We examine mileage runs to show you when, why and how to take to the skies and earn the most miles in the least amount of time.
It's December. If you haven't already earned the elite status level you were aiming for this year, time is slipping by quickly. Cozy up to your computer and let's design a mileage run (MR). By the end of the year, you'll have reached elite status and can be dreaming of all the upgrades you'll get in 2011.
If you're new to mileage runs, think of this as an introductory course. And even if you're a mileage run veteran, you just might learn a thing or two. After all, a mileage run is art in motion and there's always something to discover.
Most travelers take mileage runs to earn elite status, and typically November and December are the busiest months for MRs. However, mileage runs are a year-round pastime and the earlier in the year you qualify for elite, the more time you'll have to enjoy your new status. Once a member qualifies for elite, the elite status is valid through the end of the program year in which they qualify, as well as the entire following year. For example, if you were to qualify for elite in January 2011, you would then be at that elite level through 2011 and through all of 2012, and even through February 2013 with most programs (United's elite period ends in January). This gives you plenty of time to enjoy the upgrades, and to aim for a higher elite status.
And if you've earned the top elite in one program early in the year, you can do what many frequent flyers do--start aiming at elite in another program during the remainder of your elite status year. To keep members from straying too much and trying for elite in more than one program, Delta SkyMiles introduced rollover elite status miles but so far, it's the only program to do so.
Not everyone is racking up the miles from a mileage run for elite status but the majority are. We recently conducted a poll and 55 percent said that they have made a mileage run to earn elite status while only about seven percent said they have conducted a mileage run for redeemable miles only. But even if it's usually for the EQM, if you can earn mileage bonuses during your mileage run, flying just for the redeemable miles might be reason enough. Bonus miles do not count toward elite, but you can certainly spend them for free flights and upgrades.
According to the glossary on WebFlyer.com, a mileage run is, "A series of flights taken in a very short amount of time, solely for the purpose of accumulating frequent flyer miles, with a blatant disregard for the destinations."
This pretty much says it all. As a mileage runner, you'll want to fly for as cheaply as possible, in as little time as possible and reap the greatest amount of miles. Sounds simple, really, until you get into the logistics of how to put this into practice. Recently, a group of over 440 FlyerTalk members met in Chicago to hone their frequent flyer craft with seminars from the masters. Three seminars were devoted to mileage runs--five and a half solid hours of instruction--a fair indication that there's a lot to learn.
Yes, there's a lot to ponder, but don't be daunted by the task. We'll take you through the process. And in the end, if you still have questions, we suggest you hop on over to FlyerTalk.com where there are two forums devoted specifically to the mileage run. Visit http://www.insideflyer.com/link/?3271
for Mileage Run Discussion and http://www.insideflyer.com/link/?3272
for Mileage Run Deals.
You should first identify how many miles or segments you need to reach your desired elite level and determine if it will be easiest to earn via miles or segments. American AAdvantage, for example, offers its first elite level, Gold, at 25,000 miles or 30 segments. The mileage/segments requirements for first-level elite is the same for United Mileage Plus, US Airways Dividend Miles, Delta SkyMiles and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.
Continental OnePass allows first-level elite qualification at 25,000 miles or 30 points with the points being earned based not only on segments flown but also the fare class purchased (whether points as a form of qualification will continue after the merger with United is yet to be known). Alaska Mileage Plan members can earn first-level elite if flying only 20,000 miles solely on Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air. Aeroplan's first-level elite is earned at 25,000 miles or 25 segments and Frontier EarlyReturns members can earn elite at 15,000 miles or 20 segments. To get to the next level of elite, you'll need 50,000 elite qualifying miles or 30 segments on American, Delta, United or US Airways.
A segment is defined as, "A section or 'leg' of a continuous itinerary," in the WebFlyer glossary. To be more specific, a segment has one flight number and one boarding pass.
Miles or Segments?
Whether you decide to qualify via miles or segments should be decided after carefully looking at your typical travel pattern. For example, are most of your flights transcontinental or international? Qualifying by miles is the way to go.
If your flights are typically under two hours, you'll be better off qualifying via segments. To obtain first-level elite with most programs, you'll need to fly at least eight roundtrip connecting flights per year to earn via segments. If you qualify with earning miles, about five roundtrip transcontinental flights per year will get you there or one roundtrip flight to Singapore from the U.S. will get you most of the way to elite.
You should always read your program rules carefully before embarking on a travel plan. American AAdvantage also allows members to earn elite through Elite Status Points that are earned based on a combination of earned miles and class of service purchased, so members can earn either via miles, segments or points. AAdvantage also regularly offers a "challenge" for members to fast track to elite. The challenges last three months, are subject to enrollment fees and are based on how many elite-qualifying points you earn, not miles. US Airways and United Airlines have also been known to offer elite challenges to their members. US Airways tends to offer challenges with no fees for Silver Status while United offers challenges when they are status matching a traveler, so those challenges are not available to everyone.
The best way to find out about elite challenges is to sign up for emails from your frequent flyer programs and watch for news about challenges online. Elite challenges can be taken every other year by the individual member.
Next, you'll need to determine when you can actually take the time for the MR. Obviously, the more flexible you are, the better your chances of catching a good MR. But even if you have the odd weekend free, you can still make this work.
Is a MR Worth It?
Before you book a mileage run, you should first determine if it is worth your time, money and effort. If you just want to go for the fun of the experience and to gain a hefty amount of miles into your account, then by all means, book and fly a mileage run.
But if you plan to make the mileage run a part of a carefully planned frequent flyer membership, you'll need to determine if the numbers make sense for the mileage run you're contemplating.
For example, look at how many miles you're short to earn elite status and then look at the cost to get those miles--how much you'll actually be spending on the mileage run(s) to get the miles you need.
It also helps to look at the future value of the elite status you'll earn. For example, Gold members of American AAdvantage earn a 25 percent flight bonus while Platinum and Executive Platinum earn a 100 percent flight bonus on every qualifying flight they take during their elite membership. If airport lounge visits are what you crave, then look at those programs that give you lounge access as an elite member (look to programs outside the Americas for the most generous lounge access policies).
You can look at the value of your future elite membership to determine how much you're willing to spend to get elite status. If you can get Executive Platinum with a $1,000 spend, most travelers would say it's well worth it.
And don't forget to factor in other expenses of mileage runs, like getting to the airport, meals, etc. If you do not run a "pure" mileage run and decide to get out of the airport and get a room in a nice hotel for the night, your costs can skyrocket.
Okay, you've identified what you need (segments and/or miles), know when you can go and are ready to take the leap. Your first stop will be your computer. You will be looking for:
1) Best fares on a qualifying airline (look for partner flights as well that count toward elite status with your program).
2) Qualifying fare class for earning elite qualifying miles (read the fine print--especially important if you're flying on a partner airline).
3) Determine the best routes for maximum mileage earning.
4) Book the mileage run (and consider booking several if the fare is especially good).
There have been many a frequent flyer program member who has built a successful mileage run with the core of a mistake airfare. As the world famous Pudding Guy, David Phillips, said recently, a mistake fare is, "destiny calling." If you read FlyerTalk, you'll see threads from the past of mistake fares that were a boon for many frequent flyers. These mileage runs are the "no brainer" types. If you see a mistake fare, jump on it. Make reservations for several weekends in a row (assuming you're a weekend mileage runner) as quickly as you can. Most airlines allow you to make reservations and cancel without a penalty within 24 hours. If you make reservations with the mistake fare for several weekends, you can either then choose the one that's most convenient or take more than one mileage run. But be sure to cancel the bookings you don't need within the 24-hour window.
Mistake fares are certainly an adrenaline rush for mileage runners and a lot of fun, but you can't plan your mileage runs expecting to catch an airfare mistake--the airlines are getting better all the time at not having mistake fares.
So mistake fares aside, you'll need to find the best airfare deal for your mileage run. Sign up for email alerts from such sites as FareCompare.com to watch the mileage run routes you're interested in. You can also sign up for real-time tweets when airfare prices drop on flights from your home airport with FareCompare's When-to-Fly airfare alerts via Twitter. Especially good for mileage runners is http://www.farecompare.com/search/flyertalk.html
where you can search by airline alliance, base price, total price, price per mile and more. Another new feature recently added by FareCompare is the Where-to-Go Getaway Map (available in the U.S. only; currently in beta). This is an interactive map where you can plug in your preferred departure city, date of travel by season or month along with your budget indicated by a sliding scale. The map will then flag destinations that fit your parameters. Of special interest to mileage runners is the ability to also indicate the price per mile (PMP) that you are looking for. You can also designate the airline you would like to fly--it would be even more helpful if you could indicate a global alliance to search by, but this capability is not currently available.
Once you find a possible cheap fare here, you can go to KVS or ExpertFlyer (mentioned below) to find the best possible routes to get the most miles.
You can continue to watch online for excellent airfare deals, but keep in mind that just because someone else deems the cost of the flight mileage run worthy, that doesn't mean it's worth it for you. It pays to look at your actual cost per mile earned.
It's All About the Routes
When you are looking for the best deals keep in mind that some city routes historically have good rates--many times routes served by a low-cost carrier are worth looking at for a mileage run. Also, if you see a new route opening up from a carrier other than your own, watch for flights in those markets on your airline in case they decide to match introductory fares. (You can read about new routes in the Intelligence section of InsideFlyer.) Or if a carrier is moving into a new airport, watch for your airline to match their low introductory prices.
A good mileage runner will not only know the routes of their home airport, but he or she will also be familiar with other airports within driving range and be willing to drive to start your mileage run if the numbers work. And think in terms of smaller airports to add more miles.
It's also good to think in terms of off-peak travel which can vary by where you're flying--for example, our summer in the U.S. is winter in the Southern Hemisphere so look for good deals to Australia in the summer in the U.S.
In general, a mileage runner is looking for the connections and routings that no one wants. You don't want to get there nonstop. You don't want to get there with the most direct route--preferably, you'll go the opposite direction from where you want to go first, or add in a north or south segment when you're going from coast to coast--anything to tack on more mileage earning opportunities.
One recent example on United Airlines from Colorado Springs (COS) was to fly roundtrip to Portland, Ore. (PDX) with a connection in Denver (DEN), San Diego (SAN), Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) on the way, and Seattle (SEA), Los Angeles (LAX) and Denver (DEN) on the return for $261 and 7,872 miles. The MR string would look like this: COS-DEN-SAN-LAX-SFO-PDX-SEA-SFO-LAX-DEN-COS. Another possible routing taken during this same time was SEA-SFO-PSP-DEN-COS-DEN-SMF-SFO-SEA for $255 and 7,375 miles, same day return.
Look for the hubs of the airlines you're flying and create an itinerary with segments between the hubs to tack on more miles. To save money, look for inconvenient long layovers. Staying at an airport for four hours instead of one or two could save you some cash. Most airlines allow a maximum of four hours for a domestic layover. Red-eye flights are also popular with mileage runners because you can satisfy a Saturday-night stay requirement while you're actually still on the plane.
There are a few Web sites that Mileage Runners typically use when piecing together a successful mileage run: ExpertFlyer.com, KVStool.com and ITAsoftware.com. Both Expert Flyer and KVS offer what a mileage runner needs to find the best routes. ExpertFlyer.com is a Web-based paid service that along with other information, gives you the routing rules for the flights you wish to take for your mileage run. This is important to make sure that the itinerary that you are putting together will indeed work for a short turn-around mileage run.
Fare rules can include when stipulations apply such as the day of week flown, blackout dates, one-night or more minimum stay restrictions, advance purchase rules and change or cancellation penalties. A tip: One-way fares are one way to get around minimum stay requirements.
When building a mileage run, ensure that the booking class of all the flight segments is the same. For example, when your first segment is in L class, all remaining segments must also be booked in L class. The booking class is the first letter in the string of letters and numbers for your reservation and ExpertFlyer makes it easy for you to know the booking class. As long as you meet the rules that qualify for the lowest fares, and find seat availability, you're good to go.
KVS offers software that is downloadable for your computer and is not only good for mileage runners, but also helpful when it comes time to spend your miles. Both ExpertFlyer and KVS are used by mileage runners and each have their fans.
As well as ExpertFlyer.com and KVStool.com, you can use http://www.itasoftware.com
- ITA Software provides a free Matrix search that many mileage runners use where you can build multi-city itineraries.
Both ExpertFlyer and KVS will help you find routings, but they are not booking engines. For the actual booking of flights, you can go to your airline's Web site and use multi-city booking or bite the bullet and call for reservations with all the information for the booking at your disposal. We say "bite the bullet" because the person at the other end of the line might think you're circling the airport (as in, bonkers); but be polite and persistent and you'll be able to book your mileage run. One tip for when you are using the multi-city booking engine for your airline and are trying to fit in as many segments as possible--when plugging in your possible connections, don't include the hubs for your airline--the hubs will automatically be added in by the booking tool.
If all of this sounds confusing, it's because it is, and time and practice go a long way. Good advice comes from Nathan Weber, a young man who earned 1K status in 18 days, who said that mileage runners should play with the fares. And he followed with, "... and if you don't enjoy it, it's probably not your thing."
Mileage runners who have been doing this for years have learned through trial and error. Don't be afraid to reach out to them for help. And if you want expert help, you can turn to someone like Viajero Joven (that is his FlyerTalk handle, it's Spanish for "Young Traveler") of EliteHelper.com who can customize a mileage run for you starting at just $19. Viajero Joven has been presenting seminars on mileage runs since 2003 and some of his excellent advice has been referenced here.
Domestic or International
If you are a serious mileage runner, you should consider international routes. Generally, the farther you go with a good fare, the price per mile goes down. Consider going to Australia. Singapore is an especially popular destination with mileage runners with the ability to find good fares on popular partner airlines.
Price Per Mile
A quick way to check the price per mile is to go through the aforementioned farecompare.com/search/flyertalk. This is a very easy way to find destinations that will net you the least expensive miles. You simply indicate the price per mile that you would like searched (<0.025, <0.05, <0.075, <0.01 or <0.15), your starting point and destinations by area and see what comes up. We searched origin and destination zones in North America, Star Alliance, <0.05 and found a flight between San Francisco (SFO) and Milwaukee (MKE) that would get us 4,032 miles in the Star Alliance airline of our choosing for a total $209.29 or 0.052 per mile. A true mileage runner would add in more connections to get even more miles and we did not factor in any minimum mileage that might come into play if you are an elite member.
As to what the amount per mile you should aim for, that is really up to the individual traveler. Is 0.05 a good deal, 0.03? It's really up to you, but as a general rule for many, an elite qualifying mile at three cents or less is worth a mileage run. Keep in mind the best way to judge your cost per mile is to look at elite qualifying miles only, not any bonus miles you may earn for the flights.
Mileage Run or Mileage Jog
A true mileage run is conducted solely to get miles and you usually never leave the airport at your destination before you turn around and head back home. But that's not the only way frequent flyers can pad their mileage account. We've known many who apply some of the same parameters for a mileage run to business flights. The cost to the company will be about the same, but if you play it right, you can add thousands more miles to your account for the same business trip. Call it a leisurely "jog" rather than a "run". And you just might save money if there would normally not be a Saturday night stay for your business trip.
Fun and Games
Living on an airplane might not be your idea of having fun. Seasoned mileage runners know how to make the best of the situation. Here are a few things to consider:
- When on a mileage run, the seat you're in becomes even more important than usual. If you are on a transcontinental flight, look for those planes that are configured for international travel--especially important if you are in first or business class.
- Know where your next shower is--usually it's at the airport lounge.
- Plan for your time onboard. If movies are your thing, you're good to go with most airlines but if not, prepare with reading material and learn which airlines are offering onboard WiFi.
- It goes without saying, but NEVER check a bag if you are on a mileage run. You should always be prepared to expect a bump.
Although some might argue that the glory days of mistake fares and the resulting mileage runs are a thing of the past, our recent survey showed that about 60 percent of frequent flyer program members have taken a mileage run and 10 percent more travelers took a mileage run this year than last.
With what we've shared with you, you can now be on your way with your first or fiftieth mileage run. Do your homework and learn from the masters and be sure to share your knowledge with others as your mileage run knowledge base increases. The best methods to build successful mileage runs can and do change.
Mileage Run Tools
WebFlyer's Mileage Calculator is a quick and easy way to calculate the miles you'll earn on a mileage run. You can plug in your departure and destination airports as well as four connections along with Elite, class of service, special promotion and minimum miles bonuses. Of interest to mileage runners in particular, you can also indicate your ticket price to get the price per mile.
ExpertFlyer is a paid subscription site used by frequent mileage runners. Premium service subscribers get fare information, routing and fare rules. The cost is $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year. There is also a Basic subscription for $4.99 per month but this does not provide fare information. ExpertFlyer shows all available fares which is helpful when you're building a MR. The tool can also show upgrade availability for select airlines and seatmaps are available; you cannot, however, book your flights through this site.
ITA Software offers a free Matrix Airfare Search that is popular with mileage runners where you can use various searches to map out the best routes for a mileage run. It is not a booking agent.
EliteHelper offers Mileage Run planning for as little as $19 for an economy consultation to build a single mileage run based on a specific route. For a $34 first class consultation, EliteHelper will check fares to U.S. and international cities from your airport and offer a suggested mileage run. The concierge consultation, for $49, provides information from your home airport and alternate airports you choose.
Yapta.com is most commonly used to track flights and receive email notifications of fare changes on the routes you're interested in. It also helps travelers know when an airline refund is available and worthwhile for flights you've already purchased and have found a cheaper flight on the same route.
This tool from Travelocity will let you see at a glance the cheapest possible routes to many destinations from your home airport. When this tool first came out, it was very popular with mileage runners, but it's capability is limited and tools such as the new Where-to-Go Getaway Map from FareCompare are more useful.
The Where-to-Go Getaway Map with Google Maps allows you to find the lowest fares from your home airport to cities all over the world. You can search by price, activity or region and by price per mile.
This Web site has a helpful listing of several URLs that are helpful for mileage runners.
The KVS Availability Tool is a paid downloadable seat availability checker. You can check class availability, upgrade availability, search by alliance and other data from global reservation systems. There are several options for memberships starting at $15 for two months of Platinum membership. For a basic membership, you pay $35 per year, for Platinum, $60 per year and for Diamond, $75 per year.
Bing.com is another service that can help mileage runners by sending emails when a flight route you designate goes down in price.
Mileage Run Tips