Is Domestic First Class the New Mileage Run?

It became commonplace in the past few year to declare the mileage run dead. And for the most part, the traditional mileage run has been dead for a long time. A combination of rising airfares and rising award prices meant that it no longer made sense to fly for the redeemable miles earned.

It didn’t used to be that way. Double, triple, and even quadruple miles offers abounded a dozen years ago. Airfares were low, $200 cross country roundtrips were common or even $500 roundtrips between the US and Southeast Asia (upgradable even).

I once cleared about 100,000 redeemable miles on a single roundtrip, and back then United’s business class awards between the US and Australia were 90,000 miles roundtrip. Sure, the opportunity cost of my time was lower back then. And there was no inflight internet. But I curled up with a good book.

Mileage runs became less about earning points for future travel, and more about elite status. You’d fly in order to be better treated when you fly. I never thought it made sense to do this from zero, but it if you were going to fly 90,000 miles a year and were going to fly at least that much in the following year it could make sense to fly that extra 10,000 miles to earn top tier status. It would make a big difference in comfort in the year to come.

Once upon a time airlines appreciated the mileage runner. At least United did.

PremEx2000
Does United frown on “mileage runs”? Next week, I’m flying to Singapore and back in a couple of days just for the miles — and I’m flying on a really inexpensive ticket.

Randy Petersen
Ohhhh, good question…..

Robert Sahadevan
It’s allowed in the program. Have at it!!!!!!

Randy Petersen
Straight from the boss….. I guess that’s an endorsement to fly….

Jim Davidovich
We appreciate loyal customers!!!!!

Two years later – in 2003 – United’s Sahadevan changed his tune.

He said that for too long flyers have gotten more value out of the airline than their revenue was worth.

US Airways found a way to let flyers earn their end of year status without actually taking up seats on the plane. They called it ‘Everything Counts’ and everything but credit card spend counted towards status at the end of one year.

United makes money selling bonus qualifying miles with each ticket. Of course you can buy the qualifying miles, cancel the ticket, and the qualifying miles still stay in your account (that part gets no refund). They increase the price of those qualifying miles as the end of the year approaches.

American will sell you the last bit of miles towards status. So will Delta.

Though perhaps the greatest way ever to mileage run was with Lufthansa Private Jet.

With United and Delta revenue-based for mileage-earning, and imposing minimum spend requirements for elite status — and with American going revenue-based for earning later this year — it’s tough to mileage run the old fashioned way, either for redeemable miles or even for status. Airlines will sell you part of the way towards status, but it isn’t cheap.

There’s the occasional mistake fare that may be worthwhile for mileage running (you’ll usually have to credit the miles to a partner airline if it’s a US airline’s fare, because of revenue-based earning).

But now the way to mileage run for status may be domestic first class fares, which really turns mileage running on its head.

American offers double elite qualifying miles on domestic first class tickets.

United quickly copied American. With United, discount first class earns double elite qualifying miles.

Instead of just offering expensive first class fares, what the airlines have gone to is taking discount coach fares and adding a fixed amount to them for first class.

Hence the $159 buy-up to first class, regardless of coach fare purchased Dallas – Las Vegas:

$159 is less that the cost of the paid coach fare. So your second set (doubled) of elite qualifying miles comes at less than the cost of the first ticket.

It may be a much better deal to buy a ticket and buy it in first class, rather than buying two tickets and flying more, spending more time, to earn the incremental miles needed for elite status.

Of course when there’s a great international business class deal that’s even better.

But the way status and bonuses now work, mileage runs can be more efficient in premium cabins than in coach. But they still only really make sense at the margin, topping off a small number of miles to boost you over the next status hurdle that you’re close to, and if you’re going to fly at least as much in the coming year.

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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Comments

  1. @Gary-

    I would beg to differ on a single, yet important point; it does not have to be domestic anymore. With the battle heating up over the Latin American and South America markets (plus the economic woes of Brazil) I am seeing (and providing) a lot of my Mileage Run clients amazing opportunities on Business / First Class Mileage Runs to destinations like Liberia, Panama City, Lima, Bogota and even (occasionally) São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

    Mileage Runs are not dead…it just takes the few and truly dedicated to identify them…

    This also explains why Mileage Run services are beginning to proliferate in the void….

    Just my thoughts from ‘inside the bubble’

  2. @mark
    again..same douchebag that compalined about tacky flyers..now complaining about the blog he reads…
    spare us…go upgrade yourself to F

  3. Definitely feel that a couple of good expensive flight runs a year to get status will be the deal going forward. With redeemable miles harder to accrue and getting less value than before status will matter more IMO.

  4. I love this post. A great mix of nostalgia for old timers/newbies and present opportunities for all.

  5. With minimum spend requirements for elite status now becoming the norm, could status based solely on spending be far off? Things sure have changed in the past decade…

  6. Gary, where on AA’s website can I get confirmation that domestic F tickets earn 2 EQMs per mile flown? I have looked and don’t see any reference to this.

    Thanks!

  7. Hi Gary

    Any transcontinental examples (like DFW-LAS) that allow for coastal dwellers to maximize things?

  8. ORDFlyer it’s on the mileage earning charts on the AAdvantage section of aa.com and was the subject of several emails from AA advising of changes in their program for 2016. Where have you been for the past six months?

  9. I am surprised it took you this long to post. I’ve been flying paid F for the past few years because the marginal cost is very reasonable given the gradually rise in economy fares + bag fees + E+/reserved seat fees. Why pay $59 for E+ and $25 per bag when you can fly F, get free drinks, priority boarding, etc. And as you note, better EQM and RDM. Paid F makes far more sense than E+ for lower/non-elites.

    Did you miss the irony in that this is exactly what DL wants you to do? (well I guess you hit that point a few days back, without tying the points together)

  10. I agree with Boraxo that this is not new news. It’s been true for several years. It’s actually grown more prevalent as upgrades on MRs became harder to obtain.

    F fare sales and discounted F are the new mileage runs.

    As for the irony, it is the stock-in-trade of travel blogs.

  11. This has the best development EVER for my travels! I don’t even want to LOOK behind the curtain. That would make my eyes burn .. 🙂

  12. If you are on a flight where you don’t think your free domestic upgrade (DL, UA, or AA for EXP) is going to clear, then anything where an upgrade costs 10-12 cents a mile is consistent with the old school “sticker” prices – AA is now $40 for 500 miles. If you’d have been wiling to use stickers to upgrade on AA, the cost of the mileage run is essentially the F increment minus 8 cpm.

    This is what Delta has figured out (thus their recent comments about limiting upgrades by selling F) and the others are learning. I fly DL only a couple of times a year, but when I do, it’s in from G class first class bucket. An upcoming trip has me upgrading from Q to G for $39, for a one hour flight. That’s the same price that AA would charge for 1 sticker, but since I have no status with Delta, it’s an easy call.

    But if I did have status with Delta, say Gold… my free upgrade probably wouldn’t clear, and I could get an extra 250 MQM and 39 MQD as well as the upgrade. An even easier call, unless you’re one of the poor souls stuck having to buy your tickets from Concur or other corporate “we hate our employees” systems.

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