Warning: The Hidden Traps of Mileage Running

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Mileage Run

Rick Ingersoll from Frugal Travel Guy blog recently posted about a Mileage Run.  A Mileage Run is a trip designed solely to get you the most amount of miles with an airline as opposed to transporting you from point A to B quickly.

Rick’s a GREAT guy, and his blog Frugal Travel Guy is one of the best out there!  If  you’re serious about collecting Miles and Points, you should be reading Frugal Travel Guy everyday.  Rick is also organizing the Chicago DO where ~500 mile junkies will be meeting to learn more about earning and spending miles and points!

In Rick’s example, instead of traveling from Miami to Seattle on a direct flight,  he travels from Fort Lauderdale which is close to Miami (point A) to Washington, Dulles, to  San Francisco, to Los Angeles and then to Seattle (point B)!

The direct flight from Miami to Seattle and back earns Rick 5,448 miles whereas the Mileage Run route above earns 4,611 miles way for a total of 9,222 miles or a 69% more miles than the direct flight.

Mileage Run Route to Seattle!
Mileage Run Route to Seattle!
Rick explains that while it costs him $3,000 to earn 1K elite status (United’s top status)  he also gains 156,250 United Miles (earned on Mileage Runs on the way to get to 1K status) and 6 system-wide upgrades aka SWUs (good for upgrading one class of service on certain eligible (read: more expensive than normal) fares.

He writes:

“So the revenue miles are worth $2000 and the SWU’s worth $1800 conservatively, for a value of $3800, which is more than I spent to earn them (emphasis mine). Add to that some bump vouchers (travel vouchers for voluntarily being bumped from a flight) and customer service certificates you’ll get by flying 100,000 miles and you can see that it pays to fly for mileage.”

So far, so good, right?

You pay $3,000 to achieve 1K elite status with United, and you get 156,200 United Mileage Plus Miles worth $2,000 + 6 System Wide Upgrades worth $1,800 + bump vouchers and customer service vouchers worth, say, another $1500.  That’s a total of $5,300.   So Rick’s gain is ($5,300 – $3,000 ) or a $2,300 gain!

So should we all start Mileage Running?  Well, it depends!

Mileage Running takes LOTS of time and there are additional expenses. Opportunity Cost:

The example above does not take into account your opportunity cost or the value you place on the time it would take you to execute the mileage run.

For example, when I was deciding whether to apply to MBA school, I had to factor in the 2 years of lost salary (which I wouldn’t earn when I was attending school) in ADDITION to the tuition and living expenses to get the true cost of my MBA.  Someday, I hope to earn it all back!

Similarly, you should factor in the value of the time you will be giving up in order to Mileage Run.

For example, if it takes you 5  weekends or 10 days of flying to get 1K elite status on United, you should INCLUDE the value of that time in your cost of getting 1 K status.

  • The median US income is $52,000 which is $26 per hour (assuming 2,000 hours worked a year).
  • If you’re like me, and work full-time, you likely place a HIGHER value on your weekend time.  That’s because it is the only time you get to spend with your significant other, children, parents, and friends.
  • Assuming 10 days of Mileage Running at 8 hours a day = 80 hours
  • 80 hours X $26 per hour (average hourly US wage) = $2,080.  Your cost may be  higher if you earn more than the average US wage. 🙂  Or because you value your weekends more than $26 an hour.  I know, I do!
Your $2,300 gain is now reduced to $220! Plus there are additional costs to Mileage Running. Additional Costs:

You also have to factor in:

  • The cost of gas or public transport to and from the airport
  • Parking at the airport
  • Incremental cost of meals at the airport
  • Potential hotel costs if you have to stay the night in a remote airport

It is likely that these costs will be at least equal to $220  or even more, in which case you’ve gotten NO return on your investment or even a NEGATIVE return on your investment.

Now Rick’s a smart guy, and I’m sure mileage running works for him! Mileage Running may work for you if you’re:

1)  A student or retiree with a low opportunity cost or value of time.

2) Going on a Mileage Run because you need only a few miles to achieve status.  For example, a business woman going on a 5,000 mile Mileage Run to achieve United 1K status.

If you do decide to Mileage Run remember that:

1) Mileage Running is not a good strategy if you work full-time and value your leisure time and relationships.

2) You should include your opportunity cost and the cost of the other factors (gas, parking, etc) in order to arrive at your true Mileage Run Cost

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of Mileage Running.  I value my time much too much and would rather be with Emily for 10 days than in airports or planes without her.  Plus I’d rather not deal with the drive, parking and TSA shenanigans at the airport.

My motto is Fast, Easy, and Cheap when it comes to mile collecting!

I’m writing Million Mile Secrets to show you how easy it is to acquire miles and points with little or no effort and minimum cost. That’s what I call Big Travel with Small Money. For example, you can earn 150,000 miles by applying for 2 AAdvantage credit cards here.

Are you a mileage runner?  Why do you go on mileage runs?  If you’ve never been on mileage runs do you want to start?

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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