Now that you know why I do mileage runs (again, it’s more for the status than to earn miles I can use for other trips), I want to briefly discuss all the terrible reasons why you shouldn’t ever do stupid things just because someone with a blog tells you to. 😀 Let’s start with a short list of all the things that might go wrong on a mileage run:
- Your flight is late and you miss your connection home. This is probably the only problem I have never faced, but it’s come very close.
- Your flight is cancelled due to weather so you not only miss your flight home but are also stranded. Mechanical issues are also a problem if you happen to be at a lightly serviced airport, such as my upcoming trip to Bahrain that receives only one flight a day from United.
- You spill something on yourself, and since you probably don’t have a change of clothes you are stuck with that stain for the rest of the trip. Let me tell you, Kansas City is cold in the winter, especially after the flight attendant spills a 5 gallon jug of water on your lap during landing.
- Airspace congestion causes your plane to circle while your connecting flight leaves without you. …Or maybe your plane just doesn’t take off in the first place because it’s landing “reservation” has been given to another plane. Nothing like pacing back and forth in Miami wondering if you will make it to Newark in time.
- Your gate for a delayed flight is changed six times in 20 minutes. Not only that, but there actually was a plane at your gate. They just decided to give it to some other incredibly delayed flight. Do you remember the scene in Airplane! where the plane is rolling past its assigned gate without braking and the PA system keeps updating the arrival message? Yeah. That’s why I don’t fly US Airways through Charlotte anymore.
Of course, these things could happen on any flight, but with a mileage run you are usually trying to do it as quickly as possible while at the same time trying to pack in as many awkward connections and detours as you possibly can. If something does go wrong, the agent who helps you is likely to shake his or her head. If you are especially unlucky, they may even hold your misfortune against you and be less helpful in finding a solution. (After all, you put yourself in this situation without any real need to travel that day, and now you have made their problem, too.)
Don’t forget that in addition to the “maybes” there is also a list of things that definitely WILL happen to you on a mileage run. If they don’t, then the one you’re doing either isn’t worthwhile (just how far did you travel?) or is really a mileage jog, involving a short vacation in the middle.
- You will be sleep deprived because most good mileage runs involve a red-eye. They’re cheap, and there is only so much time in one day to fly from one coast to the other. Even if I only spend Saturday mileage running, I will be exhausted through Sunday.
- You will be forced to eat bad food, which for me includes almost all fast food. Upgrades to first class once you’re an elite member certainly help. Continental’s food (not so much United’s) is nearly always better than what I find at the airport. San Francisco is the best, but I grew up there. Houston is incredibly greasy. New York… sometimes I just wait until my connection in Houston. Was there even food in Kansas City?
- You will face the regular anxiety of making it to the airport on time, enduring your $5 government-mandated full-body massage, and watching the departure monitor to ensure nothing interferes with your flight. A week before you will start watching the passenger load, wondering when your upgrade will clear.
- There are no showers in most domestic lounges, even if you have a membership to get into one. And after a day spent sitting in a dry, stuffy metal tube with 100+ other people, you do tend to smell slightly. I ward this off by taking a shower right before I leave for the airport and bringing a clean shirt. Something loose that can breath just in case I’m crammed into coach. Bring a toothbrush.
- People will laugh at you. I still get called “that guy who went to London for the weekend.” Maybe not such a big deal if you’re from New York, but if you live in Seattle and have to connect in San Francisco, that’s kind of impressive. Megan didn’t believe me when I told her after we started dating that I traveled once a month. Then last year I was traveling every other week, and she was usually going with me. 😛
So why do it? How is it even tolerable? I already mentioned the upgrades. This helps a lot because you have a decent-sized chair, only one person next to you, more distance (hopefully) from any screaming children or infrequent travelers (yes, the full size pillow you brought with you makes it obvious). Getting them is slow at first before you have any kind of elite status. But once you reach the lowest tier (25K EQM) they might happen 10-20% of the time. Remember, you’re probably flying at strange hours on weekends. Because of the effort and expense involved, you can easily get locked into a carrier once you have elite status, so choose your airline loyalty program carefully.
There will be few elite business travelers on your plane to compete with. At the mid-range tier (50K EQM) they might happen half the time. And once you reach the upper tiers (75K-125K EQM depending on the program) they are almost guaranteed unless your traveling between hub airports. The booze, the food, and the better service all make flying more enjoyable. Some carriers even include free access to a personal TV or your own standard electric outlet. But there are several other benefits of elite status that help mitigate the mileage run disasters I mentioned above:
- You have priority on standby lists. That means if you do get pushed to a later flight, there is a good chance you will get on if there are any no-shows.
- You probably have the time and flexibility to volunteer your seat in an overbooking situation. This can mean anywhere from $200-$600 in vouchers toward a future flight (flights that will also earn miles), and maybe some meal and hotel vouchers if necessary. Be polite and have an alternative ready to give the agent. Even if you can’t be confirmed on a flight until tomorrow, your elite status might still put you at the top of the standby list tonight.
- Getting rebooked can have its advantages. I know of people who were able to convince the agent to rebook them via Honolulu during an otherwise normal mileage run between the East and West coasts when one leg got canceled. I have occasionally been rebooked into full Y or B fares that earn 50% bonus EQM and also allow me to confirm my upgrade before the normal upgrade window.
- You see places you’ve never been, even if only for a short time, and you have the occasional story to tell your friends. You also get a reputation as the guy who knows stuff about air travel.
It really comes down to a personal decision. My parents hate flying. Even when they’re in business or first class it’s a chore. They aren’t about to go on a mileage run in coach. Megan tolerates it, but she probably isn’t going to join me unless she can make a vacation out of it. Me? I do it because I get a few hours to myself to catch up. Personal time has always been important to me, and I like being able to watch a guy movie, read a book, or just work on a paper for lab. There’s nothing like several hours cooped up in a tube to make you focus.
Readers, have any of you done mileage runs before? Why do you do it, and what recommendations can you give to help make it work out for the best?