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?