Mark emailed me this morning about a United fare sale for travel this weekend and asked if it was a good opportunity to find some mileage run candidates out of Seattle. Unfortunately, my answer was “no.” Fare sales in my experience are not a terribly good way to find cheap fares and often fall into two categories. First, you get last-minute sales like the one happening right now. These are often shorter flights between hubs and small airports operated by regional jets that are apparently very undersold. Think of Los Angeles to Santa Maria, CA, or Houston to Shreveport, LA.
Just say NO to fare sales
Now, cheap fares to some of these destinations are by no means a bad thing. That flight to Santa Maria can be had for $161 even though subsequent weekends cost $406, $340, and $284. But you could also just drive to Santa Maria on your own schedule without all the airport hassles. I’m also stumped by how I would turn a trip like this into a mileage run because these flights from hubs to regional airports typically allow no creative routing (nonstop only), and the lack of mainline aircraft means there’s no potential for an upgrade–although some aircraft like United’s CR7s have a small first class cabin.
The other kind of fare sale is seasonal and typically happens with tourist or international destinations. Think of Europe in the winter, or in the early spring just after larger aircraft have been switched for the peak summer travel in but perhaps before there’s really enough demand to fill all the seats. I don’t consider these to be real sales since the seasonal pattern means you know the fares will be low anyway. The airline just made a list of them and sent out an email. You probably could have booked them the week before the “sale” at the same price, which you can easily do once you get a knack for the patterns and what a good fare is.
I’m not saying that you should never book a fare that’s on sale. But I wouldn’t consider myself to be getting any special deal. Sale announcements from the airlines usually go directly to the trash folder. If you’re less familiar with what a good price is, maybe it would be worth perusing them as a kind of homework assignment.
Finding mileage runs on your own
I don’t have any particular method that is guaranteed to work. Everyone has their own way of doing this based on their desired level of comfort, how much they’re willing to spend, and exactly what they plan to do when they get there (sit in the terminal, go out for lunch, or visit for a couple days, etc.) I also have the problem that Seattle is way up in a corner of the country by itself, and I can’t easily drive to another airport like I could in the Bay Area.
In the Seattle area, however, I find that the addition of Houston (IAH) to United’s route network has been a great advantage when searching for mileage runs. There are several flights between SEA and IAH every day on the newer 738 and 739 aircraft with better IFE and larger first class cabins, and it’s far out of the way if you’re heading to the Northeast. Even when I was only a Gold elite (and sometimes as a Silver) I still got upgraded regularly on this route. It also includes a redeye option out of Seattle, so I can start on Friday night and be back home on Saturday evening. The challenge is that the outbound plane often is coming from Anchorage, creating weather problems in the winter (sooo many de-icing delays) and the risk that someone else will get upgraded over you because they get to check-in earlier.
Some of my favorite routes through IAH are to Kansas City (MCI) for about $160-180 and to La Guardia (LGA) for $180-200. The IAH-MCI leg is on a regional jet, but occasionally they switch out the ERJ witha CR7, which I much prefer.
Another option is to connect in Newark (EWR). I don’t like this one very much because of the frequent delays and the fact that New York and I mix like oil and water. But it’s an option. On a couple of trips I’ve connected through to Miami for over 7,000 EQM, but that probably is one of my less favorite mileage runs.
I recommend you check out my walkthrough on using ITA’s Matrix search engine to find cheap flights:
Check out BryanIAH’s new blog
What I usually do–because I’m lazy–is look for mileage runs posted on FlyerTalk. I have an RSS subscription so any new posts hit my Google Reader inbox. BryanIAH finds some of the better mileage runs and is United-centric, so that works for me. If you haven’t heard of him yet, I suggest you check out a few of his past posts. He’s also started a new blog in the last couple of weeks that is specifically dedicated to mileage runs.
MileageRunning.com provides not only new mileage runs as Bryan finds them but also tips on how to look for your own. Bryan recommends planning your strategy by region because, like I said, certain airports make better connection points and that in turn will limit your range of ultimate destinations. Know your preferred airline’s route map or check out OpenFlights. It’s also possible that certain airports will have similar prices, like Saint Louis and Kansas City or Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, so by running a search on ITA for a few airports in the same area, you can increase your chances of finding a good option.
Bryan will also provide advice on extending the trips you already need to take for business or family vacations into more circuitous routes that will earn you more miles for about the same price. This is a fee-based service, but if you were going to pay anyone to help you find mileage runs, he’s the person I would recommend.