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Originally published September 21, 2014 at 6:33 AM | Page modified September 23, 2014 at 10:20 AM

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Airlines crack down on ‘mileage runs’

Some travelers take very long flights on low-priced tickets to earn frequent-flier miles and elite status.

The New York Times


A friend told me he couldn’t meet for dinner because he was flying from the U.S. to Amsterdam for the weekend. Emphasis on the word “flying.” His itinerary had him spending most of the weekend traveling, but he’d stay in Amsterdam for only 14 hours, after connecting through Paris and Istanbul to get there. His return trip involved a layover in Minneapolis.

It’s a practice known as a mileage run: Buy a low-price airline ticket, in this instance $537, and fly not because you want to go anywhere, but to earn redeemable miles and progress toward elite status on your preferred airline.

The core logic behind mileage runs is that airline points have a relatively fixed value, but the cost to accrue them can vary widely, so a low fare for a long trip can reap outsize rewards. Only when you’re taking a mileage run is connecting through Istanbul to get to Amsterdam better than flying there nonstop.

Mileage running arguably makes sense for some travelers, that is, the sort of people who don’t mind spending a weekend on airplanes going nowhere in particular. These people have a well-established subculture; the Mileage Run forum on FlyerTalk, an online travel-discussion board, has generated more than 24,000 threads.

But mileage running has never made much economic sense for the airlines. The purpose of a frequent-flier program is to build loyalty and retain customers who generate a lot of profits.

Mileage runners aim to buy tickets with the lowest cost per mile and extract as many points as possible from them; this is not high-margin behavior the airlines want to encourage.

And increasingly, they aren’t.

United, Delta do end run

In the last year, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines have made two major changes to their reward programs that make mileage running a lot less useful. First, they imposed a minimum spending requirement to obtain elite status. Previously, you became a “silver” or “gold” or “diamond” flier by traveling a minimum number of miles or segments in a year. Now, to qualify, you must also spend a minimum amount on airfare; for example, the status tier for traveling 25,000 miles also requires $2,500 in airfare spent, or 10 cents per mile. (The Amsterdam-Istanbul itinerary I described above cost just 4.6 cents per mile.)

Then, the airlines blew up the definition of “frequent-flier mile” so it no longer has anything to do with distance. Starting in 2015, fliers on each airline will earn five “miles” for every dollar they spend on airfare, regardless of where they go. My friend’s $537 ticket to Amsterdam via Istanbul will earn the same number of reward “miles” as a $537 domestic ticket.

Gary Leff, who runs the View From the Wing blog about air travel, notes three phenomena that have already cut against the mileage run over the last decade. Airfares have gone up and planes are more full, meaning it’s harder to find the sort of deeply discounted fares that make sense for mileage running.

Airlines have increased the number of points required to get a reward ticket, which makes frequent-flier miles less valuable. And they’re not giving out as many promotions in which travel earns extra bonus miles.

The last point is essential. Leff told me about a mileage run he took in 2003. United ran a promotion where its elite fliers could get five-times bonus miles, instead of the double miles they were ordinarily entitled to. So he flew round-trip to Singapore for $700 and pocketed around 100,000 MileagePlus miles, then enough to redeem for a round-trip business class ticket to Europe.

The new program rules are a disaster for this mileage-run strategy: Even with a five-times promotion, a $700 round trip to Singapore would earn just 17,500 MileagePlus miles, not enough to redeem for a domestic coach round trip. But in some sense, it’s beside the point: Good luck finding either a five-times bonus promotion or a $700 round-trip airfare to Singapore in today’s environment.

Current travelers who want to keep their mileage-run options open have a home, for now: American Airlines, which so far has not copied United’s and Delta’s changes. American has announced no plans to move away from awarding frequent-flier miles in exchange for actual miles flown.

Leff attributes this to American’s ongoing merger with US Airways: Mergers are complicated, and the fewer changes you make during them, the better. In time, the combined American-US Airways may follow suit, but for now it’s your best bet if you enjoy plane rides to nowhere.

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