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On the road with a Gadling mileage runner

Whether you ethically believe in the mileage runs or not, they play a serious, vital role in many frequent flyer's lives. The concept, in case you're unfamiliar, has to do with flying around willy-nilly at year's end solely to reach a certain number of earned-miles. In turn, rewards are given to loyal passengers who fly these high volumes, often so great that it's actually worth the cost of flying those extra few miles.

I found myself in the above situation as November came to a close this year, 7,000 miles short of reaching 100k on American Airlines, a status that they refer to as Executive Platinum (EXP). Flashy. With said status comes a variety of perks: extra bonus miles when traveling, free upgrades and waitlist priority to name a few. To most, however, the biggest perk is called an EVIP, or System Wide Upgrade, a voucher that effectively lets passengers book a ticket in coach to anywhere in the world and then upgrade to business for free.

Very simply put, one can thus purchase a $700 ticket to Tokyo and use an EVIP to ride in business class next to someone who paid $3400 for a proper revenue ticket. It's a great perk for those who have time or fly enough to earn EXP. And frankly, if the goal is nearby it's worth spending the few hundred dollars to reap these rewards over the next year.

Going back to November, I projected the number of miles that I would be short and realized that I needed to scoop up a few more before year's end. So I began to construct a mileage run, a trip taken purely to soak them up. Destination? Duration? Unimportant. The right amount of miles in the right amount of time? Key. Here's how it came together:
Tools and Strategy

The obvious goal of a mileage run it to earn as many miles as possible for the lowest amount of cost and time spent. There are a few tools to search for fares by distance against cost, but the best is Farecompare. Using their Flyertalk tool, you can sort by Price Per Mile (PPM) and distance. It's true FC will give you a ton of false positives, but patiently working through the schedules and availability will pay off in the long run.

In my case, I needed to fly at least 7,000 miles in under a weekend, so I limited my search to Europe and South America, eventually sifting out a $450 fare from Chicago O'Hare to Frankfurt, Germany that I could take departing on Saturday and returning on Sunday -- on the same airplane, no less. Using the webflyer mileage calculator, I verified that this would earn me 8660 miles, so I booked the fare.

On the Road

After a night out with friends on Friday and a full day of work on Saturday, I left for O'Hare from work at 5:00PM for my 7:30 flight. In my messenger bag?
  • T-shirt and undergarments
  • Laptop and charger
  • Book: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  • iPhone with a wide spectrum of TED videos
By 6:15 I'm in terminal 3 of ORD, ambling slowly towards the K gates and marveling at the grandiose holiday decorations. As an AA platinum member on an international itinerary I get free access to the Admiral's Club, so I step in for a handful of pretzels and to pick up a complimentary Vitamin Water, then I'm at the gate five minutes before boarding.

Seat 21A on this Boeing 767 is part of the first exit row just right of the boarding door, and I'm joined by a nearly silent, middle aged man in the seat next to me. We push back right on time and I watch UP as I eat my dinner, then listen to This American Life until I fall asleep.

Frankfurt

Despite light flurries in Frankfurt we land on time in the German metropolis, dazed from a few short hours of sleep. With three hours before my return flight, there's no time to go into the city (or leave the airport, for that matter,) but there's plenty of time to explore the airport.

With no checked bags I vault through customs, the distracted passport control agent absentmindedly stamping my passport as I held it out to page J. He never even looked at the photo. And as I break out into the bright arrivals hall, the buzz of Frankfurt International Airport consumes me.

Time to check into the Admiral's Club. Going up a few floors I randomly pick a direction and start walking, looking up at the massive departures board as I pass underneath. Oslo. Copenhagen. Mumbai. Chicago isn't even on the list yet, but when I look down I happen to see the AA check in counter so I amble up.

"Is it too early to check in?"
"Nope," the security agent smiles, "Where are you coming from?"
"Chicago." She raises her eyebrows. "Needed the miles."
"Oh, ok."

Both veterans of the security question volley, we do the normal dance: Yes, I packed my bag this morning in Chicago. Yes, it's been with me this whole time. No, I have no weapons. And then she points me to the ticket counter where I pick up my boarding pass and get directions to the Admiral's Club.

In five more minutes I'm sitting in a leather chair above the departures hall, poking at a massive German pretzel and waiting for the shower queue to clear up. Between the lounge facilities and the in-terminal grocery store I spend the next hour cleaning and waking up, the products of which are a clean change of clothes, hot shower and two purchased containers of fried onions (great for hot dogs!)

Briefly before boarding, the lounging passengers in the Admiral's Club are paged, and the slow return to the aircraft commences for our 2:30PM departure.

Return

Seat 21A is just as I left it, refusing to lock into its upright position and slightly uncomfortable. A new pillow and blanket have however been left for me which I unwrap, unfold and immediately proceed to fall asleep under.

8 hours goes pretty fast when you bring a fully charged laptop, research papers and videos along the way -- and even faster when you sleep for most of it. Before I know it I'm passing back through the jetbridge and into the halls of O'Hare immigration, 30 minutes prior to my scheduled arrival of 5PM on Sunday.

The Department of Homeland Security officer greets me with a nod as I approach his glass cubicle, and doesn't even flinch when I tell him that I was on a mileage run. With a quick flick of his wrist he stamps my passport, then I pass straight through baggage claim and back into the open terminal, 22 hours and 8600 miles after I arrived.

Wrap up

So why don't airlines just sell elite miles to passengers rather than making them fly in circles? They could sell the seat to a person who wants to travel and the mileage runner can stay at home and relax.

Partially because elite status needs to be earned. Any random exec shouldn't be able to purchase the perks that many, loyal travelers spend weeks on the road cultivating. It's a rite of passage, so to speak.

It also builds brand loyalty. When you scratch the airline's back and spend thousands of dollars with them, the small tokens that they return to your mileage account make traveling that much easier. Everyone wins, in a way -- it just takes a small amount of effort to get things started.

Ready to book your own run? Start with Gadling's own guide to mileage running.

Filed under: Airlines, Airports, Budget Travel

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