Why airline mileage runs are a bad idea

Oct 7, 2019

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Years ago, I was a top-tier United 1K elite traveler. That essentially meant I didn’t have lots of the problems that may affect most air travelers.

I boarded the plane first, there was always overhead bin space for my carry-on, I was able to confirm upgrades to first class on certain flights, I could get free snacks even if I didn’t land myself in first, I didn’t have to pay many types of fees, had quick access to priority help when things went wrong, never sat in the middle economy seats, and more. It was really nice. The other side of the coin was that part of that elite status level was achieved by taking flights to nowhere that I didn’t really need.

I flew to San Francisco, Detroit, Boston, Hawaii and countless other places mostly just to earn the miles. Sometimes I stuck around for the night and saw a few sights, and sometimes I never left the airport and took the next flight right back home. Sometimes I did that a few times in one day. This strange behavior has a name: mileage running. I can’t say I regret doing it at the time, but I don’t see myself doing it again anytime soon.

If you want to know more about what mileage running really entails, the various reasons people do it and even how to do it yourself, we’ve got you covered with this guide.

The short version is that, normally, a mileage run is done on a cheaper-than-normal airline ticket to rack up miles that count toward earning airline elite status. The fact that you also earn miles you can redeem for awards is just icing on the cake, but at the heart of mileage running is getting to that next tier of airline elite status in the most financially efficient way possible.

I still care about airline elite status more than most people, but here’s why I’ve retired from mileage running — and why I don’t really recommend it for 99.99% people.

Time is money

Like so many other Americans, I have two kids, a full-time job, a spouse, a house, a dog, oh-so-much-laundry, a plethora of after-school activities, and I already barely make it to the gym. I’m not rolling in dough, but time is a finite resource I just can’t make more of no matter how hard I try. You might find a really inexpensive fare for a mileage run, but there’s no way to recoup that time spent away from home, and that’s the main reason I’ve walked away from the mileage run.

I’d rather spend more money closing the gap to the next airline elite status level in a way that might cost more but that doesn’t take me away from home. Ten years ago, before my personal to-do list was so long and involved, that equation was a bit different. In other words, you may at least partially file this one under #Imtoooldforthis.

Sitting on a plane all day usually isn’t fun

Flying can be fun, especially when you’re doing it at the pointy end of the plane, but it isn’t exactly how I like to spend my free time unless that plane is taking me somewhere I want to be. The security lines, the potentially spotty inflight Wi-Fi, potential delays, germs, yucky food, small seats and so on make mileage runs an unappealing way to spend the spare moments I can find.

There can be exceptions to this. If the mileage run happens to be in first class (it happens!) or the cheap fares are to somewhere you want to go and you can build in at least a night, that becomes a slightly different equation. I’m still unlikely to make an impulse trip like that nine times out of 10, but the stars can occasionally align in a way that makes the journey itself more interesting than never leaving an airplane and airport.

(Photo by Katie Genter / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy.)

There are other ways to earn status

Outside of logging miles flying high above the earth, there are two other main ways to make progress toward airline elite status. You can earn elite qualifying miles with certain cobranded airline credit cards. Or you can sometimes buy airline elite qualifying miles outright. Both of those methods are preferable, to me, over a mileage run.

Swipe your credit card

If you need to earn more elite qualifying miles on, say, Delta Air Lines — which calls them Medallion Qualification Miles — you don’t have to get on a plane. You could instead get the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, which currently offers 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) and 35,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months and a $100 Statement Credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months. That card also earns you 10,000 bonus redeemable miles and 10,000 bonus MQMs after spending $25,000 in a calendar year, and another 10,000 miles and 10,000 MQMs after spending $50,000 in a calendar year. By spending at least $25,000 on the card each year, you also get the added benefit of being excluded from Delta’s flight spending requirements, with the exception of Diamond status, which requires a whopping $250,000 of credit-card spend.

Fly Delta in style (Photo by Zach Honig/TPG)
Fly Delta in style (Photo by Zach Honig/TPG)

 

If budget-airline elite status is your goal, that can sometimes be earned with a card, too. For example, the Frontier Airlines credit card allows you to earn elite status just by using the card, with no flying or spending directly with the airline required. Having elite status on a budget airline may sound exceedingly silly, but it can actually exempt you and your family from virtually all pesky fees such as seat-assignment fees, bag fees, extra-legroom fees, etc., which dramatically changes the true cost (and stress level) of flying an ultra low-cost carrier.

Here’s a rundown of different credit cards that help you earn airline elite status faster.

Buy elite miles

I live in the Houston area, so United Airlines is my focus airline when it comes to elite status, as Houston is one of its major hubs. Sadly, United doesn’t currently have a cobranded credit card that helps you earn elite qualifying miles, but the airline will let you buy your way up the elite status ranks by selling what it calls Premier Qualifying Miles via its Premier Accelerator program.

Buying the miles is a little tricky, as you need to have an active United reservation to make the purchase, and the price varies — and typically only increases as the year draws to a close. To purchase miles that count toward elite status, you need to not only purchase redeemable miles but also add the pricey Premier Accelerator option. In this case, that option adds 10 cents per mile to the total purchase cost. You can certainly earn miles cheaper than that by actually flying on inexpensive tickets. In the recent TPG mileage run competition, elite qualifying miles were earned for around 3 cents each, but the trade-off is the convenience of just hitting purchase from your comfy couch.

At that rate, you’d hopefully only need to purchase a small number of miles to get you to the next status level, but it can be done. In fact, for most of the last few years, I’ve purchased a few thousand elite qualifying miles at the end of the year in this exact manner.

Upgrade yourself

You almost always earn more elite qualifying miles when flying on a paid business or first class fare than on an economy fare. So, if you notice you are coming up a bit short on your elite qualifying mileage goal, you can decide to book your next flight or two at the front of the plane. It will cost more than buying an economy ticket, but it’s a more enjoyable way to earn elite status than just buying miles.

After the year is up, some airlines also allow you to outright buy the next level of status, but that isn’t guaranteed and is usually pretty expensive.

You still (usually) have to spend thousands

Years ago, travelers earned airline elite status based only on how far they flew in a year. You could earn top tier status by just taking enough of the cheapest flights you could find. However, in recent years, the major frequent flyer programs have largely introduced spending requirements to go along with the mileage requirements. This means that mileage runs are still relevant if you already meet or are somehow exempt from the annual spending requirements but miles alone won’t cut it on airlines such as United, American and Delta.

Environmental concerns

Let’s be real. Anyone who cares about airline elite status is probably already doing more than their fair share of increasing humanity’s carbon footprint. Maybe they do what they can by flying primarily on more fuel-efficient aircraft, purchasing carbon offsets or taking the train whenever feasible, but I’m not going to pretend that the world’s best environmental champions are also chasing airline elite status.

However, many of us do want to do better by the planet where we can, and flying around for no reason other than earning elite status, for me, no longer falls under doing the best I can. This isn’t pointing fingers at anyone; my car doesn’t get the best gas mileage, I sometimes use plastic bottles and you will still sometimes find me hopping on a plane for very short trips. But if the sole purpose of taking a flight is to earn miles, that’s not something I feel super comfortable with in my own journey to do a little bit better.  

Bottom line

I’ve got a number of mileage runs in my history, but that’s where they are likely to stay. I don’t fault anyone who’s excited enough by flying and earning elite status that they want to fly more just for the sake of earning more. Been there, done that, got the upgrade. But I do encourage anyone considering a mileage run to take a long, hard look at whether that’s how they truly want to be spending their time and resources.

Is there maybe another way to get the perks or status you want without flying? Are you certain that the status level you are striving for is really worth it? Or is there perhaps somewhere or someone you want to see so that perhaps you could tweak the purpose of your trip to become something a touch more fulfilling than just racking up miles?

If at the end of the day you’re the 0.01% and an old-fashioned mileage run is right for you, though, here are some tips to make the most of it.

Featured image by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy

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