Travel Hacking 203: The Mileage Run

A bit of an exaggeration, but would be a good mileage run if this could be booked for under $2000.00!

As each end of the calendar year approaches, many frequent fliers scramble to earn the last few miles that they need to reach a certain status with their program. You see, most frequent flyer programs(and even hotel programs, car rental programs, etc.) award members who reach a threshold level of travel with benefits commonly referred to as elite status. Elite status can get you different awards on different airlines, but the benefits are usually pretty lucrative. There are also several tiers of elite status that a member can work towards with expanded benefits as they work themselves up. Elite status varies from program to program, but usually earn things like class upgrades, priority check-in, priority boarding, waived fees, extra baggage allowances, and more.

Frequent fliers can earn elite status by reaching the threshold level. For example, with Delta Airlines, upon reaching 25,000 flown miles in a calendar year, you have reached their Silver Medallion Status, and you become immediately eligible for priority check-in and boarding, waived baggage fees, preferred seats, lounge access, and one-day advance complimentary upgrades. If you fly 50,000 miles in a calendar year, you reach their gold status, which gets you all Silver benefits plus same-day standby/confirmed, waived direct ticketing charge, priority security line, and more. The next level is at 75,000 flown miles, for Delta’s Gold Medallion Status; Delta is also one of very few airlines that have a fourth tier, which is at 125,000 flown miles, called their Diamond Medallion Status. Segments(one takeoff and landing) also usually count towards elite status, but in a different manner. With Delta, 30 segments will get you to Silver, 60 to gold, and so on. A one-way flight is usually one segment, unless there is a layover, which would be two segments, as each takeoff and landing counts as one.

As you can see, these benefits are very attractive. Priority baggage handling and access to a separate security line literally excite me more than the instant acceleration when a plane takes off down the runway. Most programs allow until the last day of the calendar year, December 31st, to fly earning towards elite status for the entire next year. As there is less than three months left, frequent fliers flex their ingenuity so that they can qualify(or re-qualify) for that next level of elite status and keep it for the next calendar year, or avoid their level of elite status from expiring the next year. The most popular and creative method of bulking up on miles is with the mileage run.

What is a Mileage Run?

Mileage runs are trips taken with the sole or primary purpose of racking up miles/points and/or status in a frequent flier program by flying as cheaply as possible. A typical mileage runner will perhaps fly after work on Friday’s red-eye from Denver to Boston, but with connections in Timbuktu and Jakarta. The MR’er many times will never even step outside of any of the airports in their destination and layover cities, as the purpose of the trip is to earn miles and segments. Upon reaching Boston, the mileage runner may have a few hours to leave the airport, but most likely will have to start their return trip towards Denver soon. Mileage runners calculate their trips in CPM’s, or cost per mile, though it can also mean cents per mile.

Cost per mile is determined simply by dividing the ticket cost by the total distance flown:

JFK to AMS(Amsterdam, Netherlands) = 3643 mi each way, total is 7286 miles

If the fare is $500 USD,

500 / 7286 = 0.0686

CPM is $0.06, or 6(almost 7) cents per mile.

Most mileage runners generally agree that anything under $0.05 is a good deal, and anything over that would be considered a more desperate and last ditch attempt to earn miles, either that or a vacation. Most trips are quite a bit more when it comes to CPM, ranging anywhere from $0.15 to upwards of $0.40 for economy class seating. Then again, most travelers are not basing their flight on cost per mile. A good tool to use is MilesCalc, a website where you can simply input the ticket cost and the airports to and from, and it will calculate the distance and CPM. MileCalc allows a user to also enter any bonus promotions that may be included, such as 50% bonus miles, for inclusion in the calculation.

How to Construct, Book, and Travel a Mileage Run

Now that you get the gist as to what a mileage run is, it becomes helpful to learn how to construct and implement one. You would think that it’s simply a matter of finding a faraway destination from your home airport and flying there as economically as possible with some layovers thrown in for padding. While this may be the case more often than not, sometimes a mileage run can consist of flying to a city in a nearby state. It all depends on price and mileage.

Step 1) Know your initial departure airports. That’s right, airports with an “s”, signifying plurality. To get the best price, and in turn CPM, a mileage runner needs to be completely flexible with their airports. Mileage runs are inconvenient in just about every aspect anyway, so one shouldn’t complain about driving a little further to another airport.

Step 2) Know your frequent flier program. When you are conducting a mileage run, you are flying to earn miles and segments towards elite status and award flights, not finding the cheapest option from point A to B. Though reasonable pricing is part of the equation, an MR is not useful if earning mileage on an airline that you will never fly or fly minimally. Read Which Frequent Flier Program Should I Join?

Step 3) Determine the destination. When I learned about the art form that is the mileage run, I fondly remember a quote from FlyerTalk forum poster VPescado on how to pick a proper destination for a mileage run: “This generally falls into three categories: 1) Places you want to go (e.g. visit your brother in BOS). 2) Places you wouldn’t mind going (perhaps you’ve wanted to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center), or 3) Places you will tolerate until the next flight out“. The truth is, any destination will do, and as there are a million and one airports to fly to all over the world, it would take ages to search each one and pair it with your home airport. It is better to first go to the website of the airline whose frequent flier program you are a member of and view their destinations. Also, look at their weekly promotions and which cities have sales, as this is a good way to find a flight with mileage run potential.

Step 4) Find the fare and the fare rules.

Example of fare rules. This is a set of rules that American Airlines attached to several of their flights. The fare rule is VNW51BQ1, and notice how many penalties are associated with this economy fare. (Click to Enlarge)

Once you’ve picked the cities that have the greatest potential to become a legitimate mileage run, jot down the fares. You will need to view the fare rules(the fine print that tells you if and how you qualify for the promotional fare) to see which layover cities/airports are eligible and ineligible; this is known as routing. Though in theory a mileage run can be a simple direct flight to an airport and back, this is extremely rare, and it becomes necessary to obtain more miles flown by including one or more stops. Check the fare rules for limitations such as dates the promotional fare is available, minimum stay requirements, routing requirements, etc.

Step 5) Fill in the blanks. After you see which layover airports and other stipulations are allowed in the promotional rate, it is time to go to search for the flight. You do not necessarily need to use a third-party flight search engine like Kayak or Priceline to find the fares, because you are only interested in the one airline, and its partners, whose program you are trying to earn miles on. Since this is the case, you can use the airline’s own flight search. Because, at least in this scenario, you are going to specify your layover points, you will want to use the multi-city option of the search tool. This gives you many more spaces to fill in with which airports you want to stop at, and what dates you want to depart each airport.

Step 6) Cross your fingers and search. You will most likely need to diligently search awhile before coming up with something vaguely resembling a true mileage run. The process can be very frustrating, but if you can keep from becoming discouraged, it will happen sooner or later.

These are the basic steps required to locate mileage run material. A good option is to monitor forums by doing a quick Google search for it. Many members of some great websites like Flyertalk constantly post new mileage run opportunities that they found, and you can read discussions on each one. Sometimes, you can complete all the steps that I previously mentioned just by viewing a forum post. Members may find the perfect destination with correct routings, sample dates, and fare rules involved.

The most important rule to bear in mind once you’ve found the ideal fare is to never hesitate. These fares disappear quickly, as these cheap options get taken by  customers or perhaps the airline pulls the fare as a mistake, if they catch on. A good bit of info to know is the refund policy on the flight purchase. Though many tickets are non-refundable, most airlines will allow you to cancel a purchased itinerary withing 24 hours without a penalty. Knowing if this type of safety net exists can give you the peace of mind needed for you to pull the trigger as soon as you see a mileage run, and ask the questions later.

Mileage runs should be undertaken with a set goal in mind. A frequent flier who is nearing December 31st when the clock resets should only try to book a mileage run that will enable the elite status they desire. No less is a given, but going too much over will do nothing as well, because the next elite status tier is probably still too far away. When the clock resets on January 1st, you will keep any award miles that you have earned, but you start with a clean slate as far as earning towards elite status again.

In the end, you, the flier, must decide whether this strategy is feasible and worth the hassle. If it is, then you must decide which flight you will consider acceptable, and which ones you won’t. You may fly to some exotic destinations, but you may not have the chance to enjoy them, as you leave fairly quickly in a mileage run(unless you learn how to force a certain length of time at a stop, but that’s for another time). In the end, mileage runs can either be dreadful nightmares or addicting and fulfilling experiences, you decide.

Related Articles:

Get in the Know: Navigating

Why Take a Mileage Run At All?