Yesterday I declared that the era of mileage running is over.
Except in some very limited cases, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to buy tickets and fly just to earn miles.
One case is “mistake fares” that are so low the benefits may outweigh the costs (although even there, the value of your time needs to be factored in, although when it’s an incremental ‘vacation’ rather than purely a trip for the miles that calculation changes).
Another is a single trip at the margin to earn something substantial like top tier elite status — I would argue against mileage running from scratch to get to 100,000 mile flyer status, but if ypu’re going to end the year at 96,000 miles then an incremental trip probably makes sense, provided you expect to fly as much in the coming year and will reap the benefits of the higher status.
The point here is you have to judge the value of the investment of time and money at the margin.
When I wrote last week about determining how much miles are worth, I explained that it matters how many miles you already have. The first miles you earn aren’t worth very much. Earning more miles when you have several million doesn’t get you much. Those miles are worth fare less than any theoretical average value. But the miles you earn that put you over the top for a specific award are worth quite a lot — if I have 89,000 US Airways miles, I’d gladly pay 50 cents per mile for the last 1000 miles that gets me a business class award ticket to Hong Kong.
With that in mind, consider the New York Times coverage of hotel mattress runs, checking into hotels just to earn stay or night credit towards elite status.
Most hotel programs award status based either on the number of stays (often 25 stays yields top tier status, but if varies by hotel chain) or number of nights over the course of a year (ranging from 50 to 75 for top tier status).
There are essentially three ways that travelers earn ‘extra’ stays and nights.
- Extra stays can be earned by ‘switching hotels’. Perhaps you have a three night stay. Check into hotel A the first night, hotel B the second night, and back to hotel A the third. That way you earn 3 stays instead of just one for those same 3 nights.
- You can make a decision to stay at a hotel chain you frequent instead of a more convenient hotel. This is really the effect of loyalty. I admit I do it, it isn’t necessarily worth it for the benefits on a given stay but if I only do it a couple of times per year then the accrued benefits over the course of a full year can justify it. It’s just important to understand how much inconvenience you’re going through for status.
- Booking extra hotel nights you don’t need — you just check in but don’t even stay. Ideally you find hotels that don’t even require the check-in, but if you live close to a hotel that’s cheap you can check in quite reasonably and you’re “buying next year’s benefits.”
Hotel mattress runs bring fewer redemption benefits but also usually come at a lower cost than airline mileage runs, and may be more worthwhile for earning elite status — but again, at what margin is the key question? How many nights or stays do you need, how much do you need to spend, and how much inconvenience are you incurring? And then you weigh that against the benefit of what you receive — likely upgrades and free breakfast in the coming year, whose value is determined by how much those things mean to you and how frequently you’ll travel and use them in the year ahead.
Hotel loyalty programs are generally revenue-based on the earning side. The number of points you earn towards free nights are generally based on the amount of money you spend, so it’s harder to get outsized benefits from incremental stays. With an airline you may earn points that you redeem for international first class saver awards — you’re getting something expensive on the cheap that the airline makes available because it would otherwise go unsold. But hotel programs don’t have the same sort of capacity controls usually that airlines do, and don’t offer the same kind of outsized value as a result.
Occasionally hotel programs offer promotions that can justify mattress running for the points or free nights. Those were common in 2009 and 2010, and very uncommon today.
Four years ago you could earn a free night at any Hyatt in the world for every two stays (including cheap one-night airport stays) and you could earn thousands of United miles at the same time through stackable promotions. That made mattress running, even status benefits aside, worthwhile.
But the depths of the Great Recession are gone, hotels are much closer to capacity, and loyalty programs aren’t pushing the pedal to the metal to goose heads in beds the way they were then.
Hotel programs have become more important than they were fifteen years ago, when many hotels were just awarding miles in airline loyalty programs or when they had their own those didn’t have much penetration in their guest base. Now many brands see that a majority of guests are members.
And people certainly make mattress runs at the end of the year to ensure their status, since better treatment will make their coming year much easier and because it’s cheaper and less time consuming than airline mileage running.
But I’m not sure that the ‘trend’ the Times piece is suggesting is real, that mattress running is more common than three or four years ago, especially because this analysis just seems three years late:
The loophole, if it can be called that, is that travelers typically can accrue credit toward those freebies by staying at lower-end brands in the company’s portfolio, but they usually can redeem their free nights at high-end and even luxury hotels.
“It’s worth staying for $50 or $60 a night to earn a free night I can then use in Chicago or New York or Vegas,” Ms. Lynn said. Last summer, she drove to a hotel an hour from her home, checked into a $54 room and stayed only moments.
Unfortunately that’s just not really how it works today, without free night promotions on top of regular points earned.
Are you mattress running this year? If so, how come?