How I unexpectedly won the TPG mileage run competition

Oct 8, 2019

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I am bad at math. It’s not exactly something I’m proud of, but I’m hardly ashamed of it, either. It’s just a fact of life for me.

But, this personal shortfall, and an important intricacy of airline ticketing, ultimately allowed me a surprise victory in TPG’s mileage run competition in September.

In case you missed it, the contest sent three TPG staffers — including yours truly — on the road to see who could earn the most miles toward frequent flyer status on a budget of just $725. We could go anywhere in the world to earn those miles, so long as we did it within seven days and stayed under the budget, which included meals and transit.

My task was to earn miles within the SkyTeam alliance, which counts Delta as its U.S. member. I worked with TPG “coach” Summer Hull and (along with some other helpful TPG employees) came up with an itinerary that would take me from New York to Bangkok for just over a day and — separately — to Houston, for one hour.

After buying my tickets and reserving a hotel, I figured I had about $10 left to spend on food for my 30 hours in Bangkok. I was so confident, I even posted about it on Facebook as I was getting on my first flight.

Quick little trip, back in my own bed Thursday night. If anyone has recommendations of what to do with 30 hours in…

Posted by Zach Wichter on Monday, September 23, 2019

Then I did the math again one more time after I got to my hotel in Thailand. It turned out I had mis-tabulated my spending on airline tickets. I had in my head that the Houston flight cost $211, but — in reality — it actually cost $221. It was not an error in my favor, and I was already on the other side of the globe when I realized that the $10 I thought I could spend on food was really only 78 cents.  

Oops!

Bad at math as I am, it wasn’t a shock that I flubbed the food budget. But I knew with certainty I was going to lose the mileage run.

My colleague Vikkie Walker had already booked her flights. She was flying on United and its Star Alliance partners, and I knew her flights to Bangkok would earn close to 21,000 “PQMs” (short for “Premier Qualifying Miles,” as United calls its status-earning miles). That was the first number to beat.

When I found a routing on Delta partner China Eastern to Bangkok via Shanghai, and then a separate Delta round-trip from LaGuardia to Houston that still fell within the allowable week-long window, I knew I was getting close.

To help set my expectations on what I’d earn, TPG contributor Benji Stawski suggested I visit milecalc.com. As the name suggests, the site has a tool that calculates how many miles an airline itinerary should earn. According to the website, my routing JFK-PVG-BKK-PVG-JFK should have netted me 18,382 miles. And on my other trip — LGA-IAH-LGA — I expected to rake in 2,832 more “MQMs.” (Delta calls its status-earning miles “Medallion Qualification Miles.”) I added up those numbers dozens of times after I booked my tickets. I was sure I’d earn 21,214 miles on my run, just enough to best Vikkie.

But then our colleague Sam Rosen booked her itinerary, which was with American and its set of partners in the Oneworld alliance. Her itinerary was staggering: La Guardia to LaGuardia via Dallas/Fort Worth, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Boston. Milecalc told me she’d earn 21,981 miles. Unless I could find a way to get rerouted and net a few hundred extra miles, victory seemingly had slipped away.

I went on the trip, and was unable to be rerouted. I resigned myself to having flown halfway around the world and back, and then to Texas, only to come up short. I landed at LaGuardia at the end of the trip exhausted, and slightly dejected.

Then the numbers from the trip posted to my Delta app. To my great surprise, I was credited 20,166 miles for the trip to Bangkok and 2,832 miles for the New York to Houston turn — a grand total of 22,998!

That was nearly 2,000 more miles than I had expected, and I did not understand at all where those extra miles came from. But it was enough to put me ahead of the pack. Once again, my own math was foiled — but I wound up winning the mileage run by more than 1,000 qualifying miles!

But HOW? I know I’m bad at math, but I truly did not understand. So, I reached out to a Delta representative to look into what had happened.

Most major airlines use direct “great circle” distances between two airports to calculate the base miles earned on any given route. “Great circle” refers to the shortest distance between two points on a sphere. It’s like straight-line distance, but accounts for the curvature of the Earth. Some passengers get bonuses on top of those earnings, for example, if they are traveling in first or business class. But I was flying economy on an incredibly cheap ticket, so my extra miles were a total mystery to me. Then Delta told me I had inadvertently bought myself a ticket that earned a mileage bonus on a few of the segments.

Without getting too lost in the weeds of airline ticketing intricacies, it turned out that — despite the fact that I booked my ticket on CheapOair for less than $470 — some of my China Eastern flights were coded as B-fare economy, which earns Delta MQMs at a rate of 150%.

So the airlines calculated my base MQMs from my itinerary’s great circle distance, and then I got a bonus from the fare class.

How I wound up with a relatively high-earning ticket at such a low price remains a mystery to me and my TPG colleagues. Many airlines actually award only 50% (or less) elite-qualifying miles for cheap tickets booked on partners. CheapOair never showed me a fare class at any point from booking through confirmation, and Delta couldn’t see the full details of my ticket until after I traveled, but I’m not going to look into the mouth of this particular gift-horse any longer.

Before I heard from Delta, I wanted to learn more generally about how airlines calculate mileage earning on their routes. To do so, I reached out to an expert and frequent source for help.

“It comes down to the fact that there is no universal standard that airlines use for their frequent flyer program because they’re not required to do so,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of the travel industry analysis firm Atmosphere Research. “Airline frequent flyer miles are kind of like fashion sizes. Just because the label says it’s a size medium or a size 8 doesn’t mean the dimensions on that garment are going to be exactly the same from one designer to another.”

Harteveldt said that airlines can’t seem to agree on fixed distances between two airports.

“The truth is that each airline may have its own estimates for distances flown,” he said. Those estimates can come from a variety of sources, from in-house geographers to consumer-facing sites like milecalc.com. In the end, Harteveldt explained, airlines have a lot of leeway in determining how many miles a given route may earn its passengers.

Also, it’s important to remember that most U.S. airlines now award “redeemable” miles — the points you use for award travel — as some multiple of the fare paid. Alaska Airlines is the last big carrier that still ties redeemable miles to the distance of your flight. But most big airlines in the U.S. and elsewhere still calculate your status miles based on the distance you’ve flown.

“The phrase ‘your mileage may vary’ is very true,” he said. “I do remember one airline saying they would not be above shaving a few miles off what you would earn, because it would save them money.”

(Photo by Zach Wichter/The Points Guy)
Getting ready to leave for the mileage run. (Photo by Zach Wichter/The Points Guy)

There are limits, however. An airline couldn’t get away with only awarding passengers 47 miles for a trip from JFK to LAX, but it may award a little more — or a little less — than the 2,475 miles that Great Circle Mapper calculates for the route. Additionally, Harteveldt said airlines generally give miles at a fixed rate for a particular route.

“They’re not tracking the actual flight miles, they track as the crow flies distance between points A and B,” Harteveldt said.

So on that same New York-to-Los Angeles example, he said you’d get the same number of miles whether your flight followed the most direct routing possible or took a more circuitous route to avoid traffic congestion or weather.

For me, however, the real eye-opener was just how much variability there can be in mileage earning on any given route. If the person across the aisle from me on my flight from Shanghai to Bangkok had a T-class economy ticket, she would have earned fewer miles than I did on my B fare, even though our service and seats were essentially the same. If she had chosen to fly another airline on the same route, she may have earned a different amount of miles, too.

My advice: The next time you’re doing a mileage run of your own, make sure to check exactly how many qualifying miles your itinerary will earn you. As exciting as it was for me to score an unexpected victory, in travel it’s usually better when there are no surprises, good or bad.

Featured photo by Zach Wichter/The Points Guy.

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