I know, I know, I’ve promised this about 100 times, but I could never actually get through the process of writing it from beginning to end. Well, here I go. I’d like to say upfront that if you’re not interested in doing mileage runs, don’t read this. I’m hoping it’s a helpful resource for those that want to do mileage runs, but for others I’ll get nothing more than an ehhhh….?”
I should also mention that everyone has their own strategy for building mileage runs, so this is just the way I do it. It works well for me, and should work well for most people flying from a coast of the US (be it east or west). It’s also important to note that my examples are based on United’s fare rules, as they tend to be the most mileage run friendly, along with American. Others like Continental, Delta, and Northwest, aren’t nearly as generous when it comes to routing rules. So, without rambling on much more, here we go:
The first thing I use when searching for a mileage run is Travelocity Dream Maps. I put in my origin city and select the maximum fare as $250. I’ll try to look for flights to the west coast with fares around $200 or so, not including tax. I’ll then click on those fares and look inside to see if UA has any of those cheap published fares, which may or may not be the case. Of course that varies depending on the airline you use and coast you live on.
If you don’t see any good fares, I suggest hitting “search fares” in the top left and choosing “flexible dates,” and then just putting in cities that make sense. From TPA, for example, those would include BUR, LAS, LAX, PDX, PHX, SAN, SEA, SFO, SMF, SNA, and others. Of course that varies based on your market, and if you lived on the west coast you’d be searching for places like EWR, FLL, IAD, MIA, RDU, TPA, etc.
There are many other tools you can use such as farecompare.com and the mileage run forum on FlyerTalk, but I usually do fine without them. Once I’ve identified a good fare (usually something like a $203+ fare from TPA-SFO, for example), the real challenge begins. First I’ll use Travelocity from there and see what days it pulls up the good fare based on the calendar it shows. Of course this one will be pretty basic and usually have one stop, but it shows that the fare actually has some availability in practice.
My next step is usually looking at the fare rules, which are usually available on Travelocity. I’ll look for information such as the days that are eligible (is the fare only available Tue/Wed or Sat?), how long it’s available for (is the fare good through the end of October or just another week?), how many transfers it allows (if flying UA on a transcon hope it’s four connections each way), and most importantly which fare class it books into. It’s usually just a very cursory look to get a good idea of what to expect.
From there I use my favorite tool, the ITA Software Matrix. This is a tool that allows you to do so many different things, from searching the prices in a city pair for a whole month, to maximizing the routing as much as it can be, to searching several airports at the same time, and much more. It’s just awesome.
So first let’s assume I found a routing and pair of dates that works well on Travelocity Dream Maps, let’s theoretically say (and I’m totally making this up), TPA-SFO for June 10, returning the same day on a redeye. I would then just do that simple roundtrip search, just to make sure Travelocity and ITA are seeing the same things. Remember that Travelocity charges a $5 booking fee usually, so your fare should be $5 less on ITA. That’s kind of just my check to make sure everything is working properly and that I’m playing with the right dates. It’s also important to note that ITA doesn’t sell tickets through this, but only allows you to search, so you’ll typically find that rate directly on the website of the airline operating your flight.
Now we get to do my favorite thing about ITA, the ability to manipulate routings. While I could go straight for the goal and try to get a four segment routing each way immediately, I like to do it one step at a time. Let’s say I wanted a two segment routing each way from TPA to SFO on United. I would type in the following:
tpa:: ua ua
sfo:: ua ua
You always put the double colons when you want to search like this, and that has nothing to do with the number of segments. It’s the “ua ua” that makes the difference, and it works for every airline. The “ua” represents a segment. So if I want three segments I would type in ” ua ua ua.” Same goes for any other airline. If I want two segments on AA just replace the “ua” with “aa.”
So I’ll slowly work at it one segment at a time then. I like to add one “ua” with every new search, so the second time I search it would read something like:
tpa:: ua ua ua
sfo:: ua ua
This means that I want three segments on the outbound and two on the inbound. If that pulls up something that’s good, try to add another segment on the return, at which point it would look like this:
tpa:: ua ua ua
sfo:: ua ua ua
Simply repeat that until you get your desired number of segments at a good combination of price, time the run would take to complete, and EQM’s earned. Always pay close attention to the number of miles, but also keep in mind that ITA shows you the actual mileage flown and not necessarily what you’d earn. In the case of most airlines, you earn at least 500 EQM per segment, so while you’re only flying 110ish actual miles LAX-SAN (the total it would show for that segment), you have to add about 390ish more EQM’s for what you’d actually earn including the minimum.
Speaking of routings, some connections make sense while others don’t. Assuming you’re qualifying on miles and not segments, start to learn what stops make sense and which don’t. For example, if flying IAD-LAX, a connection in ORD or DEN add less than 50 miles, something that’s really not worth the hassle. If you add a connection in SFO, on the other hand, you’ll be earning over 600 extra EQM’s, a pretty hefty amount that can really make a difference if done repeatedly. So if you qualify on miles like I do, it’s not just about quantity of segments, but also about quality, so to speak.
Now, let’s get back to using the ITA tool to our advantage. In addition to the above use of airline codes to represent segments, we can use airport codes to signify where we want to fly through. As an example, let’s say I want to fly from TPA to LAX via IAD and SFO on the outbound and SEA and IAD on the return. I would enter the following information:
tpa:: ua iad ua sfo ua
lax:: ua sea ua iad ua
Of course there’s no guarantee it would pull up a good price, but it’s just another way to manipulate the routing. The most important thing in this regard though is understanding your “landscape” from the airport you’re based out of. For example, living in TPA I will always choose an IAD connection over ORD plus an extra connection since it means more miles. So when I search I’ll always include “iad” between the first two “ua’s” and also between the last two on the return, whenever possible. This will always show me what’s available with my first and last connections being in IAD, but I’ll usually leave the ones in the middle open.
My biggest issue with ITA lately is that it’s sometimes overpricing. So if you’re using the above technique and prices are still coming out high, consider going directly to the airline’s website. While I used to use ITA a lot more, I have been a lot more focused on united.com recently.
Here we have to step back for a second and once again look at the fare rules. As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to know what fare bucket you’re looking for. Just because UA has a certain bucket available on one flight doesn’t mean that the fare you want is published between your origin and destination. So you actually need both the fare bucket you want available on the individual segments AND a published fare of that fare bucket between your origin and destination. For me it’s “L” for the most part, which is UA’s lowest fare bucket for published fares.
The first step to searching for available fare buckets with UA is to set your account to “expert” mode so you can see which fare buckets are available. To do this (courtesy of the FAQ in the UA forum on FlyerTalk):
1. Go to united.com homepage
2. From the upper right menu bar, select “My Profile”
3. Log in.
4. Click on the edit button for “My Travel Preferences”
5. In the “Display Preferences” screen, change your setting for “Availability format” to “an expert”
6. Save your changes
7. Congratulations. You can now see availability by booking code.
Once you have done this you can start searching for fare buckets. Just go to “Redeem Miles,” and search for award tickets on the flights you want. Make them standard awards so you’re getting the full availability, and when you mouse over “View Details” you’ll see whether or not they have the fare class you want. Let’s say you’re looking for an L fare for a TPA-LAX fare. You would start by searching flights from the outbound airport, in this case TPA-IAD, TPA-ORD, or TPA-DEN. By checking the distance (you can use Great Circle Mapper or the like) you can see which makes the most sense. TPA-IAD will allow for the longest transcon, so that would be my number one option.
Assuming I found L availability on TPA-IAD at my desired time I would then look for ways to get further west. Ideally, for example, I would try for IAD-SFO or some other flight which allows for at least one more connection on the west coast. If a well timed IAD-SFO flight had L availability I would start looking for either SFO-LAX flights, or if you really want to rack up the miles maybe something like SFO-SMF-LAX, SFO-SBA-LAX, SFO-SAN-LAX, etc. Assuming there’s L availability in this case it should generally work.
You do the same thing for the return. My strategy is generally to first search for my flights into and out of TPA because we have a limited number of flights and if there are no L fares there’s no hope. For example, during spring break time or summer they often completely blank out the lower fare buckets into TPA and just have higher fares, so working hard searching for transcons is all moot if I can’t even get out of TPA.
For airports with a larger UA presence I search the transcon first. Even though I’m leaving LAX I would first search flights like SFO-IAD, SAN-IAD, SEA-IAD, PDX-IAD, etc, because it’s typically more difficult to find L on the transcon than the short hop to/from an airport with many daily flights. If I find something that works on the transcon I would then find a hop that gets me to that flight, and can make it one or two stops depending on how the fare buckets look.
Another thing to keep in mind when going east is that you don’t have to go straight to IAD or ORD, but you can always double connect. Try something like LAX/SFO-BOS/EWR/JFK/PHL-IAD, and see if anything comes up there. Then the challenge will often be finding the short segment from BOS/EWR/JFK/PHL-IAD, since they’re often regional jets and are pretty restrictive as far as the lower inventory buckets go. Still, with enough work you should have luck with it. For example, as I type I’m doing a TPA-IAD-SFO-LAX-SFO-EWR-IAD-TPA run, which is a simple TPA-LAX fare and earns 8,100+ EQM’s, when the direct routing would be less than 5,000 EQM’s roundtrip. In a couple of weeks my return portion of the trip will be LAX-SAN-ORD-SYR-IAD-TPA, just showing how you can stretch it on both coasts.
The last important thing to discuss is how to actually book it once you’ve found L availability on a bunch of matching segments. In the case of UA you’d go to united.com, multi-city search, and try to type it in. Always do “search by schedule,” because search by price will often give you one connection less because it’s $2 less due to taxes, but something you should really consider.
When typing in segments consider clustering them together. For example, on my TPA-IAD-SFO-LAX-SAN-ORD-SYR-IAD-TPA run, I typed it into united.com as TPA-SFO, SFO-SAN, SAN-SYR, SYR-TPA. Also choose the approximate departure times from the drop down menu, which will make the next page a lot easier. While you could type all segments in separately, united.com doesn’t usually like that and either doesn’t price it out at all or does so incorrectly. Lots of times it just takes some playing around with. In the above case consider instead doing TPA-IAD, IAD-LAX, LAX-ORD, ORD-SYR, SYR-TPA, for example, if the first one didn’t price out.
It takes some time to get it to work, but once you got it it’s usually pretty easy to use. I’m a bit jetlagged right now (as I’ve explained below), so if I missed anything obvious feel free to either add to it or ask questions. I could type another five pages of this stuff, but it’s probably difficult enough to read as it is.