How to Think About the Value of Mileage Runs — and Why Lucky Should Stay Home

A couple of weeks ago a reader asked whether it made sense to stick with an airline or hotel program after achieving status, or is it better to switch programs and achieve status somewhere else?

In other words, do you enjoy the benefits of the status, or do you reach for more status?

And my answer was that it depends on what next year’s travel plans are likely to be. How much value are you going to get out of your elite status — either the first one you’ve achieved, or the second one you would go for?

You have to figure out what status is actually worth to you, in order to determine whether it’s worth going for.

Today Lucky declares on his One Mile at a Time blog, “I Think Elite Status is Worthless” … he realizes that mileage running to earn more status and more miles is tough, it takes up time, it comes with a cost that is in addition to the price of tickets.

He was looking at flying 150,000 miles on American because of their Elite Rewards program which offers a ton of extra miles for doing so. And he was looking at earning Alaska’s MVP Gold 75k status because of big incentives that Mileage Plan offers.

Lucky, like me, is an American Airlines flyer. He also lives in a Seattle suburb, making Alaska Airlines useful to him.

But he’s ‘behind’ on his paid flying. He contemplated several back-to-back Beijing trips just for the miles — in American’s old angled business class (upgraded from lowest price coach) without internet. It’s not that comfortable and it’s tough on the body and costs real productivity.

Then he thought about spending more money to fly the new, more comfortable and internet-equipped, Boeing 777-300ER to Brazil. And he realized – wow – he’s spending a whole bunch of money now.

At that point I got frustrated and just asked myself why I even bother going for status. I have roughly four million miles and points across programs (nothing compared to others, and sadly quite a few of them are Hilton HHonors points), and they’re constantly devaluing. So why on earth would I sit myself down on a plane with an angled flat business class seat for almost a week straight so I can start to get close to my mileage goal, when I could be redeeming millions of miles for Singapore Suites and similarly awesome products.

And the answer, which he sort of realizes, is that status is valuable for complimentary upgrades on his domestic flying which one is actually going to be doing anyway.

But that flying for extra redeemable miles doesn’t just cost money, it costs time. There’s lost productivity. And tradeoffs with other things you could be doing.

In other words you have to accurately figure out both the benefits and the costs. And a “six cent per qualifying mile” rule of thumb is a mistake.

There is no rule of thumb that works for everyone to determine whether taking a mileage run is worth it. That’s because everyone is going to get different value out of the status they earn, and because everyone has different tradeoffs – they value their time differently.

So when he was young and in college, the opportunity cost of his time was pretty low. Being up in the air was cool, it was enjoyable, and there weren’t too many other things he needed to get done that all the flying got in the way of. The costs were lower. Now he has to factor in the value of his time.

And when you’ve got a big mileage balance, the value of those incremental additional miles is much lower as well.

As I explained earlier in the week, the value of miles is not the cost of the ticket you buy with those miles divided by the number of points the ticket cost.

That’s especially true at the margin.. If you won’t ever use your very last mile, then the value of that last mile approaches zero.

(As I’ve debated with Ben in the past, the value of a mile is the cost at which you are indifferent to holding miles versus holding cash.)

    I believe that a mileage run — an extra trip for the purpose of earning redeemable miles or status — can make sense at the margin, when you’ve flown most of the way for status already and just need to put yourself over the top. And it’s rarely worth it just for the redeemable miles.

But that’s based on some embedded assumptions —

  • that status is valuable based on flying you are going to need to do in the future, but
  • that the opportunity cost of time is pretty high so you are spending more (ticket cost plus the value of time) than the redeemable miles you’ll earn are worth.

Someone who isn’t going to be traveling much (mileage runs aside) in the coming year won’t benefit from status.

Someone that isn’t working, that doesn’t have family obligations, may have a lower cost of time — and could still profit by earning miles through flying.

From what I know about Lucky, he should make sure he flies enough to earn American’s Executive Platinum status and probably Alaska MVP Gold status. And then he should stay home. He shouldn’t do extra flying to earn redeemable mileage bonuses.


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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Agree though I will say for me flying to hit certain elite status thresholds that will save me real money is what it is really about. Making sure I have free same day changes, E+, award changes, etc. (all of which extend to my whole family on the rez) matters more to me than the complimentary upgrades. That keeps real cash in my pockets, so I will invest some time/cash to earn those perks…but only when it requires on a little additional time/money.

  2. I absolutely agree, that it’s crucial in this hobby to consider the opportunity cost of your time. These are hours, you can spend with your family and friends instead. If you like flying somewhere for a day, great. Just don’t do it for the status. I don’t do mileage runs, mostly because I can’t afford it . But I doubt, I would bother with it, even if I could swing it financially.

  3. I stopped running when the fares on UA went up and I became Million Miler (around the same time).

    Running is like any other hobby. You can spend money on coins (no pun intended), dolls, stamps, wine etc etc. With those, you have something. Running for status is an ego thing. Bragging rights if you will. With Facebook and other distractions, bragging rights aren’t what they use to be on Flyertalk. I’m not sure if bragging in the comments section of this and other blogs carry the same weight. Are the good old days gone?

    What bothers me more is that younger flyers are blowing money they don’t have on mileage runs.

  4. What you’re missing is Lucky (or anyone’s) utility gained from just flying the flights. If he derives pleasure from flying then that has to be factored into the equation as well.

  5. @Omar – perhaps I wasn’t clear enough but I thought I factored that in writing, “So when he was young and in college.. Being up in the air was cool, it was enjoyable”

  6. @mommypoints – exactly, those benefits accrue to the extent you’ve got non-mileage run flying in the coming year, and factor into the benefit side of the equation.

  7. I’m new to the elite status club. I was lucky to receive BA Gold and have my first experience at a priority lounge at the end of 2012. AA offered temporary Platinum status and I had my first upgrade to Business on my work-related LAX-JFK flight. Wow. What a difference. I’m tempted to find a mileage run to meet the 12,000 EPT/EQM criteria as I’ll be few thousand short after my upcoming work-related trips this month. It’s daunting reading and researching how the game works. (I’m still perplexed how to do it.) Thanks for this article. You’ve put things back into perspective.

  8. Agreed. i have never understood intense mileage running beyond a quick top up to a status level. i am lucky to fly around the world for work but get sufficient benefit from being 1k with UA. I don’t need one world or skyteam, by and large, i seem to rack up miles quickly enough to always have a good balance for family trips here and there. To be honest, I am tired of flying, but enjoy being places Ii flew LH first class from EU to US yesterday, and while it is a very nice experience i was just looking forward to it being over and getting home. making 1 k his year by August, I am puting off travel to next year now, as much as I can.

  9. In Europe, where you rarely get upgraded anyway, a lot more people should think seriously about spending money for status. At the margins it adds value, but if all of your flights are F or J anyway then that shiny card does not add much.

    One upside is soft landings, which are still the norm here. If close to BA Gold, it is worth pushing purely to avoid having to requalify at all for anything the following year.

  10. This post and Lucky’s post has really gotten me re-thinking the status chase game (thanks to both of you!).

    For the past 14 years I’ve maintained CP status – largely for transcon upgrades and access to the CP liaisons (those folks have helped me countless times for all sorts of travel irregularities). Of lesser importance are fees and boarding priority as I get those via US’ Mastercard. Lots of domestic and int’l biz travel for me out of DCA (:)) and IAD (:() have made, for the most part, MR’s unncessary. So why am I chasing CP every year? Am not sure if I’ll make it again this year, but can alway buy it if I’m close (will be interesting to see if DP keeps that option after the merger goes thru). So as indicated in Gary’s original post, I can only conclude that each flyer has different reasons for the status chase. In my case, I just have to figure out whether the CP Liaison benny and 7 day upgrades on restricted econ fares are really worth it. If US or the new American join in the rev-based status game (which I think they will), I’ll likely leave the CP ranks… and probably be no worse off in the long run.

    Tip of the hat to Gary & Ben for the enlightening posts!

  11. Other than Lucky, I don’t know anyone who even thinks of mileage running just for RDM. If you have have a regular job, vacation time is much more valuable than RDM.

  12. Well, I’ve pretty ,much given up on MR’s completely. I’m lifetime plat on AA so I’d have to “run” for ex plat to make it worthwhile. I’m also Aegean Gold, which seems to be reupped every year by flying once or twice on United. And prices are up, and double EQM promotions gone.

    Plus, I’ve got a dog. Higher status would be nice to the extent that she really bitches when her upgrade does not clear, but it is actually easier to keep her home.

  13. Lucky is a special case. For most people mileage running doesn’t make sense, but the incremental value of an extra trip and resulting blog post and website traffic probably makes it worth it. In a sense, flying *is* his job.

  14. @jfhscott “’m also Aegean Gold, which seems to be reupped every year by flying once or twice on United. ”

    Aegean Gold, once achieved, is for life.

    You need to have activity in your account every 3 years to keep it active.

    I expect that eventually these rules will change — just as I no longer have my ‘lifetime’ Airtran status (which I had gotten via status match).

  15. I found myself over reaching for AA Exp when it didn’t really fit my travel patterns. Bought my way in the first year, then kept it with a succession of DEQM promos. But without help, suddenly I was finding myself needing to fly to Asia 2x for no reason at year end. All to earn more SWUs that mostly went unused.

    Once you let go of valuing domestic first, life off of the status treadmill is a lot easier.

    But again as Gsry said, it all depends on your ‘real’ travels patterns and how close you are to the next level.

  16. Awesome comments.

    Now, if one is making mileage runs AND also getting some ultra cheap mattress runs, like Hyatt / MLife in Vegas, then there is some extra incentive to making these trips!!!

  17. @Gary – true, A3 is gonna have to do something at some point. What they offer is completely unsustainable if enough United States members catch on. A3 even has a couple of sweet spots in their redemption chart – North America includes the Caribbean and Europe includes North Africa and Israel, making redemptions to the Caribbean and the “near” East attainable. When things improve,
    I’m gonna dive the Red Sea compliments of A3.

    But for now, I’ve got nice benefits for indefinite periods on two of three alliances. Not everyone is in such a position, but given my situation, I’m not going to turn cartwheels for better treatment. Therein may lie the rub for everyone.

  18. My company pays for all my travels and I may mileage run when I am close to reaching a milestone. That, is quite understandable. And of course if you have your own business and want to travel comfortably.

    I just dont understand people that just spend thousands of dollars for the sake of status. That may have worked in the past, but IT IS NOT WORTH IT! That is fool’s gold.

  19. We are spending thousands of dollars for the sake of status – while we are traveling, we are earning status by picking our fares wisely : flights where our upgrades will likely clear and taking advantage of promotions (new route double RDms etc). There is also a large contingent out there who don’t have good credit and can’t keep churning – so we have to fly to accumulate. Lastly, many of us enjoying our 48 hours in NYC or 72 hours in Dublin and love our system wide upgrades and lounge access we achieve with status.

  20. @ Mommypoints I hope, my post did not sound, like was trying to contradict you. We must have been typing at the same time, because I didn’t see your message! Every situation is different, and I do not mean to make absolute statements.

  21. This has been my stance for a while, at least since the plethora of changes that came with the UACO merger gave me a chance to take a step back and think rationally about what I was doing. Once my required domestic flying tapered off I gave up on MRs entirely and stopped worrying about status. At this point I care more about hotel status than that of airlines, since the benefits (e.g. free breakfast / internet, etc) are quantifiable and far more predictable.

    It’s been pretty liberating; instead of having to worry about two constantly devaluing assets (status benefits and points/miles), I now only worry about one.

  22. Wow, I’m really in the minority here: I love flying, love jetting off for quick weekends on $200 fares where I get upgraded and have lounge access and use pre-check and Global Entry and will not give up elite status w/o a fight. For example, I’m flying business (thanks to systemwide upgrades) Lax-Mia-CDG with flagship lounge access and staying four nights at park vendome for 88k Hyatt points (as a diamond) for $828. Now that is elite status!

  23. I agree with your analysis, Gary. Once you’ve hit the elite tier you need, it’s not economic to keep flying just for some additional RDM bonus. Really the same is true of hotels – e.g. HHonors Gold is probably enough given that Diamond has few additional benefits. Similarly on AS MVP Gold is the sweet spot, 75K isn’t worth it.

    But for a U.S. resident who needs to do a fair bit of domestic travel to a diversity of places, top tier status on one of the network carriers that works well from your home to the majority of your destinations is worthwhile. Lounge access, upgrades, good IRROP handling, etc. And then you can remain in alliance for most international travel and still have those benefits.

    Rather than doing pure mile runs if needed to maintain top tier status, try going somewhere you want to go… even if only for a day or two. Meet an old friend. See a museum or a play or learn some history. Combine earning qualifying miles with some fun or value, and then the CPM isn’t so important. Maybe you’ll also get a hotel stay or two. And now it’s not a waste of time.

  24. The one thing you are forgetting is that Lucky doesn’t actually pay for his mileage runs; his mom does.

  25. Question for the bloggers here: I appreciate the perspective, but would any of you be willing to answer –

    Is blogging your day job (meaning primary source of income), or really, truly just a hobby? If so, what are your actual day jobs, if any; or alternatively, what is the source of cash used for paid flying?

    I realize that a lot of you aren’t traditional workers like much of your target audience, but knowing the above would probably help more of us relate.

  26. @Ed I just got started, so no income, just hobby at this point. Most likely will stay that way, given the level of blogs saturation in the business currently. For some bloggers here it is a job, for others: part time gig, it just depends. My day job is stay-at-home mom, but I don’t fit the profile, kind of an oddball here. Source of cash to fly is my husband’s job and credit card bonuses. I will let others chime in.

  27. @Ed – just see the ‘About’ page here on the blog. I have a ‘real job’ and come at all of this as a business traveler.

  28. @Gary – You’re very transparent about your activity. I was more so commenting on the other people appearing in the comments who might be bloggers for other sites. I do think that much of what we read is affected by the source of funding, and how that matches up with our own. Some of the other blogs I read regularly are a little more opaque, and I do think it matters whether I’m reading the opinions of a leisure traveler, business traveler or something else. I think different audiences will value status differently.

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