With rising fuel costs and cutbacks in airline capacity, flying is becoming increasingly expensive. As a result, many travelers are choosing to stay at home, enjoying local attractions instead of traveling to Hawaii or Tahiti. That doesn’t have to be the case, though. Let me tell you about mileage running and how it enables you to travel for less. Mileage running is the act of flying for the sole purpose of racking up miles. The goal is to earn as many miles as possible for as little money as possible, establishing a low “cent per mile” ratio (the number of cents you’re paying per mile), and ultimately using the miles to secure award tickets.
As a college student on a tight budget, mileage running has allowed me to see the world like I would have never dreamed of a few years ago, in style no less. I travel about 200,000 miles a year, can be found on a red-eye flight many Saturday nights and will get up the next morning when most people my age go to bed to catch a 6am flight. While that might not sound too exciting, I’ve been able to visit exciting places such as Australia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malta, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, just to name a few, mostly in first or business class.
So how do I do it? Well, I seek out the lowest fares that cover the most miles. Living in Tampa, the most compelling routes are usually to the West Coast (e.g., San Francisco, Los Angeles or Seattle). Once I’ve identified an attractive fare I’ll try to “manipulate” the routing, adding connections that maximize the number of miles I earn. For example, the fastest route traveling from Tampa to Seattle with United would be through Denver, but that route doesn’t net me the most miles. Instead, I’ll route through a combination of airports, such as Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles, nearly doubling the number of miles I earn.
But pulling off a successful mileage run isn’t quite as easy as it may sound. There’s more than just picking random connections and hoping that somehow they’ll get you a good fare. It requires a lot of careful planning, research, patience, time, and most importantly, the willingness to fly. As long as you are willing to invest in those five necessities, you’re destined to enjoy cheaper, better vacations for as long as you choose.
So let’s get into the details. The cheap fares that mileage runners drool over are the empty seats on planes that airlines can’t fill, despite the recent capacity cutbacks. While fares are generally increasing, the very low fares still exist–they’re just more difficult to find. That could mean that fares have more restrictions such as longer minimum stay requirements or less availability, but they are there and are waiting to be found.
Once you identify a good fare you can use a number of tools to manipulate the routing. This is where some airlines prove to be much more mileage run friendly than others. Airlines like American and United allow several connections in each direction of travel, while airlines like Continental, Delta and Northwest typically have substantial price increases when “padding” segments. In the case of United, most fares allow four transfers in each direction for a transcontinental fare, so it’s a matter of finding the segments that have your desired fare class available.
For example, at United, “L” fares are the bottom of the barrel fares that many mileage runners use. To figure out whether the “L” bucket is available for a particular flight, you can use a range of sources, from seatcounter.com to certain airlines’ Web sites. Furthermore, some sites can even help you manipulate routings. ITA, for instance, identifies flights that have availability in specific fare classes. While it may take a bit of time to learn the ins and outs of mileage-running, planning a trip can take as little as 15 minutes once you get the hang of it.
While there is no guarantee that mileage running will be as practical in the future as it is today, it can make a lot of sense in the meantime. At the end of the day, airlines have empty seats to fill, irrespective of reductions in capacity. My main concern is more along the lines of added restrictions. For example, United recently announced a new three-day minimum stay requirement for most domestic fares starting in the fall; it’s anyone’s guess whether those restrictions will stick, and if other airlines will follow.
For a more detailed guide to booking mileage runs, visit my blog at http://boardingarea.com/blogs/onemileatatime/