There is an old Army saying that “If you find yourself in a fair fight, you’ve made a tactical error somewhere”. I take this same philosophy towards maintaining my status as a 1K on United and a MVP Gold on Alaska for the last seven years running. I carefully plan my year’s flights out and try to hit mileage runs throughout the year rather than cram them between the holidays at the end of the year. This is especially true for the first quarter of the year, but more on that in a little bit.
Nevertheless, you may now find yourself staring at your FF account and going “I just need xx more EQM and then I can be a Silver/ Gold/ Platinum/ Unobtainium level and really get treated well.” The good news is that there is still time and a few tricks that you can pull to make your goal. The window of opportunity is narrow, but definitely there. Lots of people fly during the Thanksgiving period and more travel during the Christmas/ New Year’s period, which means very few people want to travel during those first two weeks of December. I have found this is a great period for the end of the year mileage run and reasonable, but not fantastic, fares are available. Here are a few rules to follow:
1. Rationalize your choice to make the next status level. The best way to do this is monetizing the prize. Let’s say you are a couple of thousand miles short of Silver which gives you free bags, 25% bonus on mile earning for next year, and a small chance at an upgrade. Let’s monetize the benefits of making Silver. Let’s say that you fly four times a year and the free bags will save you $35 in charges each flight and that you fly 20,000 miles normally so you’ll get 5,000 extra RDM with the bonus. RDM are typically considered worth about 1.5 cents per mile, so 5,000 miles is worth $75 and four free bags worth 4x$35=$140. Note that I am not putting any value on the potential upgrades and count that only as a bonus since you really can’t count on getting them. So the total value of obtaining that status is $75 + $140 = $205. If you can find a mileage run flight for less than this to get your remaining miles, then go for it. Otherwise, save your pennies and get a better start on next year.
2. Look for alternatives to flying to get those last few EQM. If you just like doing things the hard way, sign up for Ranger School, but I figure most of you prefer to be smart about your mileage earning especially when under the gun at the end of the year. The easiest way is to pay the airline for the EQM and be done with it. This is almost always the worst way to do it, since they want an outrageous amount for those EQMs, like around 10 cents a mile. Unless you just don’t have time to fly and will get great benefits from making the next level, such as international upgrade for making 100,000 EQM, I would find another way. You used be able to sign up for certain credit cards like the United Chase Select Card that gave you 5000 EQM after the first spend and that was a great way to get end of the year EQM, but that is no longer offered although the current card does give you EQM for buying tickets at www.united.com and an extra 5,ooo EQM when you exceed $35k annual spend so I recommend getting one. Of course, you can also take advantage of special circumstances such as American’s current Double EQM promotion to make your mileage runs twice as productive.
3. Finally, there is flying to earn the EQM. The general rules (which you should not feel compelled to follow) are that a true mileage run means never spending a night at any of your locations and that it should be about 4 cents per EQM. However, just like putting a value to miles, this is all entirely up to you as an individual. So if you live in the Bay Area and decide to take a $450 UA flight to HNL to spend 24hrs. with an old buddy and get that last 5,000 EQM to make Gold, then that is your call. Just do the valuation that I talked about in paragraph 1 and don’t go overboard to get that next status level.
So naturally, the question to most beginners, and even some intermediate level FF, is where to start? Some people will spend hours browsing all the possible flights and I will call myself guilty of that when I have the time to spare. The lazy (and recommended) way it to see what others with a similar problem are doing. I always look at Flyertalk’s Mileage Run Deals or Milepoint’s Mileage runs/ Mattress Runs/ Travel Hacking Forum. Flyertalk typically has more mileage runs posted that you can copy, but Milepoint is a friendlier place where you can post the mileage run that you are looking for and others will come on to help you out. Just remember to list the airline or alliance that you want to fly, the city that you want to fly out of, and include dates if you are restricted to flying on weekends or something like that.
One new way to construct a mileage run is coming to Milepoint soon. I have been invited to a soft launch of this new product and I think it soulds really good. Called FlightFox, it is a crowd sourcing solution where you post the mileage run (or simply a vacation) that you want to take with parameters similar to what I listed and post a reward for the most successful solution. Then anyone who has qualified as a travel expert (meaning a lot of the regulars that you see on the to forums listed above) will research and get back to you prior to the clock expiring and you select the best deal that they have found. I think this service is a great idea and will help everyone save lots of money while letting a bunch of others use their “search fu” to find everyone great flights.
More to follow in Part 2 on beginning of the year mileage runs.