A Decade Later, I’m Turning Down “Free” Miles

Filed Under: Mileage Runs, Travel

I’ve been involved in this “hobby” for more than a decade now. And I feel just as passionately about it today as I did the day I get started, despite the fact that my approach to it has changed a lot.

I’m just booking some travel today, and as I do so I can’t help but smirk — because I know 15 year old me would’ve punched me in the face right now if he saw what I was doing.

Back in the day I was a hardcore mileage runner. I spent my weekends flying around the country aimlessly to earn miles.

For example, say I had the choice between the following two routings for the same price:

  • Tampa to Dallas to San Diego
  • Tampa to Miami to San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Diego

Not only would I have gone with the second routing, but damnit, I would’ve judged anyone foollish enough to go with the first routing and turn down all those “free” miles.

I couldn’t help but smirk as I worked on booking some travel today. I need to fly from Tampa to Washington. I looked at options on American, and found something reasonably priced through Chicago. 15 year old me would’ve gotten excited, thinking of all the extra miles I’d be earning over a direct routing.


Then I realized I could fly nonstop for the same price (a few dollars cheaper, even).


The first routing would earn me ~1,600 elite qualifying miles (~3,200 redeemable miles), while the second routing would earn me just ~800 elite qualifying miles (~1,600 redeemable miles).


15 year old me says “what are you, stupid? You just turned down 1,600 (basically) free miles! And the cent per mile ratio on the second routing is twice as much!”

Quarter century old me says “An extra five hours for 1,600 redeemable miles? No way!”

But oddly this is a thought process I’ve been noticing myself using quite a bit lately. Just like when I was younger I still map out the distance for the routings I’m looking at, but for domestic routings my conclusions are the opposite of what they used to be — I go with the more direct routing.

I guess what it comes down to is that nowadays my priorities for domestic travel as follows:

  • Get as direct of a routing as possible
  • Get on flights with wifi (in the case of American that means avoiding regional jets)
  • Route via a city with more frequencies/less chances of delays
  • All else being equal, route through an airport with better lounges (like Dallas, thanks to the American Express Centurion Lounge) — if I have to spend extended periods of time at an airport, it might as well be in a lounge with decent cocktails and food

American Express Centurion Lounge Dallas

Bottom line

It’s interesting how over time my approach to the “hobby” has changed, even though I feel just as passionately about it now as a decade ago. Ultimately there’s no right or wrong way to play this game, it’s just a function of what you value most, and that changes over time.

Now, the irony of all of this is that I’m choosing a more direct routing to get to Washington so that I can take a completely unnecessary trip to Beijing. Yep, I never claimed my logic was totally sound. 😀

  1. Mileage running is great if it gets you an essentially free trip to cool places you wouldn’t otherwise go, like your trip to Beijing. But hanging around for extra hours in domestic first or at mediocre airports? Not so much.

  2. I think you just got a lot wealthier and don’t need to mileage run anymore on domestic, non luxury routings 😉

  3. Travel should be about what makes you the most happy. I, for instance, hate transiting through a country I’ve never visited. It just bugs me when it shows up on my travel map but I’ve never actually been there. But my brother thinks I’m nuts for flying ICN-HKG when I could have done ICN-BKK-HKG instead.

    Bottom line — if this makes you a happier person, then it’s the better decision

  4. Slightly tangentially:
    Is the miles hobby heavily skewed towards US residents? As an example, as an EU resident, the Am Ex cards over this way offer a signup of 6000 miles bonus on Flying Blue – which is pitiful compared to what cards over that side of the pond get you. Also, a one way first class on AF would cost you 125k miles to go from CDG to SYD… which is so much more than what my brother gets with his AA miles when flying First from east coast to Aus. So, what’s your view on this? Is the game easier for US residents?

  5. I live in a Delta hub but I HATE Delta. Thus, the option would be to fly from my hub to a AA hub on AA and from there take another AA flight to my final destination. Well, if I were not married and did not have two kids under 10 years old I would certainly do that. However, as you get older your priorities change. Thus, I will easily trade miles and a flight on an airline that I like better for spending more time at home with my family. That is the only reason I fly Delta.

  6. I think you just got smarter. 1600 miles is worth about $32. $32 for 5 hours of your time is $6.40/hour. Don’t know about the rest of you, but that does not entice me.

  7. Personally I’m finding the Centurion lounges way too crowded these days to bother forcibly routing via those cities (DFW in particular).

  8. I think in a way, you’re deciding (by design or not): if I’m going to spend a butt-in-seat time on airplanes, at least make it a nice seat, which US domestic flight isn’t.

  9. I think you are just learning that the most valuable thing in the world is time, not money. As the value of your time has increased, you are less likely to waste that time when the benefit is so small.

  10. 20 whatever you is much smarter than 15 year old you. Well done. Focus more on ease and valuing your time!

  11. @Lucky totally unrelated, but would u mind to write an article about shopping? Which city is the best for shopping trip? In the past, I heard a lot of nice things about Hong Kong (no sales tax), Tokyo (Japanese dollar devaluation ) and Dubai (lots lots of selections…) but what about other cities like Singapore, London, Paris, Sydney, São Paulo, Frankfurt, Johnesberg?

  12. I still take the out of the way routing occasionally, BUT only to the extent necessary to reach my status goal(s) for the year. Otherwise, I go with the best upgrade chances first and the most direct routing second. I avoid coach at (almost) ALL costs.

  13. Oh, and I’ve NEVER had a decent wifi connection on a plane, so I don’t even bother. My time is better spent sleeping. I’ll be trying the wifi on a new AA 77W on an international long-haul today, so maybe I’ll finally get a good in-inflight wifi experience! Not holding my breath…

  14. You are maturing. It’s good that you’re writing these thoughts down so you can compare again when in your 30s, then 40s, then so on! You’ll see how your perspective evolves.

    This hobby is a big tent. There’s room for so many points of view. The key for each individual is to understand themselves, define the objectives that truly matter to them, and then pursue strategies that help achieve those objectives. And most important – ignore all the noise around objectives and strategies that don’t matter!

  15. Future posts from Lucky, circa 2070:

    “Which nursing home is better, the one closest to downtown or the one that’s farther away but awards you Frequent Assist miles each time you press the call button for assistance?”

    “Review of ‘The Hobbit’ screening at the 3:00 Wednesday afternoon public library movie hour: I remember when 3D was new!”

    “A-1 Storage is the best: Great customer service where I keep my vast collection of airline pajamas and amenity kits – they’ll even help an old man lift the boxes!”

  16. The difference is the success of this blog. Earlier you didn’t have income pouring in and weren’t able to afford flying all over nonstop while earning tons of miles so you looked for whatever way to earn extra miles you could Fortunately, you had generous parents able to subsidize your lifestyle until this blog took off and now you don’t need to look for ways to earn extra miles. Unfortunately, not all of us are so lucky to have parents able to subsidize us living an unrealistic lifestyle.

  17. What program/website do you use to map out the routings? I’ve had many times I’ve wanted to do it but couldn’t find a decent way.

  18. the other change has been the advent of large CC bonus in the US. It has become a lot easier to obtain RDM’s. Unless you really need it for EQM’s you would be insane to do the ORD routing

  19. @ Famx — Hmmm, great question, let me see if I can come up with something. To be honest not big into shopping, so I might not be the best person to ask.

  20. @ farnorthtrader — Agreed, sort of the conclusion I came to, though truthfully time spent in the air isn’t totally unproductive thanks to inflight wifi. But principle remains.

  21. @ neo74 — Yes, the game is definitely easier in the US, at least in terms of credit cards. That being said, there are many other parts of the hobby that are equally valuable regardless of where in the world you are, like the ability to buy miles when they’re on sale.

  22. Isn’t it amazing what getting older does? After a particularly harrowing travel season in the last quarter of 2014 (just all over the place…thousands and thousands and thousands of miles–too many parties–too much work–too much stress–no sleep) I hopped on Facebook before boarding my last flight of the year [LAX-CDG-TXL-AMS-MAN-HAJ-Hamburg (on DB)-HAJ (horrible)-] AMS-LAX, and someone I know had posted a quote from the Brook Kerith by George Moore: “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.” I lost my shit to the point the FA asked me if everything was okay…face in my hands ugly crying. Travel is amazing–maybe the MOST amazing thing ever, but where I used to be able to go a weekend without sleeping and then sleep on the plane home and return to the office on a Monday morning straight from the airport, I feel myself changing. I don’t feel my time is worth too much to fly LAX-ATL-MDW…I have time…I miss my friends–I miss my parents–I miss getting drunk and then going back to MY home and waking up the next day at noon with no suitcase to grab and no airport security to deal with. I miss going on dates, and not a “date” with someone you met at a Schöneberg bar………wow, this comment went a different direction I thought it would. I’m only 27, but I get what you’re saying. I just wonder what changes the future brings. How exciting/terrifying. Just gonna leave this here……….

  23. It’s been at leastern three months since you’ve written almost this exact post. Appreciate the restraint.

  24. @ mark — Oh man, it has been a week to the day since you last said you’d stop reading the blog. Couldn’t restrain yourself?

  25. Credit Cards are much easier in the US. We moved to Europe but I still use my US credit cards because the local ones here (Switzerland) are just not attractive and have a high foreign currency fee. On the flipside though you can get much cheaper flights in business class, e.g. currently from TXL to HKG for less 1200 Euro on BA or CX.

  26. I do love collecting miles. But even from the start I would have taken the direct route.
    I would always avoid a connection in ORD if i can.

  27. Time is money. At 15, you have 10 more years on your life expectancy than 25.

    At age 15, the marginal benefit of 1600 miles may have outweighed the marginal cost of 5 hours, but not at age 25. If you value your time now at $200 an hour, you are giving up $1000 to get 1600 miles. At 15, your time may have been worth close to $1-5/ hour (no blog, business, etc……)

    Like they say, it’s a matter of economics 🙂

  28. You’re looking at coach tickets?!?! No wonder you’ve been battering us with credit card referrals last week :p

  29. Lucky, it’s funny, because I was actually faced with the EXACT same dilemma approximately two months ago. (TPA-DCA on US, or TPA-ORD-DCA on AA for the same price). I had the time to kill and chose to go via ORD to earn those “free” miles. Of course, it was February, and there was a snowstorm that shutdown DCA sometime while I was en route to ORD. So, I ended up staying overnight at the ORD Hilton. Not sure if it was worth the extra miles. LOL
    Of course, that’s less of a problem in April …

  30. @ Sophie — Hah, don’t remember the last time I’ve missed an upgrade on a domestic flight.

  31. 5 hours for 1600 EQM of actual flying is pretty borderline to me, it depends on what my day is going to be like and what happens if I misconnect. If I was coming home from a business trip and was just going to sleep anyway, I’d probably do it if I knew my upgrades were going to clear. If I was starting a trip, no way. 9am to 2pm on a probably pleasant Saturday in DC, no chance.

    Now if you had said TPA-MIA-DCA, 600 EQM extra but only 300 more miles of flying, I’d have to think about it.

  32. Anyone else think: WHOA how did a 15 year old have so much free time and money to be mileage running?! lol. I didn’t get to start playing this game until I graduated from grad school and actually started having time and money.

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *