Zero to Delta Diamond: My First, Near-Disastrous Mileage Run
It really wasn’t until about a year ago that I started to take airline miles seriously. But in 2017, I went from having no status anywhere to the highest-tier elite on Delta Airlines. Here's how I did it, and how the last step of the journey turned into a daylong adventure for the ages.
My parents signed me up for frequent flyer programs when I was a kid and, typically taking one family vacation per year — usually a skiing trip to Colorado or Utah — it took me until I was in my 20s to have accrued enough miles on Delta to earn an award ticket. And American? My miles were always about to expire, so I traded them in for unnecessary subscriptions to US Weekly and In Style. So, for the longest time, it seemed to me that unless you were transferring credit card points to an airline's mileage program, it was nearly impossible to actually earn a freebie ticket. And the subject of status didn’t even cross my mind, since I simply didn’t fly enough.
Over the last decade, though, the frequency with which I’ve traveled — typically to write about food in different parts of the world — has increased. And in the last year and a half, I've been abroad more than I’ve been home. In 2016, after several months of increased travel, and far too many waits in snaking general-boarding lines to claim my economy seat, it dawned on me that I should pick one airline and attempt to earn some level of status. Because Delta had always been my family’s airline, I decided Delta would be it.
I spent 2017 flying around the world in hopes of earning Delta’s highest level of Medallion status: Diamond. Go big or go home, right? At the beginning of the year I didn’t think I’d accrue enough miles to reach Diamond, which requires 125,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs), plus $15,000 Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) in one calendar year. But around early fall, based on my estimated upcoming flight schedule, I realized the spending on flights and the miles required for Diamond were within reach.
Now, that might sound like a big jump. Zero status to I-must-have-Delta-Diamond. But, keep in mind, over the course of 2017, as I surpassed each Delta Medallion tier — Silver, Gold, Platinum — and seamlessly passed through Sky Priority airport lines and began to nab those upgrades, I fully understood why airline status was imperative for frequent flyers. So, I needed Diamond. While Platinum was good, and I earned a Choice Benefit of four business class upgrades on domestic flights, with Diamond you could select those same four upgrades but on global flights.
As 2017 drew to a close, and I calculated approximately how many more flight miles I’d earn before the end of the year, the reality set in: I’d be shy of Diamond by around 7,000 MQMs. I thought of my friend Dave, a longtime Delta Diamond, who had once told me about a time he flew from New York to Utah and back just to make sure he had enough miles to hit Diamond. When he told me, I had laughed, internally rolling my eyes at how dumb it sounded to take a flight — what he called a mileage run — essentially to nowhere for no reason other than to snag a few extra airline miles.
Fast forward a year later, and now the idea of a mileage run for four business class upgrades on international flights didn’t seem so insane. I had heard of a service called Juicy Miles that specialized in mileage runs. You’d tell them how many miles you needed, and they’d find the shortest and cheapest route for you to hit your goal. The service cost $125 for the route, and I decided to give it a shot. Before committing to paying the full $125, I paid $25 for the team to draft a route. Since it was early December at this point, fight prices were shooting up thanks to holiday travel. Juicy Miles came back to me with an itinerary of almost 24 hours of flights — most in first class, at least — that would set me back $1,000, but I’d earn my necessary 7,000 MQMs.
The proposed route was JFK-LAS-SJC-SLC-JFK: New York to New York via Las Vegas, San Jose and Salt Lake City. I’d leave at 8am and return home at 6am the following day. Ouch. Were four international upgrades to business class worth 22 hours of traveling? My gut said yes, of course. So, I booked the $1,000 ticket.
My final Delta trip in 2017, before the mileage run, was to Argentina and back. When I returned home, I realized I had miscalculated how many miles I needed to hit Diamond, and it turned out I was only shy about 4,000. I called Delta and changed my mileage run to a much more manageable New York (JFK) to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) route, just over three hours in each direction. Because of the change fee and ticket price, I didn’t get any money back from the shorter flight, but cutting back my day of travel to just seven hours was worth it. So, my plan was to land in Dallas, then jump a flight back to New York 30 minutes later. First class, too.
So, in late December, I boarded an 8am flight to Dallas, armed with my laptop, to work while flying. Unfortunately, that morning I had left my phone in an Uber, so I was sadly phone-less for the entire day. This mileage run thing had better be worth it.
It just so happened that my flight encountered unexpectedly strong headwinds, which meant we had to make an emergency landing in Arkansas to refuel. By the time we landed in Dallas at 12:30 pm, I had missed my flight back to New York by 30 minutes. So I walked up to the first gate agent I saw, explained I had missed my flight, and that I needed to be on the next plane to New York. After looking at the day’s schedule, the attendant informed me that the next flight was at 2:30 pm. But, unfortunately, there were no first class seats available, so I’d have to fly economy.
That was out of the question: I tried to explain to her that I had to fly first because I was on a mileage run and needed to earn a certain number of miles from the flight. On Delta, you earn MQMs based on both distance flown and fare code, so if you fly business class, you earn more miles. If I flew economy home, I wouldn’t hit Diamond. The gate agent seemed confused by all this, so, since I was still without my phone to call Delta’s 1-800 number as she suggested, she directed me to the Delta Sky Club for further assistance.
I explained the whole story again to a super nice employee behind the Sky Club reception desk. But he immediately said he couldn’t help me, and told me to call Delta. Again, I had to explain that I didn’t have a phone. The guy took pity on me, since I had begun to stress out about returning home, and passed over his personal cell phone so I could make the call. For whatever reason, maybe because of the holidays and high call volume, it took about 45 minutes for a Delta agent to pick up. Another 20 minutes later, and I had a first class seat on a 5:30 pm flight to JFK. When I finally handed the receptionist back his phone, he told me to please make myself at home and use the lounge, since I wouldn’t normally have had access as a Platinum member flying domestically.
I camped out in the lounge and worked for about three hours. Finally, when it was time to head to my gate, nobody was there. Confused, I walked around trying to figure out why people weren’t prepping the flight. As it turns out, I completely forgot about the one our time change in Dallas, and I had been looking at my computer’s clock, which was set to New York time, one hour ahead. Ugh.
An hour or so later, I was finally on a plane headed home. I landed in New York at around 10pm, and when Uber dropped me off, still cell phone-less, I realized that the elevator to my building was broken. I couldn’t call my landlord because I still didn’t have a phone. So, I walked up eight flights of stairs hoping that the door from the fire escape to my floor was unlocked, but no such luck.
I started panicking. It was 11:30pm. I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was shower and go to sleep. My laptop was also on three percent battery, about to die. I frantically began to descend the fire escape stairs in hopes of finding an electrical outlet, where I could plug my computer in, hopefully find Wi-Fi, e-mail my boyfriend, and have him call my landlord to let me in.
Out of sheer luck, I found an outlet on the very last flight of stairs before the lobby. Also entirely fortuitously, an Anthropologie store next door had free Wi-Fi I was able to join. I reached my boyfriend, he contacted my landlord, and I got into my apartment by midnight.
16 hours of travel, one cell phone down, somewhere around $1,100 dollars spent on the whole ordeal... all to earn 4,000 miles to hit Delta Diamond for 2018. Was it worth it? At the time I wasn’t sure. But it’s now two months later and I just returned from a trip to Brazil — about 10 hours of overnight travel each way. I used two of my Diamond international business class upgrades, and I can tell you, without a doubt, it was.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 150,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles are needed for Diamond status; the correct figure is 125,000. The story has been amended.