Why the Era of Mileage Running is Over

At the end of each year stories appear about mileage running, taking flights for the sole purpose of accumulating frequent flyer miles.

I spoke to a writer yesterday interested in the phenomenon, and I told him his story was several years late.

I first heard about the practice sitting on a short flight from Washington Dulles to Atlanta in 1998, my seat opponent was telling me about a friend of his enroute to Tokyo trying to requalify for his top tier elite status on United. I was flummoxed, it hadn’t ever occurred to me that someone would do that.

Just three years later I found myself doing my very first mileage run – an end of the year trip to put myself over the top for status.

I’ve rarely made true mileage runs, though I’ve taken incremental trips that were more weekend getaways but influenced by the miles I’d earn.

Once upon a time the economics could make good sense, but several changes have really pushed the idea of a mileage run very much to the sidelines.

  1. Higher airfares. If it ever made sense to ‘buy miles’ by flying, it no longer does unless there’s a fat finger mistake fare dropping a digit. The cost of acquiring miles this way is simply too high.
  2. Better alternatives to earn miles It’s become easier and cheaper to acquire miles through other means (a mileage run could have made relative sense when credit card signup bonuses were usually 15,000 miles but harder to justify when you can sign up for a card and get 50,000 — why spend days on a plane and cash?
  3. Minimum spend requirements for elite status. Mileage running always made more sense to me as a way of putting oneself over the top for status, you fly 85,000 miles in a year and need an incremental trip to become a 100,000 mile flyer with concomitant upgrades and other benefits. But it’s no longer about flying those 100,000 miles the cheapest, at least with United and Delta who are imposing minimum spend requirements for elite status next year. You can avoid those requirements if you live outside the US, or if you spend at least $25,000 in a year on their co-brand credit cards (but United will only let you earn up to Platinum status that way). But the game has changed and the idea of becoming a top tier elite for under $2000 – because of program changes and airfares – is pretty much over.
  4. Alternatives to flying for earning elite status. US Airways was first out of the gate with creative offers ~ 7 years ago, “everything counts” where holiday shopping purchase miles would help towards status. Credit card spend can help earn elite status with certain cards and at certain thresholds. United used to let you redeem miles for elite qualifying miles at a 10,000:1,000 ratio. United will sell you qualifying miles with ticket purchsaes, US Airways will let you straight up buy qualifying miles and segments. Delta and American will sell you your last qualifying miles to put you over the top towards status. While often expensive, these options save not just the cost of the ticket but time in a plane away from family at the end of the year.

These factors combine to make mileage running — which at some margin can occasionally make sense — very much a bit player on the frequent flyer stage rather than a core component of the hobby.

Mileage running: may she rest in peace.

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. If your status comes with tangible benefits a MR still make sense: DL gives free upgrades, UA hands out regional and longhaul upgrades, LH allows you to book awards on otherwise sold out flights.

  2. I completely agree. I am actually year end mileage running on Delta from home, buying Amex gift cards via topcashback and liquidating them via google wallet. When you do the math it is costing about 1.6 cent per MQM which is a price most mileage runners would wet in their pants over. And I don’t have to spend entire weekends on planes flying across the country.

    @Oliver2002 – those benefits are helpful but today the cost of acquiring them via standard mileage running is prohibitive. Why would you pay thousands of dollars in unneeded flights to give maybe a few hundred worth of additional benefits?

  3. The biggest change for me is the airlines don’t value your loyalty. They have become more transaction based and while it used to be worth it to get the status to secure the extra upgrades and other benefits, this is no longer the case – at least with United. I also wouldn’t consider myself a mileage runner but I have done a weekend in Hawaii with requalification in mind before.

  4. @Cacinda Maloney – I do have that article open on my screen to possibly share some thoughts, though it isn’t clear to me mattress running has actually INCREASED and the article doesn’t present any data that suggests it has.

  5. Speaking only from my own experience, the one exception I’d suggest is that I sometimes take a longer routing to build up more miles if it’s the same cost at ticketing or if I can do a same-day change for no cost.

    For instance, last month I was flying LAS-DEN, and I changed to LAS-SFO-DEN to tack on an extra 800 or so EQMs. Also last month flying C from ZRH-JFK, I booked ZRH-GVA-JFK for a 600 EQM bump.

    Earlier in the year I did DCA-SFO-PHX instead of DCA-IAH-PHX for a similar reason.

    Not mileage running per se… maybe mileage jogging?

  6. RE#2 – while your point is good for the idea of earning spendable miles, most talk of mileage running is about the EQMs. What you mention in #2 rarely results in EQMs.

    I think US has it right, just buy up to a higher tier if you want it and haven’t earned it by EOY. I’ve made Platinum with US and have seriously considered just buying up to retain Chairmans.

  7. What I wonder is how much do people generally value their time? Even for 12 hour US East-West coast RT, if you value an hour of your time at a modest $30/hour, that’s $360…

  8. Gary, certainly you agree that finishing the year at 99,000 miles is still silly. For a couple hundred bucks you can still pick up a significant benefits, even if they pale into comparisons with yesteryear.

    My graduate adviser taught me that the most notable people in a field like to say controversial things to be recognized as thought leaders. Frankly, that’s all you’re doing here — trying to make a splash with a controversial headline that even yourself don’t fully believe.

    Didn’t Lucky just do about 75 THOUSAND miles worth of mileage runs this past week??? 🙂

  9. I’ve been saying from day one that mileage run is not worth it. You can earn more than you can use by manufactured spending and credit card sign up bonuses. Never mileage ran once and can’t even use all my points. Don’t see the point in mileage running, unless you travel for fun every 2 months or so…

  10. I think FF programs have out lived their real intended purpose. The number of people flying today compared o those flying when airlines started FF’s some 33 years ago.

    Today, there are more flyers, while the competition shrinks, resulting in densely packed aircraft. In reality the cost to benefit ratio of maintaining and running FF’s is diminishing.

    I think Ff’s will continue to devalue to the point where they stop being of value to anyone. They will likely morph into something very different than they r today.

    Its more conducive today to cut costs, operate more efficiently, establish higher yielding routes, and running promotions cyclically than keeping points recurring as a huge debit item on balance sheets

  11. I would contend that FF programs NEVER lived up to their intended purpose. From the very start of the AAdvantage program, most of the early sign-ups were in their two major hubs at the time: DFW and ORD. Is it truly loyalty to select the most convenient/default carrier? Yet, the first time that frequent flyer couldn’t get the AA flight they wanted, he/she grabbed a DL or UA flight and signed up for their program.

    It was a long time before the airlines made the move to give differentiated credit based on fare or class type, so the grandma flying ORD-MCO once a year on a cheapo excursion fare got the same mileage as the exec flying in full Y. At least the hotels did it right from the get-go by giving points based on dollars spent. Now that the airlines are adding on a minimum spending requirement, they’re trying to do what they should have done from the start, but it’s coming off as a penalty rather than a reward.

  12. @hobo13 yes agree completely. Although I posted earlier in Lucky’s comments suggesting that it was not worth taking those Brazil flights..

  13. Well, it’s funny because I think I was one of the first people in the world to go on a “mileage run.” Of course, the practice didn’t actually have a name back in December 1989 when I flew Eastern Airlines from MIA to TPA and then got right back on the plane to fly back to MIA. About $60 roundtrip. I realized I was slightly short of their top status, and they had a program back then called “Infinite Elite” that awarded you top status for life if you reached that for 5 years. I’m still a UA 1K because of that flight, so it was definitely worth it!

    That said, I’ve never gone on a “pure” mileage run since. Oh, sure, I’ve taken some trips since then that I wouldn’t have done except for the miles, but I’ve never flown “just for the miles.” And it’s almost unimaginable that anyone would do so today because elite flying is so much worse. Heck, UA practically programs its computer to try to sell “my” upgrade to the highest bidder. It would take something like a guarantee of lifetime elite for very little money to get me to do it again.

  14. When I saw the sentence start: “I first heard about the practice sitting on a short flight from Washington Dulles to Atlanta in 1998…”, I thought “Uh oh, here we go….”. But, surprisingly tight post.

  15. Mid 90s I was more into segment running, pushing as many segments as I could onto each business trip. That coupled with my airline credit card meant I earned enough each trip for first class upgrades. Throw in voluntary bumping and I was funding some good personal travel! I lost interest in pursuing on my own once a job change led to no business travel.

  16. I think it still makes sense for what I call the Infrequent Flyer. That is, someone who flys 20k or 40k miles per year for work or some other reason. In their case it can make sense to do a MR for the incremental 5/10k needed to make the next elite level.

  17. I used to be a pretty frequent mileage runner to keep my 1K status. My business travel would probably have topped out at 60K-75K and the running supplemented that. It used to be that mileage running was one way I could acutally get work done as I sat in first class using my upgrades and was undisturbed. The degradation in the UA program benefits plus my achieving MM status once the CO and UA programs combined ended my need to mileage run.

  18. I’m still able to find cheap fares and I do work on the plane during MR. When United changed the 1K requirement to include PQS, I didn’t skip a beat. I’m just going to fly 200+ PQM instead of the usual 150. I earn PQM at about 4 cents per mile and RDM at half that with the bonus. Works out to about $500 for a 25k reward ticket which is fine with me as rewards allow me to cancel or change on a whim.

  19. I don’t think it’s over and here’s why:
    1. AA or AS don’t have a PQD requirement. For now, you will see mileage running occur on both of those airlines.
    2. As long as AA keeps offering the ELTA Awards, then mileage running to hit those thresholds will occur. Those special awards will net elite flyers tons of new miles and SWUs to use.
    3. Miles alone can not take you everywhere so the useful of acquiring SWUs will be out there. Look at Lucky’s travel patterns and you’ll see he uses both SWUs and miles to make his travel happen. This really only applies to AA here.
    4. Since one could bypass MQD requirements on DL by using a CC and manufactured spend, I don’t see MQM running ending at DL.
    5. Savvy business travelers who meet the minimum spend but can’t hit their required 100K eqm will still mileage run to top it off.
    6. Lastly, some people do it for fun. They simply don’t do it for the status.

    I don’t see it being over at all. The game has changed but the game is still out there.

  20. Looking at MCO-ANC for A3 Gold, as I have a voucher that I probably wouldn’t get full value for otherwise…

  21. Sorry guys there has to be more on the line than access to crappy domestic UA clubs to make mileage running worth it.

  22. 100% agree with Nick. Gary completely missed the biggest factor which is the major denigration of benefits (notwithstanding DL’s recent upgrade enhancements for top elites). UA 1Ks simply does not offer sufficient value to justify an expensive time consuming mileage run (and 2P status is even less valuable). As UA 1K @SFO I get no domestic CPUs and some RPU/GPU that I can rarely use for my family (and never on award travel). The major benefits are fee waivers, shorter lines, E+ seats and bonus miles (devalued).

    AA ExPlat offers better value but the tradeoff is lack of horizontal lie flat international. DL PM/DM is the opposite of UA: frequent upgrades but worthless skypesos. AS MVP is similarly useless.

    So really the driver is the dimished value provided to elites compared with 10 years ago or even 5 years ago. In the 90s I was treated better as a 2P than I am now as a 1K.

    The only justification I could see for doing an inexpensive MR would be to reach 50k EQM which provides some real soft benefits on most carriers. But some of these can now be gleaned from simply paying the annual fee on an airline CC.

  23. Made sense for A3 Star Gold status (on Copa, or US), although UA yanked out the 3 bags, so maybe not now. Also, while pure MRs are rare, it can make sense for booking circuitous routing (when the fare is same or cheaper). Seems like the same kind of silliness that would get journalists excited.

  24. Yep I use to fly to Singapore for MR’s best run and a great place to go. But since the merger with the fare increases not so easy to do and not so worth it anymore. UA doesn’t seem interested in keeping its loyal flyers anymore and only cares about bottom dollar. Especially since they stripped upgrades from us million mile fliers.

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