How and why you might want to book a mileage run

Oct 7, 2019

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Check out all of TPG’s mileage run series:
TPG challenged 3 people to fly as far as they could for $725 — here’s what happened
What to pack on a mileage run
Why mileage runs might be a bad idea

At the end of September, three TPG staff members competed to see who could get the most elite-qualifying miles from a mileage run. Their budget: just $725 to cover all flights, transportation, food and anything else they needed on the trip. All three left from New York and coincidentally all ended up in Bangkok, an epic journey that netted them tens of thousands of elite-qualifying miles.

In true mileage-run fashion, they only had hours on the ground, though. For many people, this may bring up a question: Why? What is the point of such a grueling exercise? Is a mileage run even a good idea?

And in any case, isn’t the mileage run dead?

Short answer: Not quite. It still makes sense for some flyers. For a more detailed answer, and to evaluate whether you are one of those flyers, read on.

How mileage runs have changed

In early 2016, my wife Katie flew an epic mileage run from our home in Austin to Johannesburg, South Africa, and back to Houston. We stretched the itinerary as much as possible to get more miles, so she ended up flying Austin to Dallas to Los Angeles to London to Johannesburg, with a return to Houston through London and Miami. Whew!

Image generated using Great Circle Mapper.

Thanks also to elite-status bonuses, she earned a whopping 49,640 America Airlines redeemable miles and 23,820 Elite-Qualifying Miles on this one trip. That was almost enough on its own to earn American Airlines Gold elite status from just one roundtrip, and it ended up being key to her earning top-tier Executive Platinum elite status that year. The cost for this whole mileage run was a reasonable $804.

But major changes have taken place since. Airlines have checks in place to try to prevent this type of non-direct routing. Also, many airlines now award redeemable miles based on the cost of the ticket rather than the miles flown. If those rules had been in place back then, Katie would have only earned less than 8,800 AAdvantage miles instead of 49,640.

Most notably, airlines have also implemented spending requirements to qualify for elite status. In 2016, someone could have flown that routing four times to nearly reach Executive Platinum status on American for around $3,200. Now, you’d have to spend well over $12,000 more, when you factor in taxes, to get the same status.

Why you might still want to mileage run

For many travelers, these changes have effectively killed off the mileage run. But there are still a few reasons you might want to go on one. Let’s look at them:

Reach the next elite tier

Nowadays, arguably the most sensible reason for going on a mileage run is for frequent travelers to reach the next elite-status tier. Take a domestic road warrior who flies weekly, but whose business trips don’t take him or her very far. This traveler may easily have met the spending requirements to hit top-tier elite status, but may be running short on elite-qualifying miles.

Booking a mileage run could push this traveler over the threshold to top-tier status, increasing upgrade chances and yielding better service and benefits for those grueling day-to-day travels the following year.

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Shortcut to status

There are a number of airlines that offer status matches or challenges. Instead of getting the status outright, those looking to switch airlines often have to fly a certain number of miles and spend a certain amount in a short period to earn the status.

For example, American Airlines recently sent out another round of free elite status offers to non-elite members it’s looking to entice to make the switch. While elite status is given away for free for a few months, members are given a challenge to fly a certain amount to keep that status through early 2021.

Some members were given the challenge to earn 20,000 Elite Qualifying Miles and spend $2,400 Elite Qualifying Dollars in three months to get Platinum Pro elite status through January 2021. Business travelers booking last-minute domestic flights may easily be able to make significant progress toward the spending requirement in a few trips, but may find themselves short of the required miles. In this case, a mileage run might make sense to lock in this status for the following year.

Incremental benefits

It can make sense for you to mileage run to earn incremental benefits, such as additional upgrades. That’s what Katie and I did in December 2018. We found an excellent flight deal from Newark to Auckland, New Zealand, that we could book with a hotel for just $606 each through AA Vacations.

The flights earned us 18,302 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM). That was enough to push each of us over the 150,000 EQM threshold for the year, which earned us each two additional Systemwide Upgrades.

The booking qualified as American Airlines Special Fares, so we also earned a solid amount of award miles (40,994 miles each after elite bonuses and an AA Vacations promotion) and Elite Qualifying Dollars (1,820). At TPG valuations, those 41k miles are worth around $574, making this an especially advantageous mileage run.

Note that AA has since gutted the award mileage and EQD earnings for Special Fares. However, you’ll still earn the full amount of Elite Qualifying Miles, helping you toward those EQM thresholds.

Just for the fun of it

A lot of people’s idea of fun does not involve flying in economy to the other side of the world before turning right around and flying back — sometimes without getting out of the airport. But, for some of us AvGeeks and travel nuts, that could be a primary motivation behind booking a mileage run.

When I was working in my former career as a tax accountant, there was nothing I would rather do on April 16 than to get as far away from the office I’d been trapped in 80+ hours per week for the past few months. So, it became a bit of a tradition for me to book a trip as far away as possible — for example South Africa and Malaysia — before I ditched that career entirely for my dream job here at TPG.

That crazy mileage run that Katie did back in 2016 wouldn’t yield nearly the same amount of miles today, but Katie says she would happily do it again if she had the chance. She’d just book more than a 12-hour turnaround in Johannesburg next time.

How to avoid a mileage run

If you’re just shy of an elite status threshold, don’t turn to a mileage run quite yet. There are opportunities to earn bonus elite-qualifying miles without stepping on a plane.

There’s a number of credit cards that will grant you elite-qualifying miles and even waivers of the elite-qualifying dollar requirements. For example, Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express cardholders can earn 15,000 bonus SkyMiles and 15,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) for spending $30,000 or more in eligible purchases in a calendar year (starting January 30, 2020, you will no longer earn bonus miles with this benefit). You can also avoid the Medallion Qualifying Dollar (MQD) requirement for Delta Platinum, Gold or Silver by spending $25,000 on this card, or a number of other Delta co-branded cards.

RELATED: Credit cards that can help you earn airline status

You can also elevate your earnings on upcoming flights by paying to upgrade into a better cabin. Say you booked a basic economy ticket to Europe that’s only going to earn you half the flight miles as elite-qualifying miles. It may be worth paying to upgrade into standard economy for the full earning rate.

Similarly, passengers booked in economy, which typically earns elite-qualify miles at a 1x rate, may find it worth paying to upgrade to a premium economy fare that earns at a 1.5x rate.

How to find a mileage run

There’s certainly an art to finding the right mileage run, and different travelers may have different techniques. This is how I’d recommend going about finding one.

The easiest way to start your search is by using Google Flights’ Explore Map. You can start on Google Flights’ homepage, type in your origin airport(s), a generic destination like “South East Asia” and then click search. A map will pop up with your options for the specific date searched.

If your dates are flexible, click on the date box and select “flexible dates.” If you’re looking for a quick turn, select the “weekend” option to see the cheapest short-stay options over the next six months. You can limit the results from there by sliding the price bar.

Then, you’re going to want to limit the results to the airline or alliance on which you’re looking to earn status or perks. To do this, click the “airlines” drop down and select an alliance. United and partners are Star Alliance, American Airlines and partners are in the Oneworld alliance and Delta is in the SkyTeam alliance.

The frequent flyer programs within Alaska, American, Delta and United each have different rules on how travelers earn award miles, elite-qualifying miles and elite-qualifying dollars from partner flights. As a general rule for cheap economy mileage runs, you’re going to want to book flights marketed by the airline with which you’re trying to earn status — even if another partner operates the flight.

For example, I just came back from a trip from Los Angeles to Singapore with an open-jaw return from Penang, Malaysia. Although American Airlines doesn’t operate flights to either Singapore or Penang, my entire itinerary had American Airlines flight numbers. That’s because AA has a codeshare with Cathay Pacific and its regional partner Cathay Dragon on these routes.

Because I booked it this way, I earned full Elite Qualifying Miles for the entire trip and earned award miles and Elite Qualifying Dollars based on the actual cost of the flights:

If I flew the exact same itinerary but booked Cathay Pacific flight numbers instead, I’d have earned exactly 0 award miles, 0 Elite Qualifying Miles and 0 Elite Qualifying Dollars. That’s because cheap economy Cathay Pacific flights earn 0% in each of these categories when credited to AAdvantage:

While it’s easy to limit Google Flights Explore Map search results by alliance, Google Flights doesn’t make it easy to search by marketing airline. But thankfully there’s a workaround. In the website URL, you can change the name of the alliance to the airline code of the airline you want:

      • a:STAR_ALLIANCE*STAR_ALLIANCE => a:UA*UA
      • a:ONEWORLD*ONEWORLD => a:AA*AA
      • a:SKYTEAM*SKYTEAM => a:DL*DL

Once you find a cheap city pair through Google Flights, you could click through the link to book it as — or you can try to stretch the deal further. Airlines will generally try to dissuade you from doing this, so these stretched results usually don’t show up in the airline’s flight search results. Instead, you’ll want to use ITA Matrix to find a stretched itinerary.

While ITA Matrix has lost some of its former glory for finding mileage runs, it can still be a very useful tool for extending deals that you find through Google Flights. You’ll want to search the dates and route that you found, but add in search terms to both limit the search to the airline you want to book through as well as broaden the connection opportunities.

For example, for a $596 round-trip American Airlines deal from NYC to Kuala Lumpur, you could add “aa aa aa+” to make sure that there’s at least three AA-marketed flights each way:

Then, in the search results, you can click “show price per mile” and then sort by the price per mile to find the longest itineraries:

For the TPG mileage-run competition, three reporters were paired with three coaches who helped them select a route. I used ITA Matrix to find an option that routed through Los Angeles and Boston on the way back from Bangkok, rather than the direct route back through Dallas. That non-direct routing added an additional 857 Elite Qualifying Miles for no additional cost and only a little more time for Samantha Rosen, the reporter I was coaching.

While 857 additional EQM might not sound like much, it could make all the difference for those that are really close to hitting an elite status or perk threshold. And that’s exactly one of the reasons it could still make sense to go on a mileage run.

Featured image by Wyatt Smith / The Points Guy

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