Why it’s time to rethink what makes a good mileage run…

When I first got started mileage running, 3.5 cents per elite qualifying mile was considered an okay deal. 3.0 cents per elite qualifying miles was what I was aiming for. Those were the days of $200 roundtrip transcontinental tickets, where four segments were allowed in each direction, meaning you could fly from Tampa to Seattle via Washington, San Francisco, and Portland in each direction, for example.

So it was easy to have ridiculously high standards as to what constitutes a good mileage run. Nowadays we’re not seeing $200 transcons. Heck, I consider myself lucky when I see a $400 transcon. We’re not seeing $450-500 tickets to Europe or $700 tickets to Asia like we saw a few years ago. And therefore a 3.0-3.5 cent per elite qualifying mile mileage run seems entirely unheard of, aside from mistake fares.

But I’m going to argue mileage running still makes sense, but only if you look at the big picture. If you’re just after status it probably doesn’t make sense. If you’re just after redeemable miles it probably doesn’t make sense. But if you have a specific redemption goal in mind and value all the benefits, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that a ~6.0 cent per elite qualifying mile trip could be classified as a mileage run.

For example, if you’re an Executive Platinum member, let’s look at what you get for maintaining the status. First you get ~200,000 redeemable miles. You fly 100,000 miles, and then you get a 100% bonus on flown miles, so that’s 200,000 redeemable miles. I recently valued American miles at 1.8 cents each, so to me that’s $3,600 worth of value. You also get eight systemwide upgrades. Let’s conservatively value those at $300 each, which is substantially less than even just the mileage co-pay required to upgrade internationally, let alone the miles that would be needed. That’s another $2,400 in value.

Then there are unlimited complimentary domestic upgrades, an amazing phone line, priority check-in/security/boarding/standby, fee waivers, and much more. But let’s not even add a value to any of those things.

Between the miles and eight systemwide upgrades we’re already looking at $6,000 worth of “value” meaning you could do 100,000 miles of mileage running at six cents per mile and still “break even,” not even factoring in the other benefits you earn.

Now, all of this only makes sense assuming you actually enjoy flying and traveling. If you don’t and the opportunity cost of your time is $100/hour, of course it’s not going to make sense to mileage run. But at the end of the day I think we all enjoy traveling, and at six cents per mile it shouldn’t be tough to plan a lot of mini-vacations.

There are times where it can still be extraordinarily cheap to mileage run. For example, earlier in the year it was possible for those in California and Illinois to earn Executive Platinum (top tier) status with American for under $2,000.

But those opportunities are few and far between. Still, I don’t think it’s time for us to throw in the towel and call mileage running a dead sport just yet. It’s just dead for those looking just for miles or just for status.

Comments

  1. “But at the end of the day I think we all enjoy traveling, and at six cents per mile it shouldnā€™t be tough to plan a lot of mini-vacations.”

    Easy to say when you are single and don’t have a family!

  2. @ jamison — Admittedly it’s the upper end and most people should be able to do better, but the math adds up, no? Which part of the math don’t you agree with?

    @ Jonathan M — Hah, good point!

  3. Excluding the opportunity cost of your time, I think you can profitably mileage run at even more than 6 cpm as long as you do other flying too.

    Let’s assume your natural flying gets you to 80k miles a year, so you are only mileage running the last 20k. Now you’re getting all those benefits for only 20k BIS miles on the margin, so you can pay even more for them.

    In your example, which I know you made purposely extreme because its very extremity proved your point, I think you’re right to say that you can profitably run at 6cpm easily.

    And if your average can be 6cpm, imagine what your marginal can be for those last few mileage runs.

  4. @lucky I think “we all enjoy travelling” has couple of aspects to it. When most folks say they enjoy travelling, they mean the vacation at their destination and not the actual travel part to get to their destination. IMHO only a select few likes the travel part and MR typically does not include the vacation at your destination. If you do include a small vacation then your options starts getting smaller. I have never done a MR yet and with out the vacation its unlikely most folks with families or I will do a pure MR. But keep the content coming šŸ™‚

  5. @ ikonos — Ah, but when I said “enjoy traveling” I actually meant “enjoy traveling.” There’s no reason you can’t go to a different city every weekend and spend some time there.

  6. I am interested to see the post about the booking process for your recent MR/business trip to Nagoya and the convoluted route you took šŸ™‚

  7. @lucky Ofcourse there is no reason one can’t go to a different city every weekend except it gets cost prohibitive for a family to travel. So they can only schedule handful of such vacations and MR’s much lower than 6cpm gets attractive to them.

  8. Personally, I’m not constitutionally capable of handling that many compression/decompression cycles, so I just go with whatever makes the most sense for me travel-wise.

    While not a bargain for CPMs, my recent trip to Bermuda at 10cpm (SFO-EWR-BDA and back) wasn’t too bad for that destination.

  9. I still find plenty of transcons under $300 ex-SEA. Just have to be patient & persistent. SEA-IAH-CVG-ORD-SFO-SEA for just over $200 was a good deal, for example (and upgraded with one RPU).

  10. M.R. is even worse for Canadians, never a cheap fare out of Toronto

    and I 100% agree with the SINGLE & CHILDREN part… no way to do M.R. if you’re married with children šŸ˜€

  11. As coach fares rise in many markets, and discounted first class is offered on many carriers, the opportunity for a “mileage run” within an already planned trip arises, but it is difficult to value them in this context.

    I’m flying MSP-ANC, looking at a $900 upgradeable (with SWU) fare on DL or a $1300 “A” class first class fare (A seems to be a DL catch-all bucket for instant upgrade econ fares, H, B, or M, depending on the market).

    For $400 more I will secure 2500 add’l elite miles. I can’t think of a domestic roundtrip I could take out of MSP with DL’s routing rules and earn more than 2500 elite miles for $400, and my time is valuable, so I’m inclined to buy the “A” ticket, even though my calculator says I’m paying 16c/elite mile.

    As much as I envy you UA/AA flyers with the loose routing rules, etc., looking at the extent to which DL is kicking their asses on ancillary revenue and profitability, I would expect your gravy train to derail in the next year or two. Even in the goofy airline industry, success is eventually copied.

  12. My personal opinion is mileage running is on the way out. AA is the one legacy where it may still make sense. There is no point to doing it on UA anymore and I suspect AA will also realize its a zero sum game for them at some point.

  13. Mileage running is pretty much dead in my opinion. I don’t think it’s fair to say you breakeven at 6 cpm. There are so many other costs to consider besides just purchasing the flight such as hotels, taxis, expensive airport food, etc.

  14. The SWUs are what makes the difference, provided you can make productive use of them, either flying internationally or maybe companion upgrades. Available time and travel plans play a big role on how you value these. As always, it’s about how you value time and money, and how much time you can spend traveling for leisure. Vacation time can be pretty limited, and there are only so many destinations you can visit in just a weekend. For mini-vacation MRs the vacation costs need to be accounted for as well.

    Plenty of people end up earning faster than they can burn.

  15. What you faily to mention is starters, like myself, at least the first year would not get 200K miles. Your calculations assume one already has elite status.

  16. @ Dee Tee — True, the difference in math if you’re just getting started is that you wouldn’t earn quite as many miles (156,250 miles vs. 200,000 miles), but the rest of the math stays the same, so I think it can still be a great deal.

  17. @ Gordon — I value United miles roughly the same as American miles, so the major difference would be that instead of getting eight systemwide upgrades valid on any fares, you get six restricted systemwide upgrades and four confirmed regional upgrades. At the end of the day I’d value the added benefits around the same, so I’d say the miles are worth $3,600 and then the additional benefits worth at least another $2,400.

  18. Not everyone has/wants/needs a family. There’s a forum for that. ;-). Thanks for a good analysis, Lucky.

  19. Any advice on when to start mileage runs in order to keep status? I think I’ll be about 10K miles short of making ExecPlatAA this year so I was thinking of doing two NY-WestCoast runs. I figure it is not good to wait until Nov/Dec when holiday fares are high so when do you think is best to start looking out for good fares?

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