Don’t Mileage Run!

Win asked whether or not he should mileage run.

I’ve not flown since before September 11, 2001 and am tired of driving around in the car. Time to get in the air! An American Airlines/US Air mileage run (using weekends only) to earn elite status might be fun – any thoughts on an optimal strategy? (I’ve got the US Airways Premier World MasterCard but not earned any preferred qualifying miles). Thanks for a great blog!

If you’re flying for leisure purposes, and you’re not flying constantly, you do not need and probably shouldn’t, mileage run.

Now, if you’re flying just for the fun of flying, then by all means. Fly a lot and focus on a single airline. Earn status, and the flying will become more enjoyable.

But that’s a pretty limiting case.

Someone who is already flying almost enough for their status level may find it worthwhile to take an incremental trip. But starting from zero odds on you spend more to get status than the value that will return to you.

A pure leisure traveler should:

  • Be a free agent, buy the cheapest tickets.
  • Earn lots of miles to redeem for premium cabin travel, where they get most of the benefits of status with the required flying.

The value of status is based on how much you’re going to fly in the coming year. If you’re not flying a lot in the year you’re earning status, odds on that’s a pattern for most that will repeat – meaning not enough flying to get the value of that status (and to amortize the cost of the mileage runs across).

So my advice, though it may sound strange coming from me, is not to mileage run – don’t earn status – and if you want many of the benefits attached to the introductory tier of status then consider your airline’s co-brand credit card which may come with priority boarding and free checked bags and maybe a couple of lounge passes as well.

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, 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. I agree that if you don’t travel all the time status is not worth so much. I do pretty well flying international economy by choosing a center aisle very near the back. The adjacent middle seats are usually empty, so I have more room than elites in a fully occupied economy plus section. Sometimes I even have enough room to lie down and sleep!

  2. I think this is pretty good advice. I used to mileage run to earn status and points. That was back in the days when airlines had lots of lucrative promotions, and elite programs delivered on benefits.

    I would probably change the buy the cheapest tickets to buy the best tickets for yourself. Today I shop around, not necessarily for the cheapest business class tickets, but for the most comfortable seats that are priced reasonably.

    I have really enjoyed Delta and would previously not have, if United had not changed their program elite program. Fares in business class for $1800 were hard to beat from Seattle. I have an upcoming flight to Europe via LAX on Americans 77W, and a return on BA’s A380.

    Add all that to some point purchases where I get to fly Emirates A380 in F to Bangkok. Managed to generate nearly a million miles on US Airways at 1.1 CPM that will be fun to fly on Etihad once they merge with AA.

    All in all, instead of spending an average of $7000-$10000 to be top tier, I am spending less and enjoying much better products.

  3. “Buy the cheapest ticket”?

    What terrible advice.

    It’s like “eat at the cheapest restaurant”, “stay at the cheapest hotel”, “buy the cheapest car” or “buy the cheapest house”.

    “Buy the best value” is really what your advice should be.

    I, and lots of people I know, rarely buy the cheapest ticket — we avoid terribly tight seats, aircrafts without IFE, airlines with horrendous customer service (we settle for bad), and so on. But we also rarely eat at the cheapest restaurant, stay at the cheapest hotel, and we don’t own the cheapest car nor the cheapest house. Maybe you do?

  4. I would disagree, until recently, about one part of this post. As a leisure traveler, my current obsession is the tropical pacific. Now, I don’t mileage run…but I have stuck with one carrier on my leisure travel; UAL.

    Between my Mileage Plus Explorer card and and flying UAL on my leisure destinations…even if there were cheaper fares available…I’ve been able to pile up my miles on one carrier to use for award travel in the Pacfic…not necessarily on United but other *A carriers. In the Pacific *A is dominant. I can get to most locations in the Pacific flying *A.

    Of course now that UAL has essentially killed the mileage run with its new miles accrual policy, I’m now looking to move off my exclusivity. I’ll probably sign up for the Chase Sapphire card as well and only occasionally use my Mileage Plus cards just to keep my current miles alive (and get the meager perks of owning the card which I can’t get any other way since I’m not elite and have only reached elite status once).

  5. Actually, I should clarify the above. United killing the mileage run isn’t the issue…it’s a side effect. UAL altering how many miles you can get on a flight…essentially devaluing the miles you fly…is the issue. The one time I got elite status was due to flying to ROR once, Cabo once, and to OGG and LIH. But under the new system, that 15,000 miles I got flying to ROR would drop tremendously and I never would have qualified. Which is, I guess, United’s goal…to rid them of people like me from their elite rolls. Well they’ll rid me alright. I no longer feel beholden to flying UAL. I’ll go with whoever can get me there the cheapest. There’s no reason to fly more expensive flights if it doesn’t benefit me some way.

  6. I tend to be a few thousand miles short for DIamond at the end of the year, so I’d take some crazy routings (LAX-ATL-PDX) for those extra miles. This year, I accidentally came up with a new strategy. PDX is my home airport, and a round trip PDX-SEA-PDX is in the $150-ish range. But it counts as 500 MQMs minimum per segment! So for a few hours at the airport (only once through security), I do a same day return flight (earning 1000 MQMs for $150) and either just turn right around at the gate, or head to the sky club (free as a Diamond) for a few hours of tasty snacks and beverages. Whee!

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