How Mileage Runs Became Addictive or, Why I Just Booked a Two Day Trip to Doha (Guest Post)

Frequent Flier Programs, Geoff Fischer, United

Over at Cranky Concierge, we’ve been booking a lot of so-called “mileage runs” for clients this month. This happens at the end of every year, but I think we had our most extreme this year where someone needed 36,000 miles and we sent him to Africa and Asia within a few days. Ever wonder how people get to this level of madness? And wait, what is a mileage run anyway? Geoff Fischer (read his previous guest posts) is back with a story about how he became a mileage-runner.

This week is going to be a light one. No post tomorrow, so this one is extra long to last you two days. Hah. Happy holidays.

It all started innocently enough in December 2004. I noticed that I was likely to end the year about 1,000 miles short of both Premier Executive status on United and MVP Gold on Alaska. I didn’t have time for another work trip or vacation, but it seemed a shame to let all the year’s flying “go to waste” by failing to reach those elite tiers. Even worse was the thought of entering 2005 as a lowest-rung elite on my two most frequent carriers, missing out on the upgrades and other perks that were so tantalizingly close. I’d heard about mileage runs – flying solely for the sake of racking up miles. These were the circumstances that first led me to contemplate doing one myself.

Mileage Run via

Year 1
It took a bit of searching to find a destination appropriately far away with reasonable one-way fares. I eventually found good deals on midweek flights to and from Vegas. I wanted to minimize the cost and time away from home and work, so a morning out, afternoon back day trip seemed best. It was $84 for Seattle-Las Vegas on Alaska, and $88 for the return via LAX on United. (I had to return via LAX instead of SFO not for the fare, but because I needed the extra 275 miles.) No, I wouldn’t hit a casino or see a show – I wouldn’t even leave the airport. I had two hours in Vegas to switch terminals and grab some lunch in between.

Flying just to turn around and fly back is surely a bizarre concept to some – probably even many – but it made perfect sense to me. The $200 I’d be spending (including parking, gas, etc.) seemed well worth the comfort of elite status for 2005. So I booked it for a Tuesday, took the day off work, and it went as smoothly possible. I got upgraded to First Class on the Alaska flight down, and had Economy Plus seats on flights back. I made it through a bunch of magazines and other reading material I’d saved up. The United agent looked at me quizzically when I showed up at the gate without a boarding pass, but I explained I’d come in on another airline. The biggest hassle ended up being the incessant slot machine noise by the Ted gates as I waited to board. (It’s a unique form of torture having to hear “WHEEL! OF!! FORTUNE!!!” a thousand times in a row.)

Year 2
A year later, I found myself in a similar position. I had qualified on Alaska but was going to be short about 2,000 miles on United. No time for vacation, and the nonstop flights from Seattle to SFO or LAX wouldn’t earn enough miles – so I had to get creative. I ended up finding that United had cheap midweek fares on connections via SFO to a few smaller Northwest cities. And so for $134 I landed a Tuesday day trip to Boise. I thought that seemed cool, since it was both an airport and a state I’d never been in. Never mind that the scheduled time on the ground in Idaho was barely 45 minutes, as I was flying the same regional jet SFO to Boise and back to SFO. Again, all went smoothly. I got to experience the bathroom and free Wi-Fi at the Boise airport, and secured status for 2006. Win-win.

Year 3
I started to get more selective and picky as I moved from novice mileage runner to intermediate. In March 2007 I was doing a “status challenge” on Alaska, where I needed to fly 8 segments in a certain amount of time to re-obtain MVP Gold status. Trips for work and pleasure got me six of the eight, so all I needed was a cheap, quick roundtrip “segment run”. I was able to find a few options for about $125, but all involved regional jets. While flying to Pasco or Walla Walla had some novelty, I convinced myself it was worth spending more for the comfort of flying a mainline 737-800 to Spokane. I’d never been there either, and with a first class cabin there was a chance I’d get upgraded even as a lowly (not for long!) MVP. So I laid out $165 for a roundtrip from Seattle to Spokane, and did another same-plane turn-around. Got the upgrades both ways and only had to take a few hours off of work.

It Gets Serious
Things got more complicated a few years later. My last business trip of the year was to LA, but a mere roundtrip from Seattle was not going to yield the 5,000 miles I needed no matter how I connected. This time it was United 1K status on the line – the stakes were higher, and more creativity (and spend) was going to be needed. Work obligations meant I didn’t have flexibility on the front end of the trip, but I could route myself however I wanted on the way home. I tried all sorts of circuitous paths via New York, Florida and hubs and spokes in between. It took a fair bit of searching before I honed in on Honolulu. It was a no-brainer: great weather, 767 and 777 widebody service, and upgrades that could be confirmed in advance. Work paid for the flight down to LAX and I paid $386 for LAX-Honolulu-SFO-Seattle. This time I even cashed in some hotel points and stuck around for two whole nights. I spent time on the beach, got to see the Pearl Harbor memorial, and had a pretty good time sipping Mai-Tais and knowing that my status was secure for one more year.

Going Intercontinental
Flash forward just a few months and things looked pretty dire as I looked at my mileage balance the next November. I wasn’t just a few hundred or thousand miles short of 1K. I was going to be more than 20,000 miles short. The rationalization began quickly. I’d worked really hard that year. Hadn’t splurged on anything in a while. I had vacation time to use, though I had been planning to spend Christmas and New Year’s with my family and didn’t have a big trip in mind. Well that changed quickly. Suddenly a trip to Thailand and Singapore seemed like a great idea. One big problem was that upgrades weren’t confirmable. Without giving it much thought I clicked the dropdown box and changed my search from “Economy” fares to “Business.” With that one click, the addiction grew to a new level.

It turned out that there were “discounted” Business class tickets available over the holidays. Not cheap by any means, but cheaper than the rest of the year. And they earn a 50% status mileage bonus, which meant that the 17,000 miles of actual flying would net over 25,000 status miles, getting me over the all-important 100,000 mile mark. I made a trip out of it. Well, as much of a trip as I could since I was forced to fly back before New Year’s in order for the miles to count toward that year. It ended up being seven nights. I had a blast. Turns out the beaches of Thailand are a wonderful place to spend Christmas, though mom still hasn’t forgiven me for being AWOL. It was also my introduction to Singapore, which I loved (and have since been back to for a more proper visit).

This Year, Qatar
So over a decade of flying with various levels of elite status, I’d resorted to mileage runs five times, at increasing levels of extremity. Which brings me to this year. Things are a lot different for me – I moved to a new city for a new job that doesn’t leave me with much time off, and my flying for work has sadly been cut down significantly. Any hope of qualifying for another year as a United 1K was pretty much gone by late springtime. It took a lot of creative weekend trips throughout the year to even get close to hitting the 50,000 mile threshold for mid-level Gold status. And while even my addict’s brain (eventually) accepted that 1K was out of range this year, that didn’t stop it from urging me on to see if I couldn’t find some way to at least get to 75,000 miles for Platinum status.

This year missing Christmas with family wasn’t an option, which meant I’d have to squeeze it in to just a few days. The most comfortable option I found was Tokyo, with several 747 flights on my dates with confirmable upgrades. But I’ve been to Tokyo several times. And I love it, but it isn’t exactly a great winter destination. And it was going to cost $2,200. That was less than the splurge trip to Thailand but more than I could justify this year. A sign that I was recovering from my airline status addiction? Not really. I kept looking (as much as it pained me to pass up flying on the upper deck of the 747), focusing on dots on the United route map I hadn’t been to.

I considered Istanbul and even Lagos before finding Doha. United flies it in a 777 as a continuation of its Washington DC to Dubai flight. I’ve never been there, and the late-December weather seems good. And in a quirk of airline pricing, the fares were even cheaper to go on to Doha than to get off in Dubai. Proving that my addiction is as powerful as ever, I booked it the other day despite having to waitlist for upgrades on the 7,069 mile IAD-DXB-IAD flights. (They did clear later, thankfully.)

When I do the math and say out loud that it’s 47 hours of total travel time for 50 hours on the ground in a random place halfway around the world, I realize that it’s crazy. Those were going to be looooooong flights in coach if they hadn’t cleared. Heck, they’re long flights even in Business class. But I’ll get to catch up on some movies I haven’t seen, and see a new place…. and I’ll have Platinum status next year!

But alas, I know too well that euphoria is short lived. Once that mileage counter resets to zero on January 1, the cycle starts all over again. Once you’re hooked on status, the thought – and sometimes necessity – of a mileage run is usually just a year away.

Geoff Fischer is an aviation and travel enthusiast currently living in the Dallas/Ft Worth area.

[Map via Great Circle Mapper]

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29 comments on “How Mileage Runs Became Addictive or, Why I Just Booked a Two Day Trip to Doha (Guest Post)

  1. Agreed, but really, if you have to travel alot, the savings in fees you obtain as an elite FF, the easy upgrades (if you are an AA elite at least) the early boarding, better seats, lounge access with the savings in food and drink, all make it wayyyyyyyyyyy more than worth while, AND an economically sound idea as well. I will and have done mileage runs because it works out cheaper for me. However, if you only travel occasionally, its a pretty stupid concept!

  2. Truth be told, I’ll bet most of us on here have “been there, done that!” And, we did get to make some wonderful award trips to places we might never have gotten to see and, to have been able to put our butts in a relaxing seat, even to some destination we might never want to see again.

    I do wonder, however, what with the time, effort, and money the airlines have put into these mileage programs and the work we travelers have put into trying to get miles and achieve status, there wasn’t/isn’t a better way, better than these crazy, complicated frequent flier programs, for airlines and travelers alike to show loyalty and be rewarded.

  3. I am still laughing. My family thinks a mileage run to New York is nuts. People who have never been elite flyers have no understanding of how we might feel if we lost our status … and what we’ll do to maintain it. I’m not sure my husband would ever take another trip if he had to fly in coach, or pay for first. I loved reading this “diary” kind of article … and I hope I never have to use the ideas! Well done, Geoff. We’re flying MCO-SFO tomorrow and will watch for the reindeer somewhere over Texas. Merry Christmas everyone!

  4. What I’m kinda curious why the airlines haven’t just come up with a way to say “Give us (some) of the money, skip flying and we’ll give you the miles.” Given that capacity is tighter and tighter you’d think they’d want to not have to carry a customer unless that customer was really going somewhere…

    1. What does it matter if the pax is going somewhere? Afterall the price is the same regardless of intent of the pax and is decided on schedule distance and demand. If anything mileage runs artificially bump up demand and thus raise prices of little used routes.

      1. But wouldn’t it be better if they just gave you the miles in return for the fare without forcing you to fly? That way they could sell the seat again and make more money off it, and people would take more “virtual” mileage runs so they would get more profit. I guess it would create more elites and dilute the benefits, but I doubt that would make a huge difference.

        1. Sean, I’m with Jim. The airline gets to sell the seat again and doesn’t have to worry about any of the potential operational difficulties.

          If an airline does this, I’ll bet it’ll be United. They’d sell you the seat cover of of the last seat you sat in if they think enough people would buy em.

          There probably is a sweet spot where the airline can offer virtual mileage runs. Its kindof like colleges requiring that a certain percentage of classes be taken at their college in order to award you a degree from that college. (n.b. That rule can be bent. I was a few percentage points shy, but my advisor overrode that for me.) Say something along the lines of you can only do a virtual mileage run for no more than 5% of the tier miles. This way they’d prevent abuse, get the extra revenue bump, plus gain some operational flexibility during December when they’re already going crazy.

          1. Offering status for pay outside of first class offerings is usually a non starter, as it DOES dilute the perks especially the free upgrades. If everyone can just pay into a system to get upgrades the number townspeople who would do so would make the status irrelevant.

    2. AA does this already, sort of, and I’m guessing the other majors do something similar. I was set to have my Platinum status downgraded to Gold at the end of 2011 (I actually didn’t even qualify for Gold, but AA will only downgrade you one level per year, and I was so short of miles a mileage run wasn’t feasible). AAdvantage sent me a letter shortly thereafter offering to let me keep my Platinum status in exchange for $749 or something like that. My wife got the same letter to keep her Gold status for about $100 less. I ended up not doing it – I’d already used up most of my upgrades and I could still get priority boarding and security with Gold – so I’m not sure if that’s a one-time offer or if they’ll let you keep paying every year to keep your status. Something to at least call and ask your favorite airline about before you plunk down cash for a big mileage run; in my case, the $749 would have been loads cheaper than the flights needed to accumulate the EQMs!

    3. > What I?m kinda curious why the airlines haven?t just come up with a way to say ?Give us (some) of the money, skip flying and we?ll give you the miles.?

      Well, they have. United calls it Award Accelerator and you can pay for extra redeemable and qualifying miles on an existing trip (typically double and triple extra miles). And you can cancel the original booking and thus make it a completely virtual voyage. I used that a bit this year to reduce my physical end-of-year mileage running needs.

    4. Nick,

      Delta will sell up to 10,000 Qual Miles for a hefty price. It was actually much cheaper for me to by a ticket from SJC to BOS, rent a car for 23 hours, and spend a night on my friend’s futon.

  5. In response to Nick’s comment, United used to do just that around the time of their bankruptcy (2001 or 2002). The deal was, If you paid them (I think) $450, they would double all miles and segments flown between Sept 1 and Dec 31. By Sept. I knew if I would be short so I could take advantage of the deal.

    The program lasted 3 or 4 years, and I used it to maintain my 1K status.

    This is the first year I have had to actively use mileage runs to maintain my 1K status due to United raising the segment bar for 1K to 120 segments.

    Thanks to US Air being a Star member, I was able to fly ord-clt-mco-clt-stl-ord in one day.

  6. The closest I came to a mileage run was in 2007, when I had the chance to maintain elite status in all three major alliances thanks to a bunch of back-and-forth trips to India because of my expat assignment. What I ended up doing was booking a sort-of round-the-world mostly business/part personal ticket from DEL to DFW and then back to DEL again. The routing: OS in J from DEL-ICN to secure United Premier, ICN-LAX on KE in J to secure Silver Elite on Continental (still a part of SkyTeam at the time), and finally DFW-RSW-DFW-PHX in Y followed by PHX-ORD-DEL in J on AA to secure Platinum in AAdvantage (in case you’re curious – I drove from L.A. to Dallas to bring my wife’s car home, which had been left in L.A. 4 months prior to dump a bunch of stuff at her parents’ place before moving to India). Amazingly, the fare for the main part of the trip (DEL-ICN-LAX/PHX-ORD-DEL) ended up being cheaper than a straight R/T. I guess you can’t really call this one a mileage run since it was a planned trip, though it took a LOT of work manipulating options on our company’s online booking tool to get it to work :)

    The most amusing part of that whole trip was getting to celebrate my birthday twice, thanks to some phun with the international dateline. I got to buy myself a gift from the ICN duty free at 2 P.M., then rolled back the clock and got to celebrate again upon landing in LAX at 9 A.M. the same day!

  7. As a destination, Doha has an additional perk: its the only non-US location for Global Entry interviews. I went to Doha for for 50 hours to earn qualifying miles, enroll in Global Entry, and meet a friend for dinner. :-)

  8. It’s always fun to find other mileage-runners on your flights too.

    This year I managed to find an ORD-LAX-IAD-LAX-ORD route for $388 on American, which paired with their double elite miles offer, scored me 16,000 elite miles. So for less than $400 I’ve secured unlimited upgrades, priority boarding and security, no baggage or standby fees, and eight systemwide upgrades. Best money ever spent.

  9. It all boils down on how you find ways to the get best deals and mileage. If you’re keen enough, you will definitely get better savings when travelling :)

  10. It’s killing me that my UA counter is sitting at 90,000 miles right now, so I won’t be re-qualifying for my 1K status in 2013. I wish I could justify a 10K mile run, but I just can’t. I’ll have to suffer with Platinum.

  11. This is yet another reason why I think awarding loyalty with “miles” or distance traveled is an asinie system. I’ve always said it should be 100% based on ticket price paid. If 2 travelers are trying to get to 100k and one makes it with legitimate non-discounted fares and the other flies a pile of $200 LAX-JFK runs or whatever who is really the better customer?

    Personally I think all airlines have devalued the worth of “premium” offerings by making it a relatively simple system to game. I play the game too so I’m guilty. I’d almost rather the airlines just charge a reasonable upgrade price for domestic F and quit giving it away to “elites” because the system is so rigged.

  12. Well, Nick, you’re about to find out. My return flight on UA yesterday would have made my elite status, but weather interfered and they rebooked us on Delta. So now I’m 1500 miles short for silver on UA. I’m calling them today to see what we can do, I’d be very pleased to pay for a mileage-run ticket and not have to use it before 12/31!

  13. If you travel for work and your company picks the tab, OK, fair game. But if you spend all this time and effort just to maintain status, I suggest, you see a psychiatrist to treat your obsessive compulsive disorder. I mean soon !

  14. wow you have traveled alot Geoff. You also managed to get some great deals on flights around the world nice work :) Hope you had fun in Dubai thats my home!

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