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.
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.
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:
- Delta and United switched to awarding miles based on the price of the ticket, rather than the distance flown
- Airlines tightened their routing rules, eliminating “creative” and circuitous routings
- Ticket costs went up
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.
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?