Airline Mileage Runs: There Has to be a Better Way

Airline Mileage Runs: There Has to be a Better Way

Summary: At the end of every year, many business travelers face the inevitable: the dreaded Mileage Run.


At the end of every year, many business travelers face the inevitable: the dreaded Mileage Run.

When you're a business traveler, status is everything.

When you have medallion status as a regular business traveler, you get preferred check-in and baggage drop lines -- a huge advantage over being treated like a nobody -- as well as having a significantly increased chance for First Class upgrades. So keeping it and maintaining it is a huge priority. No business traveler wants to be reduced to an average schlub, it would be a fate worse than death.

Well, maybe not worse than death. But it would suck.

While I did do a significant amount of travel this last year, it was much less than the two years previous, where I actually achieved Platinum on Continental. Because of various corporate travel policy issues that I'd rather not discuss, I switched my preferred carrier to Delta, where they status matched me to Gold, and I was able to sustain Silver in 2009.

While Silver status sounds pretty crappy, I've discovered that on Delta it actually means something. Much of my travel has been on the East Coast this last year on heavy Delta routes, so even with Silver, I still got a lot of First Class upgrades.

Additionally, a number of the Delta airports I have been frequenting are extremely busy, such as Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, which have huge check-in lines for Schlub class during peak travel days and hours.

If you're Silver, you're immediately promoted to Human Being and can enjoy at least a one hour reduction in wait time to get to your gate. That one extra hour is significant, because it means I can spend it at the Crown Club and get tanked on free cocktails while I mess with the iPad on Wi-Fi, especially if I got the First Class upgrade.

So November is about half-done, and we've got only about six more weeks until the end of the year. As it turns out, I'm about 1000 miles short of maintaining my Silver status on Delta.

It's possible that I might do some additional travel in December -- perhaps one last business trip for the year, or my wife and I will probably go away during Christmas week, which would solve that problem. 1000 miles isn't so bad, it's one round trip back and forth to Florida or the Caribbean from any airport in the New York metro area.

But if I didn't have an upcoming business trip or a planned vacation, I'd have to do what many business travelers have to do at the end of the year in order to maintain status --- the dreaded Mileage Run.

What's a Mileage Run? It's when you buy a bunch of cheap airline tickets on your preferred carrier with long mileage legs in order to ensure your status on your desired preferred level. You get on a plane, you go to some place you don't really care about, hang out at the airport or the destination city for a few hours or the day, and then fly home.

There are entire bulletin boards dedicated to the subject of finding cheap Mileage Runs, such as the one on the popular business travel discussion site FlyerTalk. There you'll find cheap mileage runs from the moderate to the extreme, such as this 19,000 mile run from San Francisco to Dubai. Why, you can leave Saturday afternoon and be home Monday, for a cool $907.00!

If you're 3,000 to 5,000 miles short of a medallion tier level, a $500.00 or less investment in cheap tickets and blowing a few Saturdays "Up in the Air" is much more preferable to losing your Platinum or Gold medallion, or even Silver.

I've never had to do one of these. Thank God. But if I end up using Continental points for my vacation tickets in December, and I don't have another business trip this year, then I face the very real possibility of getting on a plane and flying to some awful cold destination during the winter if I want to keep my Silver status on Delta. Like Detroit. Or Cleveland. Or Buffalo.

Is it just me, or does this whole idea of having to "Maintain" status by flying to someplace you don't want to go sound awfully stupid? Shouldn't there a better way of handling this?

Like, can't I just buy my way into status for whatever miles I have left in the year? So if I'm 1000 miles short of my goal, shouldn't I just be able to just give Delta $250.00 and not show up at the airport? And we can both just pretend I boarded the plane to Detroit and I don't blow a whole Saturday doing it?

And it's not just the time. Or even the money. If I boarded a plane to Detroit in December, I'd be taking up a seat another customer might have needed, particularly if that flight ends up getting full and I'm not getting upgraded. Wouldn't it make sense and also good public relations for Delta and the other airlines if there was some holiday-themed "Buy a Ticket for the Underprivileged and Maintain Your Status" end-of-year drive for charity so we can all be happy?

Buy X number of miles -- at a price which is entirely reasonable -- and someone who needs to go visit their family 1000 miles away and can't afford to fly gets to go on a plane during the holidays. You get your status, you don't have to get on a stupid plane for no reason and blow your entire weekend, and the surplus seats get used by people who really need to use them.

Have you ever had to do the dreaded "Mileage Run?" or are facing the possibility of having to do a few at the end of the year? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Travel Tech, iPad, Tablets, Wi-Fi


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: Airline Mileage Runs: There Has to be a Better Way

  • Duh. For silver?

    If you are trying to maintain a Platinum status and only need 1-4 segments, the mileage run makes sense sometimes. If you just want silver on Delta, get the Amex Delta Reserve credit card. It gives you automatic silver status, complementary crown room access for you and two guests, and bonus Medallion Qualification Miles based on your spending habits. $450 a year card fee - but that's cheaper than a $1000 ticket in December or a cheaper ticket plus annual crown room membership.
    • RE: Airline Mileage Runs: There Has to be a Better Way

      @earthside I'm already an AMEX Platinum member, so it doesn't make sense to spend another $450 a year when I'm already spending $500 for access to ALL airline clubs. But if I have to spend Continental points for vacation tix and I don't have a business trip in December, I may just do it.
      • Continental Mastercard was free for 1st year

        For a while this year the Continental Presidential Plus mastercard was free for the first year. Even spending the $400 per year seems valuable in your case.
        It gives you lounge access to all Star Alliance, and elite boarding and baggage on Continental.
      • RE: Airline Mileage Runs: There Has to be a Better Way

        @jperlow. First; I have done the mileage run for my Delta status, more than once. However, I have found the miles themselves to be almost useless, it is the status that matters most. I love the upgrades, the free checked luggage for vacations, the premium seats including exit row in advance and the preferred check in lines. I also have the platinum Amex because they offered 5000 MQM the first time I used it. But I never use my Amex card other than to keep it active anymore. I use the USBank Flex Perks card, I get the same amount of points/miles when I use it and when I do use the miles, I get miles for the flight I take. Also it only takes 20,000 miles for a domestic ticket up to $400, 30,000 for a ticket up to $600 and 40,000 for a ticket valued up to $800. It does not matter if it is round trip or circle trip, coach or first class. If I buy a ticket using the Flex Perks points, I am still eligible for the upgrade. I am not an employee of USBank and don't even bank there, but the card is the best.
  • How about a Buy a ticket for a soldier or soldier's family.

    Make it a patriotic thing. Get an armed forces member home for Christmas or fly a member up somewhere where they are posted.
    • RE: Airline Mileage Runs: There Has to be a Better Way

      @Mwatanuki That's an excellent idea.
  • RE: Airline Mileage Runs: There Has to be a Better Way

    AMEX will actually allow you to "buy" (or borrow I suppose) points to use for miles. They credit your points account with the amount requested, and you just have to spend enough on the card to repay the points within 12 months.

    If you use your AMEX for almost everything, it's a simple way to boost your miles account with a carrier. And, bonus, you're going to spend the money ANYWAY, may as well spend it normally on stuff you would have, rather than throw it away on a mileage run.
    • RE: Airline Mileage Runs: There Has to be a Better Way

      @deano-zdnet It sounds good, but everything I've heard about buying miles is that they don't count towards maintaining status. Is there any verbiage anywhere that says that it does?
    • RE: Airline Mileage Runs: There Has to be a Better Way

      Agreed at least at UAL where they distinguish "miles" from "elite qualifying miles" and "segments" from "elite qualifying segments".

      Which by the way adds another dimension to the calculation ... do you try to requalify based on miles or segments? Your SFO to Dubai example might be a lot of miles but only 2 segments.
      • RE: Airline Mileage Runs: There Has to be a Better Way

        @JoshSale Well, under Continental, I did more segments than I did miles. That seems to be the case now as well with Delta.
  • Schlub class

    I resent that!
  • RE: Airline Mileage Runs: There Has to be a Better Way

    I always get an email from UAL at the beginning of the year offering to let me buy my way up to the next MileagePlus tier. The charge seems to somehow be proportional to how short I am.
  • how depressing...

    Let me start by saying that I am not flying now, that I used to, and that I do not miss it.

    How far have we fallen, to describe the 'common man' as 'schlub', as if there is some magic promotion to uber-status connected with types of work? It seems to me a near-perfect metaphor in the continuing destruction of values in the race to the bottom of the morality barrel. Somehow it's only about money, in the end, and we're all the less for it.

    Why don't we all get the same fair (ok that's snarky and impossible but I can wish) price for the miles covered, and let every damn perk and imagined privilege be directly charged to those who're willing to pay for them? Isn't that the notion of the market? Why are we buried under endless mounds of bullshit in the process? Shouldn't I, or anyone, be able to endure the horror of simply going somewhere for a price nearer to the real cost per mile of the journey, and let the very elite special important people pay for their own thrills at whatever rate the market will decide? Because at the bottom of it all, I'm certain that I, as the schlub, am paying for someone else's thrills here.

    I know this sort of populist drivel won't fly (snicker) with the really important types. And I don't care. I know that the whole notion of the piece is to explore the ways to take advantage of the system as it exists, and that idealistic notions of equality aren't really in the game. And I care about that a great deal. A system that pits petty greed against schlubs is evil.