My First…and Last Mileage Run

I fly a lot. Not as much as most business travelers, but quite a bit. Most of my travel is also personal. My travel schedule has awarded me status on United for the past three years. The first two years were Silver and this year is Gold. Gold status on United means that in 2012, I flew over 50,000 miles. This may seem like a lot, but, as I fly back to my hometown of Erie, PA at least 3-4 times a year (~5,000 each trip depending on routing), it adds up quickly. This year, I have been on track for Gold, but as I’ve only been flying domestic, it wasn’t looking likely. Silver would have been great and I could have shot for Gold next year, but then United threw a wrench in my (and everyone else’s) plans.

A few months ago, United decided to add a spending amount to their Status tiers. For Silver, one has to fly 25,000 miles and spend $2,500 on United Stock tickets (ie only tickets purchased through United) – this is doable if the past three years was any indication. For Gold, one has to fly 50,000 miles and spend at least $5,000. There is no way that I could ever pass both thresholds unless I moved to a new role which had me constantly traveling for work.

You might ask, what the difference between Silver and Gold status is and what I’d be losing. The answer is quite a bit. With the exception of today’s trip (I am currently typing this on a flight to Dallas), I have been upgraded to First Class on the majority of my flights this year. Gold gets priority over Silver. It also allows for priority boarding and free checked luggage. Gold status allows you to choose Economy Plus seats at the time of booking while Silver only allows a free Economy Plus seat at check-in. Whenever possible, I try to select a seat in the first row of Economy Plus as it provides the most amount of leg room outside of First Class. My likelihood of snagging one of these seats on Silver Status is slim.

I can understand why United and other airlines are doing this. There are too many people with status, and as the airlines continue to consolidate, the ranks get even larger. For example, the Upgrade List on my flight from San Fran to Dallas today was 58 people long. There were more travelers in Boarding Groups 1 and 2 then in 3, 4, and 5 – the non-status groups. The amount of passengers in the elite groups is further compounded by the mileage runners. These are people who are constantly searching for the best fares on the most ridiculous routes possible in order to gain the most miles. It allows them to gain elite status fast and cheap. There are websites and blogs and groups devoted to trying to cheat the system, and it works. Because it works, I am going on my first and probably only mileage run of my life.

As I said above, I was not expecting to make Gold status this year, but when the spending requirements came out; I knew I had to try. Flying 50,000 miles this year would give me Gold through February of 2015. Barring any changes to my job or lifestyle in the foreseeable future, I recognize that I would probably be Silver for some time to come. Through a series of fortunate events, including a re-routing through Denver from Portland, I did some calculations and realized I was only ~5900 miles short of Gold.

I had three options: 1. I could just saw oh well and walk away; 2. I could buy the miles for ~$1300; or 3. I could go on a mileage run. I figured why spend the money just to buy miles when I could actually go somewhere for less. I tried some crazy routings SAN –> EWR –> BOS –> MCO –> SFO –> SAN, but the thought of spending a weekend flying around the country only spending a few hours in each airport wasn’t appealing to me. This is how the mileage runners do it. Sometimes they don’t leave airports or a plane for days on end. They can rack up about 25,000 miles in one well planned trip. Not for me. So I started trying to find a destination that was the furthest US route from San Diego, while still being on the cheap side.

A roundtrip flight to Hawaii happened to put me 70 miles over Gold status. Sure I had to be creative with the routing, connecting through LAX instead of SFO, but it worked. SOLD! Most people are surprised to find out how cheap flights to Hawaii are from the West Coast, but they truly are. My flight to Maui and back from Honolulu was cheaper that my flights to Erie this year. In the end, I decided to go and stay for a few days. I need the vacation. And the whole trip – flights, car, hotel is cheaper than buying the miles outright. Is this technically a mileage run? It’s my modified version of one 🙂 and I will get to fulfill a lifelong dream of cage diving with sharks.

Wasn’t that just the best tease for a future blog post?

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Disney World Part 2 – “You only have to run once….”

Weary traveler reminder:

Myself – Disney-phile, ex-Amusement Park worker, Camp Counselor aka Slave Driver

Donald – Returnee for the Rick B tour, glutton for punishment, Instagram-er Extraordinaire

Barb – Mother, Returnee, Seriously needed a getaway

Natalie – Cousin, newbie, no clue what she was getting herself into

Day 2 – Saturday, October 5th: Animal Kingdom and Epcot Food and Wine Festival 

Weather: ~90 Degrees with 85% Humidity

Planning and completing a whirlwind trip to Disney World is all about time management. The best approach is to understand a combination of park hours, extra magic hours, and FASTPASS’s. In addition, you really need to have an idea of everything you want to see and ride before going into the parks. Sure, there is always room for flexibility and changes, but start with a good plan.

On Saturday, Animal Kingdom opened at 8 am with extra Magic Hours. Since AK closes the earliest, I always recommend starting there in the morning. Typically, I only leave myself 4 hours to see the whole park…yes 4 hours. I find it more than enough time to see and do everything.

“You only have to run once during the whole trip, and today is it,” I told Barb, Natalie, and Donald. Despite some grumbles, they reluctantly agreed on the promise that it would be well worth it. If you get to AK at opening, you should run (or race walk) immediately to Kilimanjaro Safaris. Getting there first thing means that you should be able to walk on the ride when, in 30 mins, it could be a 45 min wait. The added benefit is that most of the animals are out, active, and are typically just being fed. Despite a less than enthusiastic guide, this Safari did not disappoint. We saw a ton of animals, and even had some close up encounters with the giraffes.

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We exited the ride around 8:30 and from there we were off to Expedition Everest. This is a very popular ride and one of my favorites. Since it was still early, we grabbed FASTPASS (return time was 45 mins later), and immediately got inline for an advertised 10 min wait. It wasn’t, we walked right on. Barb and Donald had ridden before, but Natalie was a little apprehensive. Needless to say, she enjoyed it. I wish they could figure out a way to get the Yeti to work, though.

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From there we headed to Dinoland. Walked on Dinosaur, TriceraTop Spin, and Primeval Whir. By this time it our FASTPASS’s were available and we headed back to Everest. In 2 hours, we had ridden 6 rides, not half bad.

I knew it was coming, but I still held out hope that we could skip it. The group requested a viewing of Festival of the Lion King. Not my favorite, but we were making good time and the majority ruled. We killed time at the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail and the Maharajah Jungle Trek before Lion King. I have to admit, it was more enjoyable than I remembered and the rest of the group really enjoyed it.

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We were back in the car and on our way to Epcot by 12:15, starving and ready to eat our way through the World.

Up Next: First day of Epcot Wood and Wine.

Disney World Part 1 – “It’s really not so scary!”

This past weekend, I traveled to Orlando for a mini-Disney vacation. I generally try to do these little marathon sessions once a year. The challenge? 4 Parks in 2 1/2 days. At this point I’ve got it down to a science, and, really, I should try to patent it. It’s fool-proof. If anyone is looking for advice on how to optimize your Disney trip with little time, let me know. Just be prepared to be EXHAUSTED. Warning: This Itinerary is NOT for kids.

I love going to Disney at this time of year. The Halloween decorations are fun and festive, but mostly importantly, the Epcot Food and Wine festival is taking place. This has become a sort of tradition for me, and well worth checking out if you’ve never been. We’ll get to that in the next blog though.

This year’s weary traveler’s:

Myself – Disney-phile, ex-Amusement Park worker, Camp Counselor aka Slave Driver

Donald – Returnee for the Rick B tour, glutton for punishment, Instagram-er Extraordinaire

Barb – Mother, Returnee, Seriously needed a getaway

Natalie – Cousin, newbie, no clue what she was getting herself into

Day 1 – Friday, Oct 4th: Hilton Pool and Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party

One debate I always have is whether to stay on Disney Property or a nearby Hotel. There is truly no rhyme or reason to how I decide, it ultimately comes down to cost. My advice is to look on Kayak or Hotels.com to weigh your options. I have found amazing rates at Disney Hotels (i.e. $150 a night for the Animal Kingdom Lodger – normally $400). This trip, there was no such deals to be had. We opted to stay at the Hilton by Downtown Disney for $100 a night. With parking and the resort fee, it would end up being about $140 a night. For a little bit more, we could have stayed at a Moderate Disney Hotel, but the Hilton offered Extra Magic Hours and had better sheets in towels in my opinion. We chose to drive on our own, but they do have shuttles to the parks.

In a rare move, I let everyone sleep in and enjoy some pool time at the Hilton. Donald and I opted not to go to one of the Water Parks. We lounged and drank by the pool and grabbed lunch at the Earl of Sandwich at Downtown Disney, a surprisingly cheap option.

How can you accomplish Disney World in 2 1/2 days? Doesn’t a half day waste a ticket? The answer is simple. Use the Party schedule. In this case, we decided to attend “Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party”. At $62, you get 8 hours in the Magic Kingdom where they limit attendance and provide a special Fireworks show and Parade…not to mention Trick Or Treating. Technically the party runs from 7-Midnight, but they let you in 4 hours early before kicking the rest of the general attendees out.

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The weary travelers begin their journey

During the Halloween Party, Fast Passes are not available, but you are still able to get them before the park “closes” at 7. Normally I’m a clockwise park goer, but keeping the Fast Pass rule in mind, we went counter-clockwise and got one for Space Mountain. Return time was 45 mins, so we opted to ride Carousel of Progress and Buzz Light Year. I have a separate post planned for ride comparisons between Disney World and Disneyland, but let’s just say that Space Mountain and FL just pales in comparison to Space Mountain CA. After a quick dinner, we headed to Splash Mountain before the sun went down and proceeded to get more wet then we intended.

You don't get THAT wet....right....

You don’t get THAT wet….right….

Here’s a tally of everything we were able to do during the Halloween Party. Proof that you can conquer the Magic Kingdom in 8 hours:

Space Mountain…Buzz Lighter Year’s Space Ranger Spin…The Carrousel of Progress…”It’s a Small World”…Splash Mountain….Pirates of the Caribbean…The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh….Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid

The real stars of the show were Mickey’s “Boo-to-You” Halloween Parade (including a special appearance by the Headless Horseman) and the Happy HalloWishes fireworks display. Both are unique only to the Halloween Party.

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There were also stops at multiple Trick or Treat places for Candy. We probably could have done a lot more, but chose to leave the park at 10:30 to avoid the mass exodus at Midnight.

Up Next: Animal Kingdom and Epcot Food and Wine