The Hell’s a Mileage Run?

A last-minute guide to qualifying for elite status

By The Editors
December 8, 2015 9:00 am

The end of the year is nearly here. For some, that means bottle service and VIP tables. For others, babysitting surcharges that would put Uber to shame.

For a small but impassioned minority, though, the year will close with a cataclysm of long- and short-haul flights engineered to wring every last mile, segment or point from the itinerary — all in the name of securing (or maintaining) elite status on their airline of choice. We spoke with the expert — Brian “The Points Guy” Kelly — about a timeworn tradition known as the “mileage run,” and how to make it work for you.

InsideHook: Mileage runs: First off, do they still exist, as more airlines move to a revenue (versus mileage) basis for awarding elite status?

Brian Kelly: Yes, mileage runs still exist — especially for American, because they’re not changing to the new [revenue-based] system until next year. It can still make sense to take a flight simply to earn miles, whether redeemable for award tickets or elite miles [that count toward elite status].

IH: The old idea is that you want to create some crazy itinerary — New York to Boston to Chicago to Dallas to Denver to Seattle to L.A. — to earn points. But in terms of miles, airlines just count from your origination airport to the destination, right?

BK: Yes, that’s right, but there are several ways to qualify [for elite status], and one is on segments. So doing New York to Chicago to DC to Chicago to New York — for people who are qualifying on points, that can have a lot of value.

IH: So forget tinkering too much with the itinerary?

BK: Well, there is some gamification still to be done. For example, instead of New York to L.A., New York to L.A. to San Diego is less of a business route, so it might be cheaper. What you have to do is ask, what is the point of elite status? As airlines count back on premium services, it might be more cost effective to skip the mileage run, or qualifying at a particular level. You have to make sure you’re getting your value back, especially when many perks, like checked bags, are included with certain credit card offers. This is less true if you’re very close to getting top-tier elite service — the airlines still treat those passengers well.

IH: Are there ways to get elite status without flying?

BK: You can earn elite status on Delta just from spending. You can get elite miles on credit cards — in general, they come from travel, but if you spend $40,000 on your American Airlines card, you’ll get miles back on that. They have hefty annual fees, but if you’re doing business spending on your card, they’re worth looking into.

IH: Any other ways to cut costs here?

BK: It’s always worth calling and asking if you have any e-credits or unused vouchers associated with your account — sometimes you just get a random e-credit. I always feel better about mileage runs when I’m doing some scheming in terms of paying for them.

IH: And you need to call to find out?

BK: It’s good to call. Delta lets you do an online search, but it’s a good practice to call.

IH: I imagine you’re way past your mileage run days?

BK: Yes. But back in the day, I flew to L.A., got a soda and got right back on the return flight. The gate agent was like, Wait, you’re getting back on?

IH: So you’ll be redeeming, not earning, over the holidays?

BK: I’m good with my Executive Platinum [on American]. And I’m going to Vietnam. I’m redeeming lots of miles this month.

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