Anatomy of a Mileage Run

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“So… you book a ticket and fly… just for the miles?”

It was clear she didn’t understand what I was doing. After all, who would fly from Los Angeles to Tokyo to Singapore, spend six hours in the Singapore airport, then fly right back to LA?

Who would do that? This guy. And I’ll tell you why, and show you why you may do it one day, too.

If you’ve heard me speak or taken any of my programs, you’ll know that earning airline elite status is the cornerstone of a successful frequent flyer strategy. Once you have status, the bonus miles make flying more rewarding, and the other perks make the travel experience much easier, especially when your upgrade to first class comes through.

Once you have elite status, odds are you’ll want to keep it.  I’m not ashamed to say that the perks are a little bit addictive.  You get used to the priority check-in and security lines, the lounge access, the upgrades, early boarding and heaps of bonus miles.  It gets to a point where the thought of flying an airline where you have no status is very, very unappealing.  As a Premier 1K on United, even when I’m in economy I board with Group 1, and never have to fight for overhead space for my carry-on.

After years of that, who would want to go back to middle seats in the back of the airplane, having to gate-check your bag and losing all hope of an upgrade to first class?

But not all travel years are the same.  This year is a great example: I only have about 12,000 elite qualifying miles on United so far in 2013. That means that – in order to retain my 1K status – I will need to fly 88,000 miles between now and December 31.  I have a few business trips booked for the coming months, but nowhere near 88,000 miles worth.  Knowing all the travel I plan to do next year, I don’t want to lose my 1K status.  This is where mileage runs come in.

A mileage run is a trip taken primarily or entirely for the purpose of earning miles. Not just the miles you can spend on free flights, but – more importantly – the elite qualifying miles that count toward earning status.  2013 has been an unusually slow travel year for me, so I will likely do several long-haul international trips just to earn enough elite qualifying miles to retain my status next year.  Sound crazy?  Not if you run the numbers.

United

En route to Singapore, I pulled out a pen and paper to illustrate to my seatmate exactly why I was taking this trip:

  • Airfare paid: $1,250
  • Miles earned: 35,102 (17,551 base plus 100% bonus because of my 1K status)
  • Cost per redeemable mile: 3.5 cents each.  (Not great, but the fare allowed an upgrade to business class, and I spent the miles for more than five cents each later anyway)
  • Free access to the United lounge at Tokyo Narita and a shower during my layover: Priceless

For my $1,250 airfare, I was flying business class to Singapore, earning about $2,000 in value in miles, and retaining my 1K status for another year, which meant:

  • Six one-way international upgrades
  • Unlimited, free upgrades within North America on a space-available basis
  • 100% bonus miles on all United (and some partner) flights
  • All the other perks mentioned above, including priority check-in , security and boarding

The true calculus is what having lower status would do to your mileage earning and travel experience the next year.  In United’s case, dropping from 1K to Premier Gold would mean a 50% reduction in flight bonus miles.  So if you flew 75,000 miles the following year, you would lose out on 37,500 bonus miles, conservatively valued at about $1,800.  That alone would have paid for my Singapore mileage run, to say nothing of the upgrades I would have missed out on because of the lower status level.

Obviously, elite status isn’t worth much if you’re not going to be flying.  But if you’ve had a slow year like I have, now is the time to start thinking about a goal, and devising a strategy to get there.  Fall is one of the weakest times of the year for airline bookings, so watch for fare sales to start in the next few weeks.  If things are really slow, airlines sometimes offer double elite qualifying miles promotions. These are the promotions to jump on, as you’ll reach your status goal by flying half the miles you would need to normally.

Have you ever done a mileage run to earn or keep elite status?  Where did you go?

SQ Lounge HKG Bar

My favorite part about international airport lounges?  The self-serve bar.

About the Author

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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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