My basic approach to earning top tier status for cheap…

Last week I answered a reader question on the blog about whether it’s worth maintaining airline elite status when there are so many great credit card offers, making it easy to earn enough miles to cover any reasonable person’s travel needs.

In passing I mentioned that it should be possible to earn top tier status for roughly $4,000 per year, and a lot of people asked how.

If this were 2008 I’d say “well just book a ticket to anywhere, dummy!” Those were the day of $200 transcon fares with a handful of transfers permitted in each direction of travel. Not only have the airlines gotten more strict on routing rules, but the capacity cuts they’ve implemented have contributed to huge price increases.

Nowadays I’m lucky to find a transcon flight to where I need to go for $400 roundtrip, which just doesn’t work as a mileage run.

Nonetheless out of some coastal cities mileage running can still work without too much effort thanks to lots of competition and the ability to route itineraries circuitously. But not everyone has the luxury of living in one of those cities, so there are three things I’d focus on in trying to maintain top tier status (and I know individually they all sound obvious, but I don’t think enough people consider them as part of their elite qualification strategy).

Promotions

Earlier in the year American made it possible for residents of California and Illinois to earn top tier status for $2,000, thanks to the fact that they were offering triple elite qualifying miles between Chicago and Los Angeles/San Francisco. These kinds of promotions aren’t uncommon, so it’s just a function of waiting for them to come around.

While I doubt American will offer another big mileage promotion this year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them offer another promotion early next year. In the past they seemed to offer double elite qualifying miles whenever they had a major issue — when they filed for bankruptcy, when their MD-80 fleet was grounded, etc. You’d think with the pilot issues and seats going loose on the 757 they would’ve offered another “round,” though perhaps the elite ranks are sufficiently inflated for the year.

But there’s no reason you shouldn’t make promotions part of your strategy, whatever they may be. Also keep in mind in the above case even if you didn’t live in Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, you could always book a positioning flight and knock out all the flying over a long weekend.

Fares wars/sales

I think people completely underestimate the value of this as part of their mileage run strategy. Fare wares and real fare sales happen all the time… and these aren’t the ones that are usually advertised. I’m not talking about those emails you get from the airlines offering “amazing fall savings,” but rather when one airline initiates a fare sale, and an outright “war” ensues.

For example, a little over a week ago Southwest launched a 40% off sale, and we saw prices drop 40% across the board domestically on almost all routes. Seattle to Orlando was pricing out at $164 all-in roundtrip on American, for example.

And that wasn’t even the cheapest fares, but rather just one that was convenient for me. That would be ~6,350 elite qualifying miles roundtrip, meaning it was roughly 2.5 cents per elite qualifying mile (at that rate that’s $2,500 for top tier status). The key to planning for top tier status is to be able to make a decision at a moment’s notice, and being willing to book a dozen at a time. The fare will be gone before you have time to think about it.

Similarly we’ll often see fare wars in specific markets. American will launch a fare sale out of Charlotte (US Airway’s hub), US Airways will launch a fare sale out of Chicago (American and United’s hubs), United will launch a fare sale out of Atlanta (Delta’s hub), etc. Now, I don’t know why the airlines bother to get into fare wars, but I’m not complaining, since it’s only the consumers that win.

Similarly there are sometimes also mistake fares, though those are even tougher to predict than fare sales/wars.

To keep up with mistake fares and fare wars I suggest monitoring the Mileage Run forum on FlyerTalk. What I also do to just generally keep track of fares is to do a fare search out of my home airport for most transcon destinations once a day, just to see if there’s anything out of the ordinary. Farecompare.com used to have a handy tool that listed the cheapest fares out of each city on a cent per mile basis, though they got rid of that last year.

Instead I use ITA Matrix and enter my home airport and all the destinations I can think of on the opposite coast. Then search fares over a month, and enter the length of time you’re willing to stay at your destination. Lastly, be sure to uncheck the “Allow airport changes” box, or else you’ll end up with an itinerary flying you into one airport and out of another.

Then on the next page there’s a calendar with a range of fares. If I notice anything interesting I’ll click on the date and research a specific fare more. It’s a great way to keep track of any fare changes.

Off peak international travel

My favorite way to requalify for status with American is by traveling to China. In the winter months American consistently has cheap fares to China, and it’s a great opportunity to knock out a lot of miles at once… especially since the routing rules tend to be quite generous. Best of all if you’re an Executive Platinum member with American you get eight systemwide upgrades you can use on any fare, so it’s great to be able to confirm those flights in business class.

You can typically get these routings close to four cents per mile. The main challenge is that there are usually minimum stays involved for Asia trips, so that can be tough for people that have to be in the office Monday through Friday.

So while none of the above strategies individually will guarantee you elite status for cheap, it’s a function of taking advantage of the right promotions when they are released, and being mentally prepared to go “all-in.” If you’re new to the game keep in mind that elite status is typically based on calendar years, so you’ll want to wait till January 1 before starting to mileage run. I’ll also continue to make my best effort to share the best fares out there, and most importantly point out the “big picture” implications of taking advantage of a specific fare.

Comments

  1. snic says

    This works well if you’re young, single and don’t have the kind of job where you actually have to be at work most of the time.

    The rest of us unfortunately can’t drop everything for a mileage run.

  2. snic says

    Oh, and don’t forget the cost of a visa to China – $140 plus agency and courier fees if you happen not to live in a city with a consulate and/or don’t want to spend a whole day standing in line dealing with the visa. That significantly increases the total cost of your mileage run. (You can get 1 year visas for the same cost, but that helps only if you expect to do multiple trips to China.)

  3. steve says

    Wow, you are an animal. Cheap MR price, but at 6350 EQMs for a day and half SEA-MCO RT turn, times 16 to hit 100k, that’s 24 days of your year (not even including the time to travel to/from the airport and getting there early to play security theater)!

  4. Tom says

    Hey Lucky – Sort of along these lines: my go-to card has been my Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard, which has been allowing me to earn Million Miler qualifying miles. When last I heard, that benefit will expire at the end of this year. If that happens, Citi will lose almost all of my business, and I will switch to a combo of Chase Sapphire Preferred/Starwood Amex/Amex Gold Premier Rewards. Is there any way to find out if CITI/American will extend that benefit?

  5. lucky says

    @ Tom — I haven’t heard of it being extended, though if I do I’ll be sure to post about it. Frankly it wouldn’t surprise me to see it extended.

  6. Yichuan says

    If you ditch U.S. carriers, you can qualify for *A Gold on, say, Asiana for $2,200 to $2,700 or less easily. (Cost varies depending on where you are in the U.S.) Just do a couple of NYC-SIN runs on UA metal (usually 20,000 miles a roundtrip in Y) and you are Gold for the next two years. If there is a deal on that route, it could be even cheaper.

  7. lucky says

    @ Yichuan — Good point, and there are lots of great benefits that come with it. It’s just worth keeping in mind that typically upgrades are only reserved for members of the “native” frequent flyer program, and you often don’t get the huge elite tier mileage bonuses when crediting to a partner airline.

  8. Yichuan says

    @ lucky That’s true. However, since I am on the west coast and use Asiana regularly, the elite benefits still pay off. Star Gold from Asiana can also use United Club when flying domestic routes, and I can credit any mile over the 40K *A biennial qualification requirement to UA so that I can use on redemption.

  9. John Elich says

    Great information and very timely for me. Thank you for this great info!

    I have been wanting to start MR’s and was trying to figure out the best way from my local airport (SMF-Sacramento). Now I know how to search for some great deals as I expand my leisure flyer knowledge. Would love to fly to NYC, then do the NYC-SIN run as Yichuan suggest. Have some nice meals, try out some nice hotels in the process and build up my hotel points as well. Once I earn high tier status, I’ll use that for my trips to Switzerland and Japan to visit friends.

    Loving this new hobby because of your blog! Looking forward to my first award flight on SQ in business class on the A380 to Japan next Spring because of your tip last July.

    Keep up the good work! I’m wishing someone would start a MR blog for people that want to fly with others in their area that want to learn more and travel with others instead of flying alone. I think it would be very popular, but I haven’t found anything like that yet. Might make the MR’s more social and fun that way. Do you know of any communities like that anywhere on the internet?

  10. lucky says

    @ John Elich — Thanks for the kind words and happy to hear you’re getting into the hobby! The “CommunityBuzz” section on FlyerTalk might be a good place to start. You can see if anyone else in your area might want to be your mileage run “buddy,” and you can alert each other of great deals and fly together.

  11. TravelGuide37 says

    Hard for me, as moat of my flying is award with my CC bonuses. Spending $2-4k/yr for status seems noble but since i usually redeem bus or higher award, i get elite security, and on IC flights, lounge access. Even then if i wanted, going with the amex plat, i would get lounge access and $200 worth of award change fees for $450.

    Going to the ord sems, it seemed that many of the people there were status flyers, while i was not. Being me being a newer miler, do you see a change in the game with cc signups and less status changing as frugal tg has mentioned also?

  12. says

    @steve: A lot of the time I spend on planes would be “wasted” (or maybe not) anyways. I’m going to spend ~21 full days on airplanes this year, but about half of that will be on redeyes. (…maybe a better night’s sleep wouldn’t be a waste.)

    Lucky’s SEA-MCO example, while brutal, occupies some time you would otherwise not be working (I hope).

  13. Tom says

    Thanks you, Lucky. Glad you’re enjoying the new digs. We Floridians miss claiming you as our own, though.

  14. Tracy T. says

    Thanks for the ITA Matrix tips! That’s really useful information I didn’t have before (new to the mileage world). Can I input multiple departure airports as well? I’m in DC so can fly out of DCA, IAD or BWI. Thanks!

  15. Till says

    OK, so everything above is US only, right? (or at least North America). afaik this is not even closely possible in Europe (Germany in my case).
    I’m also very jealously looking at the benefits you guys on the other side of the Atlantic get, simply by using credit cards.

  16. lucky says

    @ Tracy T. — Absolutely, you can enter as many origins and destinations as you want. Just put a comma between them (or that may not even be necessary anymore), and it’ll search all of them at once.

    @ Till — Yes, unfortunately it is, and I should have clarified that. Much tougher outside the US.

  17. Duncan Alexander says

    The higher your SC the better the redemption and free flight opportunities, beyond doubt! Partner is Gold and nothing ever available when they want it, me Plat+ almost every flight and class I want. They even bump people of planes for you but managed to change a meeting and could fly earlier so wanted to get on the same flight home as partner, on board I discovered they bumped the partner. It was a chilly few weeks after that.

    SC on partner airlines if it’s your programs codeshares are possible. Though individual airlines partnerships can over better deals i.e. new qantas/emirates, qantas will now pick me up and drop me of in a limo on my trips to Europe. Emirates is introducing a higher SC category to match the levels of Qantas. The possibilities of bumping a Sheik (especially an ex client)fills me with glee.

    The Matrix site outside of the US seems to be outrageously over priced! Compared to travel agents and websites (i.e. webjet) I entered my known travels for May next year and it was 9,600 dearer and does not show all airlines? Mind you the had a fantastic status run from Mel-Bcn on Aerolingis Argentina (well that rules it out for me)the fare is 2,400AUD and here is the scary bit Non Stop and this would have to be via Sth America.

  18. DavidG says

    Interestingly enough…

    I’m not going to re qualify for LH Senator this year, and a few days ago, I got a nice letter from LH, saying (paraphrased):

    We noticed you haven’t got a chance in hell to get up to 100.000 miles before your status expires, but if you want to pay us 2000 EUR, you can have it for another year…

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