Mileage Runs: What Are They, How Do They Work?

Mileage Runs: What Are They, How Do They Work?

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On the blog I often mention mileage runs in passing. In this post I wanted to write specifically about what mileage runs are, and reflect on how the math on these has changed over the years. Spoiler alert — back in the day mileage running could actually make sense (assuming you enjoy flying), while nowadays it generally doesn’t.

What is a mileage run?

Nope, a mileage run doesn’t involve running. Quite to the contrary, it involves a lot of sitting.

Put as simply as possible, a mileage run is when you fly for the sole purposes of accumulating airline miles or airline elite status. This could come in the form of a year-round hobby, or an end-of-the-year jaunt to qualify for elite status. These are generally quick trips, and in many cases, people who mileage run may fly somewhere without even leaving the airport.

Airline frequent flyer programs are incredibly addictive to many, both when it comes to maximizing your rewards for flying, and when it comes to maximizing your rewards from credit card spending. Mileage runs are an extension of that.

Mileage runs may involve not even leaving the airport

What are the types of mileage runs?

There are different types of mileage runs, so let’s go over each of them. There are mileage runs to earn airline miles, mileage runs to earn airline elite status, and then hybrid mileage run vacations (that last one isn’t a “real” mileage run, though, at least for mileage run purists).

Mileage runs to earn airline elite status

Airline frequent flyer programs can offer lots of valuable elite perks, from complimentary upgrades, to bonus miles, to lounge access. Earning elite status can be a big motivation for people to take a mileage run.

For example, often people may end the year just short of qualifying for the next elite status tier, and they decide that taking a trip is worth it due to all the value they’ll get out of the incremental status. Admittedly some people are much more extreme about this, and may take several mileage runs (or even mileage run from “scratch”) in order to earn a certain elite tier.

Airline elite status can offer lots of valuable perks

Mileage runs to earn airline miles

Other people mileage run in order to earn redeemable airline miles. This is separate from elite status, as airline miles can be redeemed for flights, and often first & business class tickets represent a great deal when redeeming airline miles.

Sometimes the economics work out so that the miles you earn from a trip can be worth more to you than what you’re paying for that ticket. As I’ll explain below, this generally isn’t nearly as lucrative as it used to be, due to how airline frequent flyer programs have changed. Furthermore, airlines often just sell miles at a discount, which is a more practical way to access these redemptions.

Miles can be worth a lot if redeemed for first & business class

Hybrid mileage run vacations

There’s a third category of mileage runs, which probably holds the most general appeal nowadays, and which is easiest to justify. Think of it as being half mileage run, half vacation. For example, the trip can be worth it for a combination of the elite status and airline miles you earn, but you also found a great fare to a destination you really want to visit.

Rather than just flying straight there and back and not seeing anything, you could turn it into a long weekend trip, and visit a destination that has been on your bucket list for a while.

I’ve visited Hong Kong many times on hybrid mileage runs

The economics of mileage runs have changed

The economics of mileage running have changed significantly in the past decade, due to how airlines have changed their frequent flyer programs. Broadly speaking:

  • Back in the day airlines awarded miles based on the distance you flew, rather than based on how much you spent
  • Many airlines have introduced a revenue requirement for earning elite status, or award elite status based on how much you spend, making it harder to qualify for status with cheap tickets
  • Airlines have watered down elite status perks, making it less worthwhile to earn elite status through mileage running
  • Airlines have largely devalued miles, meaning that you need to redeem more miles for first & business class award tickets
The economics of mileage runs have changed a lot

Let me give an example of mileage running on American Airlines nowadays vs. eight years ago, with the goal of earning American Airlines’ top-tier Executive Platinum status.

Back in the day, earning Executive Platinum status simply required earning 100,000 elite qualifying miles in a year. To keep the example as simple as possible, let’s say you could find a $500 roundtrip ticket from New York to Hong Kong (which was surprisingly common back then), covering a distance of 20,000 flown miles.

Back then:

  • You could fly this ticket five times, and earn 100,000 elite miles, earning you Executive Platinum status
  • That Executive Platinum status would have earned you eight systemwide upgrades, each good for an upgrade on a long haul flight
  • When it comes to redeemable miles, American awarded one mile for every mile flown, and Executive Platinum members received a 100% mileage bonus, meaning you would have earned 200,000 AAdvantage miles (give or take)
  • American AAdvantage charged 67,500 miles for one-way first class award tickets between the United States and Asia, so not only would you have earned Executive Platinum status, but you would have had enough miles to book three Cathay Pacific first class one-way tickets

$2,500 for Executive Platinum status, eight systemwide upgrades, and three one-way Cathay Pacific first class award tickets? Assuming you enjoy flying, and you’re not putting an opportunity cost to your time, that’s a heck of a deal.

Back in the day, mileage runs could make a lot of sense

Now let’s compare that to the reality nowadays. American now uses the Loyalty Points system for earning elite status. It doesn’t matter how much you fly in terms of segments or miles (or if you fly at all), but rather all that matters is how many Loyalty Points you earn. Many types of miles earned with AAdvantage qualify as Loyalty Points, including credit card spending.

Executive Platinum status requires 200,000 Loyalty Points:

  • Executive Platinum members earn 11x AAdvantage miles per dollar spent, so you’d have to spend over $18,000 on flights to earn Executive Platinum status (all those miles count as Loyalty Points)
  • As of 2023, you don’t actually get any systemwide upgrades for earning Executive Platinum status, but rather you only earn those starting at 250,000 Loyalty Points, and even then you’d earn a maximum of five without further activity
  • When it comes to earning redeemable miles, American now awards miles based on dollars spent rather than distance flown, and even if you were an Executive Platinum member, you’d earn at most 11x miles per dollar spent; while you previously would have earned 200,000 AAdvantage miles for these tickets, you’d now earn at most 27,500 AAdvantage miles (accounting for your $2,500 worth of spending)
  • Oh, and the value of your miles has gone way down as well; that Cathay Pacific one-way award that used to cost 67,500 miles now costs 110,000 miles
The math on mileage runs has changed a lot over the years

Are mileage runs still worth it?

Nowadays I’d say mileage runs are really only worthwhile at the margins:

  • If you want to earn redeemable miles to redeem for first & business class travel, many airline frequent flyer programs sell miles at attractive costs
  • If you’re trying to earn elite status there could be value in mileage running if you’re close (maybe taking a trip or two at the end of the year), but if you’re starting from scratch, the revenue requirement with many programs nowadays limits the usefulness of it
I’m considering a year end mileage run with American

Bottom line

Mileage running is flying for the sole purpose of earning airline miles or airline elite status. Back in the day this was a practice that many people in our community took advantage of, given how airline frequent flyer programs were structured.

Nowadays the economics just don’t work out as well as they used to — airlines have largely devalued frequent flyer elite perks and mileage redemptions, and if you want to earn miles, you can often buy miles directly from airlines at an attractive rate.

At the margins there are still situations where it could make sense, but that’s about it, if you ask me. Nowadays the most common type of mileage run is just swiping your credit card.

Have you ever taken a mileage run? Does anyone think the economics of mileage running still make sense beyond an end of the year mileage run?

Conversations (15)
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  1. Nawaid Ladak Guest

    So I did a mileage run about four months ago on Frontier of all airlines. I'm guessing this is not the airline people think of when discussing mileage runs. But hear me out.

    I qualified for their 50k tier in late 2021 thanks to their interesting status match offer and used the perks as a cheaper way to get normal airline service from one of the legacies. However, The amount I traveled would leave me...

    So I did a mileage run about four months ago on Frontier of all airlines. I'm guessing this is not the airline people think of when discussing mileage runs. But hear me out.

    I qualified for their 50k tier in late 2021 thanks to their interesting status match offer and used the perks as a cheaper way to get normal airline service from one of the legacies. However, The amount I traveled would leave me short of reaching their 20k tier for 2023 by about 3,000 miles.

    I found a deal on F9 going from BWI-LAS-BWI on a Tuesday evening and returning Wednesday morning, all for ~$76 after all taxes and fees.

    I also earned 4.25x redeemable miles per mile flown for the trip, so essentially securin 19k redeemable miles (their reward tickets start at 5k...) and locking up status for 2023 (and a few airport drinks on priority pass) for ~$76. I'd consider this a win.

    1. Eskimo Guest

      Wow, you're in BWI and still made 20k on F9.

      I'm looking forward to this summer of Frontier.

      Consider how they tricked the pass early adopters of limited availability and still continue to sell them till now, it's going to look ugly.

  2. Jason Brandt Lewis Guest

    @Lucky —> There are still airlines that award miles (and status) based on actual miles flown (e.g.: Alaska). I have indeed done Mileage Runs on AS to make sure I retain my MVP Gold status — both prior to and after AS joined OneWorld. Not only do I get my “fair share” of upgrades on AS, but it gives me Sapphire status on all OneWorld carriers…so far, I’d say that’s definitely been worth it.

    /\/\/\/\/\/\/\

    ...

    @Lucky —> There are still airlines that award miles (and status) based on actual miles flown (e.g.: Alaska). I have indeed done Mileage Runs on AS to make sure I retain my MVP Gold status — both prior to and after AS joined OneWorld. Not only do I get my “fair share” of upgrades on AS, but it gives me Sapphire status on all OneWorld carriers…so far, I’d say that’s definitely been worth it.

    /\/\/\/\/\/\/\

    @“iamhere” —> You are referring to Mattress Runs, *not* Mileage Runs. Veering off-topic, these days I find that Mattress Runs are no longer worth it. I have top tier status at Hilton via credit card, and mid-tier Lifetime status at Marriott.

  3. Eskimo Guest

    I miss spending the weekends in Changi for 75 mins.

  4. iamhere Guest

    American is probably paying you for the mention. You only mention mileage runs in the form of airlines, but not hotels. I think that is another form of a mileage run. People often do it to make sure they qualify for a status at a hotel if they are a couple of nights short. It used to be easy because you could book a cheap hotel and not really check in. These days you have...

    American is probably paying you for the mention. You only mention mileage runs in the form of airlines, but not hotels. I think that is another form of a mileage run. People often do it to make sure they qualify for a status at a hotel if they are a couple of nights short. It used to be easy because you could book a cheap hotel and not really check in. These days you have to check in and some hotels really care if you stay. It can be especially useful during a popular promotion such as the Marriott double nights promotion.

    1. Ben Schlappig OMAAT

      @ iamhere -- Sorry to disappoint, but this isn't a sponsored post (if it were, I would have to disclose that). And I've written about mattress running before as well:
      https://onemileatatime.com/guides/mattress-runs/

    2. shza Gold

      And did you really think American would pay Ben money to write a post about the relatively terrible value of their miles (earning and spending) today versus eight years ago?

  5. JB Guest

    Being an AA Gold with it expiring this coming month, I was thinking of booking a cheap AA ticket around the country just to fly around. I was planning something like MIA-ORD-LAX-MIA, where I would get to fly on a 787, A321, and 777, and hopefully score a Business Class upgrade (otherwise, PE isn't bad either). I found a ticket on this routing for $300. I think I might just swing it for fun.

  6. Emil Guest

    Mileage runs are only really good when you book them through partner carriers. Delta for example still has the inflated MQDs for other carriers. I booked a multi city itinerary round trip from Europe on Virgin and KLM for 2.3k, I've completed half of it, and that half itself gained me 1.7 MQDs.

    Another example, one which I consider a sweet spot is Alaska, which is still distance based. I'm embarking on an RT...

    Mileage runs are only really good when you book them through partner carriers. Delta for example still has the inflated MQDs for other carriers. I booked a multi city itinerary round trip from Europe on Virgin and KLM for 2.3k, I've completed half of it, and that half itself gained me 1.7 MQDs.

    Another example, one which I consider a sweet spot is Alaska, which is still distance based. I'm embarking on an RT YVR-LHR-JNB on BA first for 3k, and itself is giving me 60,000 of the required miles for status!

    1. Jay Guest

      I agree with you about Alaska. I just completed my MVP Gold requirements by booking a $300 R/T SFO to EWR that netted me 5100 miles. You just need 4 R/T transcon flights to qualify for MVP and 8 for gold. $300 r/t economy tickets are quit common and often you get upgraded to first on a red eye. I went to Hawaii on most long weekend holidays since they lifted the covid restrictions and got upgraded to first most of the time.

    2. Nick Guest

      3K for that trip?! how did you score that? I am based out of YVR and would love to go to South Africa

  7. Donna Diamond

    I booked some vacation trips on DL in the last few years, booking away from my regular carrier AA, in order to top off on million miler lifetime status. Although not exactly mileage runs, the thought was I may return to DL in the future. I did some pure mileage runs with US Airways about a decade ago topping off to obtain top status. I can’t imagine a scenario where a mileage run would make sense for me under current program rules.

  8. InceptionCat Gold

    Ben thank you for your post on Flying blue mileage runs a few months ago.
    Last weekend i did the status run MUC-CDG-AMS-KRK and back the same way which earned me 90XP.

    The interesting bit is that on the Flight KRK-AMS there were 7 of us in business class and 4 of them were doing a status run as i had seen them on the previous flights from CDG and we all returned to CDG after a night in Krakow. It was fun to know that i wasn't the only one.

  9. George Romey Guest

    Those were the days. True mileage runs (not mini vacations) have little utility today. Credit card spend and paid offered upgrades have totally changed the game. Sitting in F going back and forth across country in a day used to be fun (when for example as an EXP you were fairly guaranteed an upgrade). Sitting in 8A on a A321neo (as I did last Saturday MIA/LAX) with a full flight load (and no real BOB) isn't quite as much fun.

  10. Jonathan Guest

    One other reason to do mileage run is expiring miles on Air France. I have to fly on Delta before August, have it post to Air France, to keep 200K+ from expiring. If anyone knows of a better way to keep them expiring without a mileage run, let me know!

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Eskimo Guest

I miss spending the weekends in Changi for 75 mins.

1
Ben Schlappig OMAAT

@ iamhere -- Sorry to disappoint, but this isn't a sponsored post (if it were, I would have to disclose that). And I've written about mattress running before as well: https://onemileatatime.com/guides/mattress-runs/

1
JB Guest

Being an AA Gold with it expiring this coming month, I was thinking of booking a cheap AA ticket around the country just to fly around. I was planning something like MIA-ORD-LAX-MIA, where I would get to fly on a 787, A321, and 777, and hopefully score a Business Class upgrade (otherwise, PE isn't bad either). I found a ticket on this routing for $300. I think I might just swing it for fun.

1
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