights, waived fees, upgrades you value at a certain level, preferred economy seats, and improved customer service.  The more you have plans to use those perks in 2015, the more value they likely have.  The more people in your family the benefits can extend to, the higher the value might be as well.  I also strongly encourage you to value your own time in this equation, as the time spent away from work or family doing this mileage runs should not be underestimated.

Time your challenges appropriately:

Most of the time you cannot simply challenge for a status again next year if you failed a challenge this year.  Some matches/challenges are once every five years, but it can be “once in a lifetime” (or as long as an airline remembers), so read the details carefully if you aren’t sure if you can meet the terms of the challenge.  Of course, in the case of US Airways, this is kind of a one-shot deal already anyway since their program will be going away next year, so there isn’t too much to lose when going for elite status with them.

You better love to fly:

Mileage running is a lot of sitting in an airport and airplane without the “light at the end of the tunnel” that comes from flying to get to a vacation destination.  You will be subject to a sore back-end, potential delays or cancellations, mixed service levels, other airline passengers, not-so-healthy food, crying little ones, and all the other “perks” that come from public air transportation.  Your view from the window will likely be spectacular, but you better love to fly if you don’t want to hate life while on mileage runs.

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So Who Should Mileage Run?

The ideal candidate for a mileage run would be someone who loves to fly, has the cash to spend, can find flights that ring in at about 5 cents per qualifying mile or less, and that is certain they will get more out of having the status over the next year than the are spending in both time and money to earn it.  I would also add it is all-but-imperative that your spouse or partner back at home is on-board with the plan, assuming that you have one.  A “best case” scenario would be if you could turn your mileage run into a “vacation run” where you get to make a short visit to a city instead of simply never leaving the airport.

Most people that read this site are best served not mileage running, but instead using the “elite like” perks that can come from having certain co-branded airline credit cards and splurging on using airline miles for first or business class seats when they want a more comfortable seat and improved customer service from an airline.

For the small minority that will come out ahead mileage running, safe travels, and I’d love to hear about your crazy flying antics along the way.

Comments

  1. I’m planning on MR on early Jan from DCA-DFW-SEA and hour later come back to complete my AA platinum challenge.

    Then I thought about tossing that plan out and go on to US Air trial preferred to Chairman(thus to AA EXP)

    But my wife nixed that idea…. as 30k miles in 90 seems to be too much for her to handle at home with 2 kids by herself.

    Summer, do you think it’s worth the effort to be EXP? Is middle tier elite status worth even having?? what’s your opinion on that?

  2. Nice intro article to mileage running. I would add that some (like me) are mileage running to try to hit a lifetime status – I’m trying to become a Million Miler with United so I will have Lifetime Gold status.

    I have about 150K more to go to him 1MM.

  3. That was me last weekend. Flew out to New York and back (via ORD and IAD) to bump myself up. Took a car into town, rode a bike around Central Park (on a beautiful day, no less), had a beer and burger at a pub, then took the subway and bus back to Laguardia. Worst part of it all was sitting around at Laguardia – I love airports, but I hate LaGuardia. Good time, almost worth it without any miles!

  4. That was me last weekend. Flew out to New York and back (via ORD and IAD) to bump myself up. Took a car into town, rode a bike around Central Park (on a beautiful day, no less), had a beer and burger at a pub, then took the subway and bus back to Laguardia. Worst part of it all was sitting around at Laguardia – I love airports, but I hate LaGuardia. Good time, almost worth it without any miles! Good thing I have a very agreeable wife at home.

  5. AUS-ORD-SFO-LAX-ANC-SEA-DFW-AUS this December. At least I’m flying them in first class using a SWU on AA and there’s a lounge at every airport! $577 all in, enough to complete the AA free Platinum challenge I was offered. I really think I’m gonna hate flying on this one, but something I want to do regardless just for the adventure.

  6. Great post and good analysis on the subject. I wish I had had time on some MRs to actually take a couple of days but with family at home, they were mostly quick turnaround. I once did a back-to-back PIT-JFK-LAX-SYD-LAX-JFK-PIT that one would think would be absolutely grueling (on the ground in SYD for two hours) but mentally preparing for it and bringing enough work along actually made it not bad. How my body reacted to that much airtime at that high speed was a different matter! 🙂
    Favorite MR was a quick 4 segment, 8 hour day to just hit my A3 Gold status – on the same plane all day long!

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