Are Mileage Runs Still Possible?

We’re welcoming a lot of new readers from around the globe this week here at One Mile at a Time. To celebrate, we’re featuring a lot of content that covers the basics of what you need to know to get started in this hobby as well as a few articles, like this one, that provide some historical perspective about how the game as evolved over time. I hope this helps our new readers better understand how Ben got his start and our old-timers enjoy the walk down memory lane.


Once upon a time, the cornerstone of the miles-and-points world was mileage running. This is what the cool kids did — and in the case of our dear friend Ben, I do mean kid, since he started mileage running when he was 15.

Ben and other mileage runners would buy a ticket, board a plane, and then fly across the country solely for the purpose of obtaining frequent flyer miles.

These trips were quick turnarounds, by design — purists would argue that those on a true mileage run should never leave the airport, but instead should get off one plane, walk across the terminal to another gate, and board another flight headed back from whence they came.

At the height of the Great Recession in 2009, mileage runners would take an otherwise simple itinerary — say, Tampa to San Diego — and identify creative routings that would enable them to make multiple stops at out-of-the-way hubs, thereby extending the distance of the trip (and therefore, the amount of miles awarded), sometimes significantly.

Tampa to San Diego via Houston - the most direct routing, netting you 4200 miles roundtrip
Tampa to San Diego via Houston – the most direct routing, netting you 4200 miles roundtrip

Rather than flying Tampa > Houston > San Diego, a mileage runner might book the ticket as Tampa > New York > San Francisco > San Diego, and then the reverse. This trip would cover 8,075 miles, versus 4,181 for the most direct routing.

Tampa to San Diego via JFK and SFO -- nearly double the miles!
Tampa to San Diego via JFK and SFO — nearly double the miles!

On top of that, after a person became a very frequent flyer– meaning they flew a requisite number of miles that year with a particular airline — they were (and still are) awarded elite status. Elites receive a variety of benefits, one of which is a bonus on each mile flown. For top-tier elites, that bonus was generally 100% — meaning that for every mile they flew, they would actually earn two award miles.

Now that creatively routed TPA > JFK > SFO > SAN trip that involved 8,000 miles of flying would earn 16,000 award miles inclusive of the 100% bonus — at the same Recession-era low cost of $200.

That Was Then; This Is Now

Mileage runs sound pretty great, right?

Well, the truth is mileage runs are mostly a relic of a bygone era. Sure, Ben flew to China back-to-back-to-back earlier this year, and Brazil the year before that, but that was mostly the result of mistake fares — and that’s another topic for another day.

In general, mileage runs just don’t pencil-out economically anymore. They were more or less done in by a perfect storm of changes:

The switch to revenue-based earning, as Delta and United have done, was really the death knell for the mileage run. Under this new scheme, frequent flyer miles are awarded based upon how much the ticket costs. Flyers with no elite status generally earn five miles for each dollar spent, while top-tier elites earn eleven miles per dollar.

To put this in perspective, that same Tampa > San Diego trip at $200, that once earned 4,500 miles for a “normal” person, would earn 1,250 miles, a painful decline of 75%. (Though I’m not sure “normal” people really care.)

For top-tier mileage runners on these airlines, however, the drop is cataclysmic. Whereas that $200 trip could have once earned 16,000 miles, it would now earn a meager 2,200 miles.  You could pay $200 for a ticket from Tampa to Fort Lauderdale and still earn 2,200 miles in a revenue-based system.

And Over On American Airlines…

It’s true that American still awards frequent flyer miles based on the distance flown, at least for now. That means that mileage running can still make sense for some American flyers. In fact, a recent poll showed that a vast majority of OMAAT readers [who responded to the poll] prefer flying American, possibly for this very reason.

Problems still exist, however, that limit the economic feasibility of mileage runs, even if they are technically possible. American typically only allows one stop on a coast-to-coast trip, meaning you can’t hit their hubs in both Dallas and Chicago to create a zig-zagging windfall of miles. Even if you could, the Great Recession is long since over — that $200 ticket will now likely cost twice as much.

Combine these factors and you’re looking at a situation where you’d be paying 4 cents to acquire a mile which is worth at most 2 cents.

Not a good deal most of the time, even on a miles-based earning system.

Bottom Line

Mileage running was lucrative before the advent of massive credit card signup bonuses, before manufactured spend, before the dawn of category bonuses and shopping portals… basically, before it became easy to earn miles, and in some cases 100,000 miles at once, through means other than flying on a plane.

Mileage running as we knew it is more or less dead, having been done in by the advent of revenue-based earning, and to a lesser extent by tighter routing rules and higher ticket costs.

The straggling practitioners of the art have mostly sought refuge in the American AAdvantage program.

Yet there remains a reason for people to book flights for a purpose other than getting from Point A to Point B:  “status runs,” flights taken solely to obtain or maintain elite flyer status on the legacy carriers. Tomorrow, we’ll look into the mechanics of a status run, and whether it may make sense for you.

Does anyone here still mileage run? What were your most lucrative runs in the past?

Comments

  1. Last year when Delta was engaged in one-upmanship in the Battle for Seattle, we booked a SLC-SEA-JFK-ATL-SEA-HKG-SEA-JFK-SEA-SLC and reaped Double redeemable miles and Double Medallion Qualification Miles for every segment that to/from SEA with Delta’s Double Bonus promotion!

    For a low $798 we received a ton of miles…unfortunately, in 2015 SkyMiles has degraded to CryMiles

  2. I think the mileage running today is to qualify for elite status, not so much for earning redeemable miles. I know I will have to do one to keep my AA Plat for next year.

  3. I agree with Juno. I now MR to mostly meet status requirements when I’m a few thousands short here and there. If I want miles for cheap, I just creatively apply for credit cards and generate spends on them.

  4. Great article. MRs in the sense of “status runs” still exist and it’s good practice to calculate your cpm for every trip anyway. I don’t do MRs but I’ve done a few VRs on good TCON fares ex-SAN (sub $300).

    The RDM on a $200 fare will actually be less than 2200 miles since only the base fare is multiplied.

    And your itin should transit EWR, not JFK! 😉

  5. I’ve done “bed runs” for points and status with Marriott Rewards. Some of the promotions they’ve had going on meant you were earning substantially more bonus points than you’d otherwise get, especially when booking some of their more inexpensive properties. Not quite as exciting as a mileage run can be, but still worthwhile and enjoyable.

  6. These days a mileage run is all about getting points for status. Late last year I spent a weekend doing JFK->LAX->ATL->LGA->MSP->LAX->SFO->ATL->JFK booked for ~$450 and earning ~10,000 MQM’s on Delta. Plan went totally awry after my first flight was heavily delayed but wound up taking 2 VDB’s and $800 in delta credit to instead just to JFK->LAX->SFO->JFK

    I recently managed to turn a work trip to Chicago from LGA->ORD->LGA to EWR->SLC->ORD and on the way back MDW->ATL->BNA->LGA. $275 r/t

  7. Like Juno, I only mileage run for elite status retention (and then, just with Qantas, as despite the Lifetime status I’m finding a hard habit to let go of Platinum which you can’t get Lifetime for – with the other schemes I don’t need to manufacture status credits or miles to retain desired status). That’s hard graft with Qantas, and probably not worth it if I was being strictly logical about it (elite tiers get their hooks into you, and who likes giving them up, even if they are so-so).

    Not much point chasing Qantas points for redemption, it’s hard enough finding decent uses for the points earned from revenue tickets.

    Etihad and Virgin Australia points are easy to earn from premium cabin travel, thus I get plenty there already. Status fairly easy to earn too.

    Air New Zealand is lacklustre for redemptions, so I don’t bother thinking much about those points. I only bother with the scheme for Star Alliance Gold, and that I like Air New Zealand’s product in most ways.

  8. Kieran is absolutely right. For Australians wanting to get status with Qantas, taking trips around the US with a number of connections in affordable first class is a great way to fast track it.

  9. You forgot this in your “perfect storm of changes”:

    -The massive increase of travel blogs which profited off of publicizing mistake fares

  10. @Travis – MR is still possible, mainly to maintain status. Flyer Talk has a sub section (which Ben has highlighted called Premium Deals) where one can find some crazy deals in business class. for example I am going LAX-MIA-PTY all first/business , leaving Saturday night, arriving Sunday morning, and catching the return flight Sunday afternoon Panama-Miami-Los Angeles, returning back on Monday morning at 9.00 again all in business/first for a whooping $748 . If I have got my calculation correct, I should get at leas 40K from this trip (10K (flight) + 10k (elite) + 5K (class bonus) + 5k (additional bonus miles)

  11. I remember at last year’s FTU in Seattle, Lucky’s Mileage Run presentation basically opened up with the same news — MRs strictly for miles were dead as it’s very uncommon to receive redeemable miles for less than it’d cost to acquire them otherwise (or their worth) unless it’s a mistake fare or there are some sort of elite bonuses, etc.

  12. I’m on a ‘mileage run’ as I type. IAD-MUC-BUD… but this is so I can keep my United gold status (did a status match and then my contract got cut short) versus trying to accrue miles. Ticket was sub $600 with a 3 hour layover in Munich each way… not a bad way to spend a 3 day weekend

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