Burn miles or earn status? The age old question…

Craig asked the following question in the “Ask Lucky” section of the blog:

Hi Ben,

I have a quandry that you might appreciate somewhat, now that you are AA Executive Platinum.

I am very fortunate in that I have about two million frequent flyer miles and I am just starting to use them. However, a very good buddy is AA Exec Platinum and he is willing to give me a good number of his VIP upgrade certificates.

However, unlike you, I have a full-time job and can only travel so many times a year. (This year I’m really pushing it to take five one-week international trips — two on miles and three on VIP vouchers).

The dilemma is that if I use a number of his VIP vouchers in the future, I will not be able to use my miles and will end up hoarding them, which is contrary to your “earn and burn” mantra. In the last year, I picked up another 750,000 miles between credit card spending and bonuses, and I can see getting lots more after reading your great advice.

To make matters more complex, I am so intrigued by your AA Exec Platinum challenge, that I am tempted to do it myself, with my son, which would give us 32 upgrade vouchers in a relatively short period of time.

I realize that AA would probably only let me do a Platinum challenge, since I am not an elite on any other airline, and that I’d have to earn my 100,000 BIS miles or points to get Exec Platinum. But with the availability of my friend’s VIP vouchers, any trips and milage runs would be most comfortable, and like you, could include discount business class to LHR, upgraded to first class.

What are your thoughts??? Earn and burn and forget about the upgrades, or use the upgrades while I have the opportunity and become EXP?

Also, any way a non-elite can ever get an Exec Platinum challenge when AA offers them again?

Thanks and keep up the great work!!!

While the circumstances above are specific to him, I find this to be a question that a lot of people face. I realize that not everyone has the time to fly 300,000 miles per year like me, because some of you have “real” jobs (shudder). And that can put people in a tough situation when deciding which direction to pursue with travel. They love to fly, but realistically they can only fly somewhere right around 100,000 miles per year. So while they can reach top tier status, they’re rarely able to use their miles for some of the world’s best first class products to exciting destinations, which is for me the biggest perk of mileage running.

First of all, in Craig’s case above there’s no way he could do the Executive Platinum challenge I did, since American isn’t offering the challenge at the moment (and he doesn’t have another top tier status to match from, even if they were). So his journey to Executive Platinum wouldn’t be quite as easy as mine, but then again, his friend is willing to give him some systemwide upgrades, which would ease the pain a bit.

As I plan out my own path to Executive Platinum, I realize that I won’t be doing a whole lot of mileage running on them. Instead, I’ll be doing a whole lot of mini-vacationing, which is something I had previously not done a whole lot of with United. I was looking at fares to Shanghai for the fall, and I see tickets that are $900 all-in. That’s far from great, but it is about 20,000 elite qualifying miles (and 40,000 redeemable miles), and upgrades are confirmable. So it’s really $900 for a business class ticket to Asia (with first class lounge access). The issue is, though, that it requires a lot of planning in advance. While Executive  Platinum members usually clear their upgrades eventually, if I book any closer to departure I’ll likely have to sweat out the upgrade and waitlist. Similarly, there are six day minimum stay requirements for most of American’s good fares to Asia, which wouldn’t be very good for Craig.

Mileage running to Europe sounds nice in theory, but New York to London is less than 7,000 miles roundtrip, so he would have to do more than 14 of those per year (and trust me, they’re no fun).

But here’s the bigger picture for me. If Craig ends up mileage running, he’ll spend most of his time in American’s international business class slanted flat seat. It’s a decent product, but I think the excitement is lost a bit when that’s all you’re able to fly.

Living in New York, Craig could instead start to redeem his miles for Lufthansa first class with travel through Frankfurt where he would have access to Lufthansa’s amazing First Class Terminal and be driven to his plane in a Porsche. He could fly Swiss’ new first class for the amazing onboard product they have. He could fly British Airways’ new first and spend some time in the Concorde Room. He could fly Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong in first class. If he wanted to go to South America, he could fly American nonstop in first class for a fully flat bed. And he could do all that on award tickets.

The thing is, if you plan well, awards tickets aren’t really that expensive. You can travel from the US to Asia via Europe for 120,000 miles in first class. You can travel from the US to New Zealand in business class for 100,000 miles.

When it comes to flying, I’ve always said that business class is a comfortable form of transportation. First class on premium airlines, on the other hand, is an experience in and of itself.

So I think it all comes down to what “earn” ratio Craig could maintain. If he earned at least 500,000 miles per year, for example, and his goal was to travel with his son, that’s enough for two awesome first class trips for him and his son every year. I’m sure he could make up any deficit in miles by buying US Airways miles whenever they have a promotion, and be much more comfortable (and have more money in the bank) than if he chose to mileage run.

Just my two cents. Did I miss anything?

Filed Under: Advice
  1. How do you fly US-Asia via Europe for 120k and US-NZ for 100k now that Aeroplan has changed their award chart?

  2. @ aussie — They haven’t changed their award charts yet. Regardless through Continental you can get to Asia for 145,000 miles (including Bali, which isn’t the case through Aeroplan). It’s 110,000 US Airways miles in business class to New Zealand.

    Through the transfer bonus that British Airways has from Membership Rewards right now, it’s only 100,000 miles for Cathay Pacific first class to Asia (which I failed to mention) too.

  3. Maybe I missed something.

    How will he redeem his miles on Lufthansa or Swiss if his miles are with American/Oneworld?

    I understand Cathay – I’ve used AAdvantage miles to fly them business class to Hong Kong and Thailand, but don’t follow how he’d use miles with the other airlines.

  4. Great post. If you have 200k us air miles, what’s the best bang for your book on us-Europe?

  5. @Bob – I think Lucky was just trying to give some examples of more ideal experiences than just flying business class to London on American.

  6. @ Bob — @ BR is correct. He says he has two million miles now, and I see nothing that suggests that they’re American miles. I’m guessing he has miles across a variety of programs.

    @ Michael — Well that’s enough for two business class awards or one first class award to Europe, so any route on which you can take a partner sounds like a good deal to me.

  7. I’m trying to hit EXP again, and I have about 450,000 AA miles. I’m going to Europe in the fall, and I booked a business award ticket awhile back, but I’m considering cancelling that and buying a revenue ticket and using eVIPs to help hit EXP. The cost is about $1,200, but will only earn me about 9,000 miles.

    I’m in Chicago, and I’ve done some runs to LAX for the DEQ promo, and I’m debating just doing more of those and keeping my business class ticket. Those runs are about $220 each, and earn me 7,000 miles. I’m debating if it’s better to potentially waste the EVIPs, and use the miles, or save the miles for a time when I might not be EXP and have EVIPs.

  8. The answer is actually a lot simpler than it seems.

    If you fly enough in paid Y for it to be truly painful, you will have earned status anyway and the benefits for it to be more pleasant.

    If most of your flying is by burning your CC miles for premium cabins, status is probably irrelevant (unless you need it as an ego card in your wallet).

    Pick what serves your actual travel needs for each trip and you’ll probably find that everything works out for the best anyway. Overanalysis never helped anyone.

  9. Most of my travel is personal, but strive to balance earning with redeeming. I earn enough to qualify for 1K, then burn for usually 3 international first class trips per year on different airlines. For hotels, I earn the required 21 stays for SPG Platinum, then burn for airline top-offs with the 25% transfer bonus.

    Living in Hawaii, mileage running is not a viable option, so believe it or not, I look for fare specials to Europe. Otherwise, I do perhaps a weekend a month in LA and offset the cost with skykit vouchers. Of course, that will likely be going away, so might have to start looking at bumps, which I find to be difficult here.

  10. @Lucky: Shanghai is awesome, and AA’s flights there are quite cheap. My wife and I took a China trip this spring (part of a tour), and I think Shanghai was our favorite city.

    The bad thing about Shanghai is that you have to have a visa to go to China. Using standard services (we used mychinavisa.com out of Houston and they were great) it’s about $200/person for a China visa. On a $900 flight, that’s adding some 20% to your upfront costs — or probably equivalent to around 2 nights for a standard room in a good hotel in Shanghai. It is worth it if you’re in China for a week, but probably not if you’re just going for a 2 or 3-day mini-vacation in Shanghai.

  11. Hi Ben,

    Thanks so much for devoting an entire post to my quandary of using my friend’s AA VIP Certificates to upgrade to Exec Platinum, or using my cache of miles!!! And Thanks for more great tips!!!

    One thing you didn’t address is the additional flexibility AA Exec Platinum members have to book award flights and easily change them without penalty, and have access to expanded award inventory.

    I did mention the possibility of mileage running, but in actuality, like you, I would likely gear most trips to be regular or mini vacations.

    Unfortunately, my miles are not all in AA, but scattered among AA, Delta, British Air, AmEx MR Points and SPG Points. So, in using them, at least right now, would be a little more complicated than you indicated, although there are certainly lots of possibilities.

    My wife and I (and another household family member) took advantage of the BA signup offers and expect to have a close to a million miles in that program soon for our household account. I especially like the 2-4-1 certificates which I can earn two per year (one for me and one for my wife).

    I already used one, and even though I had to pay the excise taxes, I thought BA was top notch, especially their new first class Concord lounge at LHR. The “New First” cabin was only 2/3 full and the seating configuration made it seem as if we had the entire first class cabin to ourselves. I also know that for a few thousand miles more than two flying for the price of one on BA, I can fly on CX and have much more flexibility with stopovers, or use the miles for LAN South America, or the other items you mentioned.

    Getting back to the possibility of going for Exec Platinum, when I mentioned mileage running to Europe, and flying discounted business class between JFK and LHR (and upgrading to first with a VIP certificate), I envisioned doing something like what you did, which was to incorporate a mileage run of additional stops to get the full EQP to 20,000+. You indicated in a prior post that you used the following itinerary to get 22,000 EQP:

    “So after playing around with routings a bit, I managed to find the following routing all in paid business class for $1,600 all-in:
    AA0415, Tampa to Chicago, 8:25AM-10:15AM, 737-800
    AA2074, Chicago to Miami, 12:45PM-4:45PM, 767-300
    AA005, Miami to London, 6:25PM-8:10AM (+1 day), 777-200
    BA0308, London to Paris, 10:45AM-1:00PM, 320
    BA0303, Paris to London, 7:35AM-7:55AM, 320
    AA0057, London to Miami, 9:50AM-2:30PM, 777-200
    AA0544, Miami to Dallas, 4:10PM-6:25PM, 737-800
    AA0674, Dallas to Tampa, 8:40PM-11:55PM, MD-80

    It’s by no means cheap, but I earn around 22,000 elite qualifying points.”

    If I can do some trips like that, then I could get to AA Exec Platinum in just five trips — or perhaps four trips if I included China or Japan, which I’d like to do. COULD YOU COMMENT ON THAT? How easy would it be to arrange high-EQP itineraries like yours?

    Also, if I take just the Platinum challenge, which I think is available right now, I can probably earn substantially more EQR miles along the way. ANY COMMENT?

    Another issue to add further complexity is that my credit card spending has gotten me to gold levels for SPG and Hilton, and I expect to become Hilton Diamond within a few months. That would make it much more pleasant to have some weekend trips. Also, it seems that once I become a Hilton Diamond, some of the other hotel programs may give me a status match to their top elite tier.

    Also, if I went for Exec Platinum, then by the time I got it my son and I would likely have a total of 750,000 AAdvantage Miles between the two of us, based on what we currently have and what we would earn during the process. Becoming EP would then give us lots of additional flexibility to use the miles for awards that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

    PS – my son is only 11, but he has already been spoiled by premium cabin travel and begs me to get us to EP. When we flew AA first class to Tokyo in February, the captain brought him into the cockpit before takeoff and I got to take a photo of him there wearing the captains’s hat! Even if the two of us had to do pure mileage runs, it is very exciting for him, and great bonding time for the two of us.

    So I am still considering seeking AA Exec Platinum and perhaps adding to my regular vacations a number of shorter weekend flights. But I still have to give this whole thing some good thought. Any more comments would be greatly appreciated!!!

  12. Great post, Ben. This subject is the source of great personal torment on an almost daily basis. I must give up the multiple top-tier statuses if I am ever going to regain my sanity and lower my earn:burn ratio, but I just can’t settle on a course of action. Maybe you can add counseling to your list of travel services. 😉

  13. @ Craig — I guess the real question is, what’s the reason you really want to go for Executive Platinum? You mention expanded award inventory, though I’m not really aware of that being the case. If it’s to avoid paying change fees on awards, it’s probably cheaper to just pay the fees than spend over $10,000 on revenue tickets (though keep in mind free changes are allowed to dates and often routings). Also keep in mind that you only don’t pay change fees for your own tickets. If you book an award for someone else with your miles, you still have to pay the fees.

    The discounted business class tickets like the ones I booked are few and far between. The other issue is that out of New York you can’t stretch the routing to London as much as I did. For example, I just looked up the fare rules for a discounted ticket, and the maximum permitted mileage is 4,149 miles between New York and London. So the most you could earn is about 8,000 elite qualifying miles or 12,000 elite qualifying points. So you’re looking at over eight of those trips.

    To China, a discounted business class ticket would be more in the $4,000-5,000 range.

    Again, not saying you shouldn’t go for Executive Platinum, but I guess I’m trying to figure how it would make sense. If you wanted to do it in “comfort” (flying business and upgrading to first), it would cost you at least $15,000-20,000. For that much, you could buy over a million US Airways miles, which would get you to a lot of places in much more style than American could.

    But of course the “soft” aspect here is that it would be a fun experience for you and your son. I can totally see that, and I know how excited I was when I first made status at a young age. That’s something you can’t put a price tag on, and certainly something only you can asses the value of.

    So let me put it this way (and this is from my perspective, since I can’t put myself in your shoes without knowing your financial situation and everything else about you): in your shoes, given that your son would enjoy it too, I’d book a couple of discounted business class tickets and get to Executive Platinum. Once you have Executive Platinum, I would consider using those eVIPs for discounted coach tickets ($900 or so) to Asia, which will earn you nearly 20,000 miles and you can guarantee business class, at least. From my perspective that makes it very easy to justify.

  14. Ben,

    Thanks again for the analysis!

    When I said that I wanted to fly in comfort, I was referring to flying in ANY premium cabin with the use of my friend’s VIP upgrades. I can’t justify putting $15,000+ into becoming Exec Platinum.

    However, I liked the idea of paying a little more, which is what you did, to get the 1.5x benefit on EQPs in business class if that could be done with a discount.

    As such, I previously thought it would be easier to get the necessary EQPs, as you were able to do one trip and earn 22,000 EQPs for a cost of just $1,600. If that were possible, then I assumed that I could do something similar with trips to most European destinations that AA serves, while including a leg between JFK and LHR that would enable me to fly first class on that leg. If I take a short trip to depart from a different airport like Tampa or Miami, can I come closer to the 22,000 EQPs that you earned?

    You indicated that such discounted business class tickets are “few and far between.” Was there any special way you got them, other than a general fare sale? It seems that AA sometimes discounts business class to Europe in the low season — end of Winter. Last Thanksgiving, I think they were even as low as $1,100 R/T to some cities.

    The other big thing about Exec Platinum, as you touched upon, is receiving 32 VIP upgrade certificates within a year. There is certainly a lot of value to that.

  15. @lucky – some corrections:

    *EXPs do indeed get expanded inventory, and I’ve availed myself of it at least twice in the past year – once as a “U” award ticket, and once as “C” upgrade space that was only available to EXP members. Additionally, EXP agents will more often send your request to IM/RM if neither the published nor the EXP inventory is available when you call.

    *Any ticket booked with miles from an EXP’s account, for any person, is exempt from the change fees. Tickets booked for an EXP with miles from a non-EXP account do have a change fee, though.

    Not that this changes your advice to Craig, but now that you’re EXP, these are handy things to know!

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