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How to Maximize a Flight Deal with a Mileage Run

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With the end of the year creeping ever closer, many elite flyers may be concerned about not achieving their desired status for next year. Enter the mileage run, a trip planned primarily — or even solely — for the elite and/or redeemable mileage you’ll earn. TPG Contributor JT Genter shows how you can turn a good deal into a maximized mileage run.

First, let’s start with a flight deal: Houston (IAH) to Johannesburg (JNB) for $789 round-trip on British Airways, which is a 100%-earning Oneworld partner of American Airlines. If you search for options on Google Flights, you’ll find a decent amount of options for November-December (or January-March, if you want to get a head-start on next year’s earnings).

Cover a lot of ground in just four legs
You can cover a lot of ground in just four legs! Image courtesy of the Great Circle Mapper.

Considering that any flight from the US to South Africa under $1,000 is a pretty great deal, you might be tempted to just jump on the first option that pops up: a $789 round-trip through London (LHR) with one stop. Flying this itinerary will earn you 20,908 EQMs (elite-qualifying miles) at a rate of just 3.77 cents per EQM — impressive for a non-mistake fare. This option will let you experience the British Airways 777 from IAH-LHR (and back), and gives you the option between the British Airways 747-400 and the A380 from LHR-JNB.

Note that when you book this route (IAH-LHR-JNB-LHR-IAH) completely on British Airways, the itinerary is eligible for the British Airways Visa Signature‘s 10% discount and the AARP $65 discount on economy flights — although the latter is temporarily unavailable, or may have even been discontinued.

Once you get used to the legroom in Main Cabin Extra, can you comfortably return to this?

However, if you currently have AAdvantage elite status, you may already be spoiled by the option of free Main Cabin Extra (premium economy) seats when you fly on American — but what if there was a way to earn more miles and fly as far as you can go on American Airlines’ planes?

The good news is that there is a way — using Google’s ITA Matrix and advanced routing codes — and I’ll walk you through the process.

Houston-Johannesburg Google Flights
Use Google Flights’ calendar view to get an idea of available dates and prices.

First, search Google Flights — Once you’ve chosen your ideal dates, a search on Google Flights‘ calendar view will show you the availability/prices for those dates. For this example, I’ve chosen Saturday, December 5 to Wednesday, December 9, as you’ll see in the screenshot above; keep in mind that if you’re going to travel all the way to Johannesburg, it’s ideal to spend at least a few days seeing the city or making a side trip (a few hours’ drive or a short flight from JNB) to the incredible Kruger National Park.

Use ITA Matrix advanced routing codes to get targeted results.

Then, use ITA Matrix Advanced Routing Codes — With your dates decided, begin a search on the ITA Matrix. For this example, you’d enter December 5-9 as your travel dates, Houston as your origin city and Johannesburg as the destination. This is enough information for a basic search, but you’ll get better results by adding some qualifiers.

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 10.35.21 AM

Underneath the box for your Destination, click “advance routing codes.”

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 10.38.47 AM

In this example, we’re looking to earn American Airlines EQMs, so enter “/alliance oneworld” for both the outbound and return routing codes.

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 10.37.35 AM

Note that you won’t find this particular routing code (/alliance oneworld) on the ITA Matrix’s syntax, glossary or examples (the latter of which are shown in the screenshot above). To find it and many others, you’ll have to head to FlyerGuide’s wiki for the ITA Matrix, which will provide a much more useful resource than ITA Matrix alone. I originally stumbled across this comprehensive list of advanced routing codes when researching an AAdvantage Platinum challenge and looking for economy flights that earn 1 EQP per mile — and I’ll explain these codes further in a separate post. Stay tuned!

Houston-Johannesburg connecting in Dallas
This option gives you four legs on American Airlines planes. Image courtesy of ITA Matrix.

Using the “/alliance oneworld” routing code, your search will yield more options. For example, you’ll see (in the screenshot above) that there are several flights that connect through Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), which would enable you to fly transatlantic on an American Airlines 777, both ways.

These DFW-connecting options add just $10 to the fare, but thanks to mileage minimums, an itinerary that includes them adds 825 EQMs for current AA status holders. (Additionally, flying on American metal means that AA status holders have the option to fly in Main Cabin Extra for no extra charge, or use a systemwide upgrade to upgrade to business class on the DFW-LHR legs if the flight can be booked through American.)

Narrow the results — From our search results so far, we’ve figured out that these fares need to be purchased through British Airways, and that there are transatlantic options on American that stop in DFW — but what other options do we have when flying American from IAH to LHR, then British Airways from LHR to JNB?

Search only for options flying on American Airlines and British Airways planes.
Using these advanced routing codes forces the ITA Matrix to search only for flights on American Airlines planes.

To see these options, return to the original search and change “/ alliance oneworld” to “O:AA O:AA BA” on the outbound and “BA O:AA O:AA” on the return. This forces the ITA Matrix to only show results with the first two and last two legs on planes operated (hence the “O” in the advanced routing code) by American Airlines (the “AA”). There are no American Airlines options from LHR to JNB, so entering “BA” indicates the desire for one flight on British Airways. (While you’re on this search page, make sure to choose “No limit” from the drop-down menu beside “Stops.”)

Where you'll find the info you'll need to conduct a price-per-mile search.
The tools you’ll need to conduct a price-per-mile search on the ITA Matrix.

The top results are again a bunch of flights connecting through DFW — but you’ll see more if you sort by price per mile. To do this, click “Price,” tick the box at the bottom for “Show price per mile,” and then click “Sort by price per mile.”

Fly through LAX to earn the most miles.

The best-yet option rises to the top: connecting through Los Angeles (LAX) in both directions. For $838 total, you can earn a whopping 24,910 EQMs at a rate of just 3.36 cents per EQM!

You can almost get AA Gold just from this one itinerary — or a quarter of the way to Executive Platinum!

Elite Miles

This haul of EQMs is just 90 EQMs shy of earning you American Airlines Gold, which we value at $1,450 if you plan to fly ~30,000 miles the next year. But it’s more likely you’d use a mileage run like this to boost you toward Platinum or the ever-so-lucrative Executive Platinum status. This run satisfies one quarter of the requirements for Executive Platinum, which we value at $8,100 due to the long list of benefits including unlimited complimentary upgrades on domestic travel and eight systemwide upgrades great for international travel.

Houston-Johannesburg stretched map
Flying to LHR through LAX adds 4,000 EQMs. Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper.

Redeemable Miles

In addition to the elite miles, if you’re a current AA Platinum or Executive Platinum, you’ll earn 49,820 redeemable miles for flying this itinerary. With a cost of $838, you can see this as “buying” miles for about 1.68 cents per mile — which is less than the 1.7 cent valuation we put on American Airlines miles. Although this isn’t as easy getting 75,000 miles from signing up for the Citi /AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard or 50,000 miles from the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard, this is an incredibly low rate for earning miles from flying.

Satisfy the EQPs required for your AA status challenge using this stretching technique. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Status Challenge

Don’t have American Airlines status yet? If you were able to jump on the incredible fast-track offer that AA announced a couple of weeks back, the 12,455 EQPs (elite-qualifying points) from this stretched itinerary gets you almost halfway to the 25,000 EQPs needed to earn Executive Platinum status through February 2017!

However, if you’re doing a Platinum status challenge, you don’t need the stretched version of this itinerary. The base itinerary’s 10,454 EQPs is enough to satisfy the standard status challenge requirement of 10,000 EQP — or the reduced 9,000 EQP requirement through the recent fast-track offer.

Bottom Line

This is just one example of how you can turn a good deal into a maximized mileage run — keep an eye out here on TPG for future flight deals.

Once you find a deal that works for you, apply these techniques to stretch it:

  • Find cheap dates on Google Flights
  • Run an initial search on ITA Matrix
  • Narrow search terms on ITA Matrix to get optimal results

While you aren’t going to be able to add 4,000+ miles to every deal, you can use the ITA Matrix’s advanced routings to stretch most itineraries — and enjoy more time flying on your preferred carrier.

Have you ever used a flight deal as an opportunity for a lucrative mileage run?

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