This weekend I embarked my first airline mileage run, something I thought I would never do.
Many of you may be unfamiliar with what an airline mileage run is. I certainly was before I read about it on The Points Guy. Frequent fliers and loyalty program status-chasers have used mileage runs for decades to get themselves to the next tier of status. The idea is simple: book a cheap long-haul flight, take the flight, and bank the miles without spending a lot out of pocket (it’s all about finding a low cents-per-mile ratio).
The Points Guy actually argues that the mileage run is dying now that the major airline loyalty programs have revenue requirements to make it to each tier of status. This means that you can’t just bank a ton of miles for little money, because there’s a spending threshold you have to hit, too.
But for business travelers like me, where flight times and ease of travel take priority over the cost of the ticket, the spending requirements are an easy goal to hit. My challenge has been in racking up enough miles and segments to qualify for the next tier of status. Most of my flights are relatively short and direct, meaning fewer earned miles and segments since I rarely have layovers.
So, for some people including myself, mileage runs still make sense.
Some background on my situation
I keep close track of my airline miles throughout the year to calculate what tier of status I’ll hit. My work travel commitments pretty much guarantee that I’ll hit AAdvantage Gold in any given year, which is the lowest tier of status on American (but still scores you some good perks).
In 2017, however, my travel schedule was aggressive. I hit Gold in July (25,000 miles/30 flight segments), and set my sights on Platinum (50,000 miles/60 flight segments). At no point did I think I would actually fly enough to qualify. But I ended up being on the road nearly every week between August and November, when a normal workload would take me out of the office about once a month.
The trips kept coming. And coming. Conferences, meetings, presentations, filling in for colleagues who were unable to travel for one reason or another, plus a couple of personal trips. LA, Chicago (x4), Portland, San Francisco, New York (x3), Cape Cod, Augusta (x2), Nashville (x2), Miami, Detroit. It was a three-month whirlwind, and fun, until it was too much.
All of a sudden, I found myself at the end of October with 50 flight segments for the year and three more trips awaiting me in November.
Platinum is so close, I can taste it!
Despite a solid travel load through the end of year, I discovered that the flights I had planned still wouldn’t qualify me for Platinum (it’s a heavy lift, y’all). I would fall two segments and about 3,000 miles short. Since Platinum status has double the requirements of Gold, falling just short means sacrificing a lot of potential benefits.
Below is a digest of my AAdvantage earnings before the mileage run. Each airline has their own calculation system, but AAdvantage allows you to qualify for status using either dollars + miles or flight segments.
As you can see, I’ve blown past their spending requirement (personally, I think they should throw me a bone for spending 63% more than what is needed to qualify). However, due to how short most of my flights are, I haven’t hit the mileage threshold. And I won’t, even with FIVE flights left to take this year.
Finding a route
With only two additional segments needed to ensure my qualification (I already had three others booked), I decided to find an inexpensive, quick route to take over a weekend in December. The traditional airline mileage run calls for cheap, long routes to accrue as many miles as possible, but since I needed segments, it didn’t matter if I flew to Philadelphia or Hong Kong. Either would get me what I needed to qualify.
I checked out Kayak’s Explore map and found a winner: a roundtrip hour-and-fifteen-minute flight to Charleston for $150. Booked with credit card points, it would cost me nothing out of pocket but qualify me for the status that I would otherwise miss.
I booked it.
To be honest, at the time I felt (and still feel) like I’d been had by the airlines. Just before I reached Gold for the first time, American extended the benefits to me a couple of months early to encourage me to try to get over the hump. None of that happened with Platinum. I won’t get any benefits until I clear the 60-segment hurdle.
The idea of spending money to fly for no reason other than to accrue miles or segments seems crazy to me. But at the same time, I’m planning a long-haul flight to Australia in 2018 on American and I want the best seats and benefits that I can get. (Edit: Those Australia flights ended up deserving their own post – check it out here.) For that flight alone, an extra $150 was worth it. As my sister so wisely says, future me thanks present me.
The mileage run experience
I didn’t expect the mileage run to be as enjoyable as it was. Sure, I could be doing other things with my time – I didn’t get in the Saturday morning workout that I look forward to each week – but I ended up being far more productive than I might have been if I were just hanging out in my apartment.
For one, the lack of Internet meant I could do some much-needed reading. I’ve had The Power of Moments on my nightstand for months and haven’t gotten through all of it. I finished it on my flights, and sent myself about 7 separate emails with ideas that I could apply at my job.
I wrote this blog during my layover, and I rarely write in the moment. It feels good to go home with a record of my experience and another post that I can put up in December after a long dry period (reference the hectic work schedule above).
But more than anything, the best part about this day was getting upgraded to first class on both flights. Thanks to my Gold status and flying during a dead period – midday on a Saturday – I got to enjoy free drinks, snacks, and extra legroom on both of my flights. Which means I didn’t spend any money at the airport, and I got to partake in one of the best rituals of any weekend: day drinking.
The final word
Despite my pleasant experience, I would not recommend an airline mileage run to anyone who isn’t a serious flyer or who won’t be able to reap the rewards of elevated status the following year. The out-of-pocket and opportunity costs are steep.
Sure, I was able to get my flight “for free,” but it still cost me hard-earned credit card points. I effectively gave up a day off to fly for five hours without the satisfaction of seeing the city I visited (I finally got to explore Charleston in 2018).
Less visibly, I fed more money into a giant corporation that provides a comfortable and seamless experience only to those travelers who spend a lot of money with them. I think there is something inherently wrong with that. With my status, I can check a bag for free, unlock premium seating, board earlier, and get free upgrades, but IMHO at least two out of four of those things should be available to all travelers.
I don’t feel good about playing into a system that continues to devalue passenger comfort and take away benefits for the sake of shareholder profits. But alas, here I am.
So, barring the cancellation of my three remaining flights this year, you’re looking at the newest member of AAdvantage Platinum. I feel like I’ve finished an aviation marathon, and I’m ready for a rest.
What’s your take? Have you done an airline mileage run in the past, or think you ever would in order to reach status? Let me know in the comments!