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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.