The Final Death of the Mileage Run

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…

There are used to be (?) two reasons to mileage run:

  1. Redeemable miles
  2. Status

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.

And revenue-based mileage earning at United and Delta mean that the miles you earn won’t ever be enough to make incremental trips for future free trips worthwhile.

American isn’t making this sort of change, at least right away.

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).

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. Disagree.

    Had two of the greatest elite status mileage runs of my career this year. $1,500 fares to Europe in Biz Class.

    Comfortable, more than $0.10 a mile so beneficial for PQD, some nice RDMs, and a chance to see new places.

    A good use of time and money to requalify, unlike the bargain basement coach mileage runs of years past.

  2. I’ve never done a mileage run (although I might do a dollars run at the end of the year; remains to be seen), but I definitely do mileage vacations.

    Being Boston based, I’ve scheduled unnecessary Asia vacations the past 3 years to keep 1K status, and I also depend on the 10K PQMs I get from my old United Platinum Class Visa.

    I expect to requal for 1K next month. I’m not sure what the future holds. I’m curious to find out next year what the revenue requirement does to the number of other 1Ks I encounter ahead of me on upgrade lists…. not much, I imagine, since I’m generally outclassed by GS on my monthly BOS-SFO trips.

    I’m at 800K lifetime at the end of this year, so there’s a huge sunk cost for me to abandon UA. They also have the best service out of my city to the destinations I travel.

    Airlines do current status matches regularly… is anyone daring enough to do a lifetime status match?

  3. Just over $700 next week, LGA-SEA via IAH in first gets me lifetime *G. I’d say that’s still worth it! And I first heard about this MR on this blog!

  4. i will finish the year at about 95-96k in AA, anybody who tells me that taking a quick rt to dallas or red eye and back to jfk (upgraded to business on a Saturday in december)for 400 usd, has no idea what they are talking about as that will put me at EXP status with 8 SWU that I can use for my 4 RT to south america next year….
    obviously each case is different but to say that MR is dead is simply ridiculous, as Gary says, in particular to AA members who are very close to next threshold…

  5. The best MRs are not pure MRs but trips where you can overnight in a far-away city where you can catch up with old friends or make a quick tourist visit.

    As you note, MRs only make sense for those who plan to fly frequently next year and still need to clear an EQM threshhold. And even then it depends on how you value the elite benefits. The sweet spots are generally 50k EQM (advance seat rez, no bag fees, maybe lounge access) and more so at 100k EQM (confirmed upgrades, fee waivers).

    I had sworn off MRs but my 2014 paid travel has been unusually light, so never-say-never, particularly as I can still get 2x RDM based on flight mileage…

  6. I’ve had some great runs this year – eg Wideroe and some more to come – notably one huge 27k run which works out at 2.86c per pqm.

    Currently Mileage runs can still make a lot of sense particularly:

    1)if you have high status and get upgraded to first for free and also get the extra bonus miles &
    2)you are going to a place where you can have a short holiday.

  7. I tend to agree with @Boraxo
    When I MR, I usually try to make the trip worth while. e.g. spend bit more money and visit friends or have a better flight time where I can go out and wonder around in the city.

  8. Every trip I make is a mileage run. I fly long haul international business class that my employer pays for. My cost per mile is exactly $0.00. And I keep status.

  9. Of course you think it is a great piece; it offers publicity for you. Shame it (and you) missed many details about points valuation and how easy it is to avoid the minimum spend issues.

    But getting quoted in the NYTimes is always good for business. So congrats on that.

  10. @Wandering Aramean – you have no idea what I missed, since you weren’t a part of the discussion with the author.

    I actually did make the point (though I wasn’t quoted doing so) that minimum spend levels are irrelevant for most. If you’d read the piece carefully you’ll see that the author explains average fares are about 50% higher than the minimum for status..!

    You’re not going to get all of the nuances in any piece like this. There are lengths at issue, and audience. But for a New York Times columnist I think it’s actually pretty good.

    And regarding your suggestion that this is self serving, it is, but not for the reason you suggest.

    * Getting quoted in the New York Times really isn’t “good for business” it pretty has zero effect. I’ve turned up there many times, and unless it’s an article on say the front page or one of the most highly trafficked places online, and unless it includes a link that’s offered in a compelling way, it drives traffic not at all. I got about 100 visits off of it yesterday, which is about what you’d expect.

    * But self-serving? Absolutely, in the same vein as my recent post on media, that I described as a post only my grandmother would want to read. End of the day this blog has always been what’s interested me, for whatever reason, and sharing a piece that I think is pretty good for a mainstream venue and that quotes me extensively is the kind of thing I’m going to share on my blog.

    But you’ve had an issue with me online for awhile, for reasons I don’t get. That’s cool, and maybe it’s an especially rough morning? Regardless, I hope the day ahead treats you well!

  11. There are a couple instances off the top of my head where a mileage run still makes sense.

    First, on UA, for those who have the PQD requirement waived due to CC spend (up to Platinum status).

    Second, for those who tend to travel for business and are ok on PQD, but fall short on mileage or segments due to short domestic trips. I may be in that boat, as I already have well over $10k PQD, but only around 51k PQM. I expect to end the year very close to 75k PQM and 80 PQS, so a MR may be in my future.

    Now, could mileage running be impractical for a larger percentage of the population now due to the PQD factor? Sure, but it’s not dead. Just more specific use cases, with which I’m sure the airline are completely fine.

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