Year-end mileage runs to maintain elite status

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By my standards, I haven’t flown much this year.  Pathetic as it is, my year-to-date elite qualifying miles on United – my primary airline – are 18,321.  Not very good for a year-to-date total, especially when it’s early October and I need to hit 100,000 by December 31 in order to retain my 1K status for 2014.

UA

See?  Sadly, I wasn’t kidding.

I recently published a piece about the concept of mileage runs.  You can do a mileage run just to earn miles, but usually they’re done both to earn miles and – more importantly – to reach or retain a certain level of elite status on an airline.  In my case, if I didn’t fly any more this year on United or its partners, I would drop from the top-tier level (1K) to a nobody (General Member).  In doing so, I would lose out on a treasure trove of benefits, including bonus miles on all my flights, free domestic upgrades, six international upgrades, and numerous priority services. Needless to say, it would be a big loss, especially if I planned to travel at all next year (which, of course, I do!)

So starting today, I’m making efforts to make up that 82,000 mile gap between where I am now and where I need to be to retain my 1K status.  I have booked four mileage runs so far, which will take me to about 60,000 miles for the year.  Throw in two more international trips and a few domestic ones, and I’ll be back at 100,000 before the end of the year.

But why would anyone spend the time and money to do this?  It’s all in the numbers; let me show you the math.

I’m 82,000 miles short, and I want to spend the least amount of money possible to retain my status.  A good range to target is four to five cents per elite qualifying mile.  So if I average 4.5 cents per mile I’ll need to spend $3,690 to get there.  Sounds like a crazy amount of time and money to retain my status, doesn’t it?  Look again. During these trips, I will earn:

  • 164,000 redeemable miles, conservatively valued at about $8,000 when redeemed for international business or first class tickets.  As an example, a first class ticket from North America to Europe is 135,000 miles roundtrip.  I just priced a first class roundtrip for next summer from Los Angeles to Munich at $10,090 in “discounted” first class on Lufthansa.
  • Continued 1K status, which earns me the benefits described above, including six one-way international upgrades to business class.  These are worth more than $1,000 each.

This turns my spending of about $4,000 into returns of more than $16,000.

I’m an extreme example, because travel is my business and I place a high value on the benefits of elite status.  If you don’t plan to fly much the following year, it may not be worth it to you to take the time and effort to do mileage runs. But if you’re close to earning or maintaining your status, and you redeem miles in the most advantageous way, the benefits are clear.  And you get to do fun stuff like this over a four day period:

Portland –> San Francisco –> Honolulu –> Guam –> Hong Kong –> San Francisco –> Portland

That’s 16,343 miles for $660, or four cents per status qualifying miles, and two cents per redeemable mile (because of the 100% bonus 1K members receive).

Ferry transfer to Macau (and gambling money) not included.

Don’t forget that the mileage and elite status game is changing a little bit, starting this year for Delta and next year for United.  Elite qualification requirements include a minimum spending component.  This has the potential to make mileage runs less effective, but there are strategies to get around these new requirements.

United

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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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