Josh Barro writes one of the best mainstream pieces on the current state of mileage runs for the New York Times.
It’s a practice known as a mileage run: Buy a low-price airline ticket, in this instance $537, and fly not because you want to go anywhere, but to earn redeemable miles and progress toward elite status on your preferred airline. The core logic behind mileage runs is that airline points have a relatively fixed value, but the cost to accrue them can vary widely, so a low fare for a long trip can reap outsize rewards. Only when you’re taking a mileage run is connecting through Istanbul to get to Amsterdam better than flying there nonstop
When the New York Times comes around to the party that mileage runs are dead…
are used to be (?) two reasons to mileage run:
- Redeemable miles
They can work together of course, some element of each working to justify a trip. It’s been a long time since redeemable miles alone have made mileage runs worthwhile (even without valuing the time taken on the trip or other costs besides the flight). That’s only become more exacerbated.
Gary Leff, who runs the View From the Wing blog about air travel, notes three phenomena that have already cut against the mileage run over the last decade. Airfares have gone up and planes are more full, meaning it’s harder to find the sort of deeply discounted fares that make sense for mileage running. Airlines have increased the number of points required to get a reward ticket, which makes frequent flier miles less valuable. And they’re not giving out as many promotions in which travel earns extra bonus miles.
Travelers who want to keep their mileage run options open have a home, for now: American Airlines, which so far has not copied United and Delta’s changes. American has announced no plans to move away from awarding frequent flier miles in exchange for actual miles flown. Mr. Leff attributes this to American’s ongoing merger with US Airways: Mergers are complicated, and the fewer changes you make during them, the better. In time, the combined American-US Airways may follow suit, but for now it’s your best bet if you enjoy plane rides to nowhere.
An incremental trip to earn elite status — say you’ve already flown 90,000 miles and just need to get over the top for 100,000 mile top tier status which you’ll value a great deal the next year — can still make sense.
“In many cases, they were already a much less attractive thing to do,” Mr. Leff said of mileage runs. “In many of the cases where they still made sense, they still make some sense.” That is, mileage runs will continue to be useful for travelers who are within a few miles of reaching the next elite status tier. The minimum spend requirement prevents travelers from building their entire path to status on cheap tickets, but one long, cheap flight can still put you over the hump to silver or gold as long as your previous trips were reasonably expensive.
One quibble I have is Barro’s claim that “mileage running has never made much economic sense for the airlines.”
A dozen years ago, United’s answer on mileage runs was:
It’s allowed in the program. Have at it!!!!!!…We appreciate loyal customers!!!!!
Flyers were buying fares offered by the airline (presumably to their benefit) and filling incremental seats that would have gone unsold, so nearly their entire fare was essentially profit. When planes are empty, it made good sense for the airlines.
Even here though the calculation could be different between an airline providing redeemable miles and status miles, and whether we’re talking about rewarding someone with perks if they add an incremental trip or two (makes sense) versus someone who mileage runs from zero to status (something I never understood from the perspective of the traveler).