mileage run [mahy-lij ruhn]
noun, adjective – verb (used without object)
To make a quick trip for the sole purpose of aggregating frequent flyer miles and/or to achieve a level of elite status on one’s preferred airline: (usage): I am taking a mileage run next week to re-qualify for Premier Executive status with Mileage Plus.
Though you won’t find the term “mileage run” in the American Heritage Dictionary, it does appear 346,000 times when Googled and is actually included in the new online Urban Dictionary as a modern slang term. There are even two movies on YouTube about mileage runs — produced, directed and filmed by frequent flyers, of course.
Given that the first elite levels were not introduced until the mid 80s, it’s a good bet that the first mileage runs began in 1986 when programs initially started to promote new levels of membership that included added benefits and extra bonus miles. At the time though, no one had coined a term for a flight that was taken for no other reason than to earn miles and status.
In these early days, the mileage runner crowd was, for lack of a better word, exclusive. Like most first adopters, these early mileage junkies were tech savvy, detail-oriented and diligent in their research. They studied the membership guides they received in the mail and realized the value of the elite benefits being offered. They learned to slice and dice the data of airfares and create scenarios whereby they could piece together a three-day overnight trip to Singapore earning 40,000 miles for only $463. These 40,000 miles would turn into an upgrade to Europe for the frequent flyer and their companion against an economy ticket, thus saving approximately $10,000 in the process. To them it became a game; how to get the most value for the least amount of money.
And, like most first adopters, they were considered kooks by the majority of travelers.
But all of that began to change in 1988.
In that year, Eastern Airlines launched a first-of-its-kind, a credit card triple miles promotion. The promotion was an instant and enormous success with members of the Eastern Frequent Traveler program. So successful, in fact, that before long most of the other U.S.-based airlines had matched the offer. The number of members who flew Oakland-San Francisco, Colorado Springs-Denver, New York-Philadelphia, Dallas-Houston, or Ontario-Los Angeles became legendary, since in those days, many airlines offered 1,000 miles minimum per flight. (Some longtime readers might recall early stories in this magazine of members flying Oakland-San Francisco several times a day just to earn a 3,000-mile bonus on each flight.)
The interesting thing with this promotion is that it created members who were more interested in the miles than the elite-level status. It created a generation of members who analyzed programs on a cost-benefit analysis.
Mileage run mania was on. No longer relegated to the fringe types who initiated the concept, thanks to triple miles systemwide, mileage runs had now gained acceptance and popularity among the general business traveling public.
In the late 80s, many of the frequent flyer program executives began to change their thinking with regard to promotions and were less interested in promoting mileage runs. As quickly as they came, the triple miles promotions were history. And with their demise, so to were gone the legions of mileage runners, save for those early adopters who were still scanning for deals that would gain them additional miles and perks. Until, that is, a new form of promotion reignited interest in mileage runs in the early 90s.
The promotions could generally be categorized as “Fly Threes” and were introduced to encourage frequent flyers to stretch their travel. Generally, the “Fly Three” style promotions rewarded members with either bonus miles or additional free awards if they were able to fly three flights in a given amount of time. Frequent flyers with two flights were certainly encouraged to fly one more flight to get to the bonus level, while the more frequent flyer stretched their travel to the six- and even nine-flight threshold.
These promotions proved profitable for the airlines as airfares were fairly stable, creating a win-win for all. And the Fly Three offers became especially useful to the airlines later in 1991 as the industry was trying to pull out of the effects of the first Gulf War and the various bankruptcies of several airlines.
But the airlines weren’t the only ones who enjoyed the benefits of these types of promotions, as frequent flyers once again flocked to the skies to reap the rewards. And once again, just like in the late 80s, travelers were booking trips they didn’t need to take because the deals were too good to pass up. The offers proved so popular with travelers, the airlines continued running them off and on for a solid five years, up until 1996.
Eventually all good things must end, and the Fly Three offers fell by the wayside with the advent of one-to-one marketing. The Internet created the next boom in mileage runs that continues today.
The Internet introduced to frequent flyers the ability to search for low fares and the ability to exchange information and advice with fellow travelers. In essence, it gave the typical frequent flyer easy access to all the tools the early mileage junkies had been using since 1986.
Though the number of travelers who had engaged in some form of mileage run over the years as a result of promotions and special offers had grown dramatically, the number of true, hard core mileage junkies were still relatively small. While most business travelers were winding down at home for the holidays in November and December, the true mileage runners were working on requalifying or gaining a higher level of elite status for the upcoming year.
The information superhighway and the sharing of information that came with it brought more status-seeking mileage runners into the fold and eventually led to the modern age of the mileage run. Today mileage runs are no longer an end-of-year only avocation. Mileage runs have become a year-round obsession, with tens and even hundreds of thousands of members of popular frequent flyer programs booking runs each year to leverage either the economics or the benefits of these programs in their favor.
Popular does even begin to describe the extent of this behavior, as we estimate that more than 1 million flights will have been flown in 2006 by members of frequent flyer programs for the sole purpose of earning extra miles. And as strange as it may seem, nearly 70 percent of those flights will be taken by members seeking to top off their account for award redemption purpose, not for elite re-qualification reasons. And the mantra of the modern mileage runner is “cost and effect.”
But Who Came Up with “Mileage Run”
No one really knows where the term “mileage run” came from, but it’s likely that it emerged from the community of frequent flyers that gather on FlyerTalk.com. We do know that the general media first started to mention the term in 2000 to describe the first popular mileage runs used for reasons other than for the requalification of elite status — the infamous LatinPass million-mile promotion comes to mind, during which a few thousand adventurous frequent flyers trekked throughout Latin and South America stringing together airlines and flight segments in hopes of securing either a 500,000- or 1 million-miles bonus. Several hundred achieved their goal and thus the general public soon found a name for what they had been doing for years, if on a somewhat less dramatic scale.
Mileage runs have even created a small industry in itself. FlyerTalk.com hosts what is arguably the home of advice, strategy and pricing information for all levels of mileage runners, from those who have been doing it since 1986 to travelers who just learned about elite status yesterday. Members even offer seminars in cities all around the U.S., often to packed crowds, for others seeking the basic information of how to plan a mileage run, how to price a mileage run and even what to pack for those single day marathons.
The Future of the Mileage Run
The day of the traditional mileage run is nearing an end as frequent flyer programs acknowledge the strategies for which many of these members see in the value of their miles — either as awards or for the benefits. When we see programs like Delta SkyMiles, United Mileage Plus, and US Airways Dividend Miles offer members the chance to earn some of their elite-level status by purchases made with their credit card, or the more recent Everything Counts promotion from Dividend Miles, which awards elite qualification credit with such activity as hotel stays and the purchase of flowers, many members start to worry about these promotions minting too many elite cards and leading to a demise of the once exclusive benefits.
Actually, that’s the problem many programs are hoping to avoid.
The airlines realized long ago that many members take extra flights to requalify for elite-level status. Their attention was drawn to this type of activity because these bookings were clogging up the front cabins of airplanes, putting a strain on the very benefits members hoped to keep earning and using. By allowing members who are really interested in earning and using the elite-level benefits of an airline an easier way to make that goal without flying, airlines hope to become more profitable and viewed as better able to make the benefits available to members when they are truly flying for business.
But wait you say, why would airlines want to discourage these types of flights, it’s easy money right? Actually wrong. Mileage runs by elite members are among the most unprofitable bookings an airline has because the elite mileage runner is seeking only to fly on the cheapest flights that have the lowest yield to the airline. On top of this, all current elite members enjoy flights bonuses ranging from 25-125 percent of the flight miles earned, which effectively makes awards too easy to get.
Yes, mileage runs are a bad business for the airlines. If airlines can convince existing elite members that there are other ways to reach their re-qualification goals, it takes pressure off the upgrades, leaving them again, for members actually flying on business and perhaps making the airline a bit more profitable.
Having said that, don’t make any funeral arrangements for the mileage run just yet. This old dog still has a little life in it.
As for elite status, it’s now more valuable than ever before. With flights as crowded or more crowded than at any time in the past, the ability to board the aircraft first and actually claim a fair share of overhead space is a real benefit. With kiosks and online check-in negating the value of separate check-in areas for elite members, these members have now found something else far more valuable-elite-level lines at the security areas of airports. Just when you think you’ll never make your flight because the line for taking off your shoes is 100 passengers deep, the idea of being able to move to a special, and much shorter line makes re-qualification for the first or twentieth time a real benefit. And, with a growing number of airlines reserving extra award seats for their elite members, mileage runs seem all that more important.
Oh, and don’t forget the upgrades. With the industry just about maxed out on the use of regional jets, upgrades have become an elusive, but still cherished benefit. Today, the special seating zones for elites carry just as much, if not more ,importance with flights invariably elbow-to-elbow.
Today, these programs have created mileage runners out of just about everyone. Retirees are a favorite for mileage runs, as they have plenty of disposable time and they often have another purpose to their flights — million mile status. As we have discussed, chasing miles via mileage runs for elite status is a temporary thing. Annually one must repeat the process if they are not lucky enough to have flown enough during the year to earn their precious metal card.
But retirees see life in a different way (and that isn’t exclusive to mileage runs). They often use mileage runs not for the sole purpose of the annual elite qualification, but rather to achieve what they were likely short of in their business travel days — lifetime elite status. Many programs award infinite elite status once a member earns 1 million flight miles (American AAdvantage is a little different since they count all miles toward their million-mile program, including those earned with a credit card).
And of course mileage runs have created a sense of elitism. “Purists” only take single day mileage runs (two-day if international) and often turn right around and come home again without even leaving the airport. This created interesting scenarios for the new security procedures put in place right after 9/11. Many mileage runners reported much more inspection when they exited a plane only to get back on, time and time again.
For elites, it is often worth the time and money to requalify. Let’s take a look at the difference between the typical Silver and Gold member of a frequent flyer program. Silver members often earn a 25-percent bonus when flying, all the usual check-in, and early boarding privileges. And, if available to them, Silvers often make the upgrade list 24 hours in advance of a flight. The Gold member earns a 100-percent flight bonus plus all the other privileges AND makes the upgrade list 48 hours in advance. If the member was only to fly 40,000 miles the following year (re qualification is 50,000 miles) that means they would have earned a 40,000-mile bonus (100-percent flight miles) vs. a 10,000-mile bonus (25-percent flight miles).
Many would say that with the extra 24 hours of upgrade time and the extra 30,000 bonus miles making the extra effort to re-qualify for elite is well worth it.
And mileage runs aren’t confined to airlines. Similar efforts are put forth by members of hotel programs as they also worry about earning enough stays or nights to requalify for suite upgrades and extra bonus points as well. And behavior for the less than elites can even focus around car rentals and other types of partners that programs have added over the years. Over the years there has been proof that members have rented as many as 10 cars in a single day, all returned after a simple drive around the airports perimeter and all for the purpose of earning additional bonus miles.
As well, United has a fairly expensive offer allowing members to earn double qualifying miles until Dec. 16 when they pay a fee of $499.