Forget mileage runs; here’s why I’m considering a “cheeseburger run”

Dec 31, 2019

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As 2019 comes to a close, many TPG readers and staff have been busy doing last-minute mileage runs to hit that next level of elite status.

I luckily already obtained for 2020 Hyatt Globalist, Marriott Platinum, Delta Diamond Medallion and — thanks to my Hyatt status — I was gifted (to my surprise and delight) American Airlines Executive Platinum. In other words, no need for a mileage or mattress run for me. Well, except for the mattress run I did earlier in the year mostly for the novelty of booking a hotel room at a rooftop bar. Yeah, you can read more about that adventure here.

But as I was going through my end-of-the-year checklist, I realized that I had yet to re-qualify for “VIP status” with the AAdvantage dining program.

For those who don’t know, most of the airlines have a dining program that lets you link several credit cards and earn extra miles for eating at a set of restaurants. The miles automatically post a few days after you dine.

I’ve been aware of these programs since the 1990s when Transmedia ran a cash-back program that required you to show a card. Over the years, that has morphed into iDine and then today’s Rewards Network. I first signed up for my own account back in 1999 or 2000.

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The program used to give you 10 miles per dollar spent at restaurants and bars. There were bonuses for eating out multiple times and some establishments would offer promos of 20 miles per dollar. Living in Providence, Rhode Island in 2000, my co-workers and I would often go out for drinks after work. There were lots of nights out and some large tabs. Those group drinks ultimately paid for a trip to Thailand in Cathay Pacific business class — my first amazing miles redemption.

Today, the program isn’t as lucrative. You earn 5 miles per dollar if you are a VIP. To reach VIP status, you need to dine out at least 10 times in the prior year at restaurants that are part of the program. Without status, you only earn 1 mile per dollar or 3 miles per dollar if you opt in to marketing emails.

I’ve got nine dines for 2019. So was it worth me finding a diner or a bar and charging one more small meal — maybe a cheeseburger, or a salad or just a pint of beer — to get that final transaction for 2019?

I was tempted but then I did some math. During the entire year, I spent $591.80 at AAdvantage dining restaurants, earning me 2,959 American Airlines miles. TPG values those miles at $41.43 — an extra 7% return on my nearly $600 in meals out. Not bad. If I fall down a tier to earn 3 miles per dollar next year, I would only earn 1,775 miles for that same spend. The 1,184 miles I would be missing out on are worth about $17.

The New York City diner closest to me, that participates in the program, charges $12.85 for a cheeseburger with fries. Add in tax and tip — and maybe something to drink — and I’ve already spent my $17 worth of extra miles. Yes, I would get VIP status and a meal out of it but would have to go out of my way to do so.

Today is the last day of the year and my last chance to maybe buy a beer or something cheap at one of the restaurants nearby. Part of me wants to do it just in case I get to pick up a large tab or two. Or maybe my favorite sushi restaurant joins the program in 2020 and my spending dramatically goes up. I’d be regretting not going on this “cheeseburger run” if either of those happen.

Or maybe, I’m just addicted to elite status and want to maintain one more “VIP” level.

UPDATE: I decided to skip the status and start earning Membership Rewards via Rakuten.

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