The Argument for Elite Status and Mileage Running

I wrote this post several months ago, but my readership has grown significantly since then. I’ve decided to re-post some of my more popular posts for my new readers.

Although I wasn’t able to attend the Chicago Seminars for frequent travel geeks, there was one item discussed that I found interesting: whether mileage running and elite status is really worth it anymore. Ben from One Mile at a Time did a post of his view here, and I totally agree that elite status is worth it and I think it’s even more valuable than he states.

If you’re new to the game, having elite status with an airline bestows some pretty awesome benefits depending on your elite level: Special check-in counters, priority security, priority boarding, free/extra baggage allowance, bonus miles, and some fees are waived (if applicable). And these are just the BASIC benefits.

If you’re upgraded to first class and/or have higher elite benefits, you also get: Access to lounges (including alliance ones if applicable), a special assistance phone line, unlimited space-available upgrades to first/business class on domestic flights, free food on 3+ hour domestic flights (for first class upgrades), upgrade certificates for international flights, and the list seemingly goes on and on. Of course, all these benefits vary by airline.

I’m a pretty good example of elite status being totally worth it, actually. This year I’m a US Airways Gold elite member, and that membership has given me a first class upgrade rate of about 70%. On longer domestic flights, such as LAX-CLT or PHX-DTW, I’ve been upgraded every time. Needless to say this benefit has been very valuable to me, especially considering there are still two elite levels above me (Platinum and Chairman’s).

I’ll use an extreme example to prove how and why earning US Airways elite status by just mileage running is absolutely worth it, particularly for someone like me since I fly US Airways regularly anyway.

Last year, US Airways had a Double Elite Qualifying Miles (Double EQMs) promotion for those that own the US Airways MasterCard, which I do. Every mile flown earned double Preferred Qualifying Miles (the miles counted towards elite status) AND double redeemable miles (the miles used for award tickets).

Also, The Flight Deal shows that there was a pretty cheap fare that goes from LAX-BWI for just $240 on US Airways. Keeping in mind that US Airways awards a minimum of 500 miles per segment, this trip should earn me a little over 11K EQMs and redeemable miles. Now say I do this trip 9 times more to hit top tier Chairman’s Preferred status.

Where does that get me?

The below chart details what someone that starts with no status and no miles can earn if they did 10 of the LAX-BWI mileage runs that I mentioned above.

A mileage run on US Airways, and what you’ll pay and earn.

If you spend $2,400 and take the time to do this mileage run (an entire day’s worth of time for each), you’ll earn top-tier Chairman’s Preferred status and 130,625 miles you can redeem for an award.

If you go by MileValue’s assessment of the value of US Airways miles, those 130,625 are already worth $2,547. You’re already ahead $147.

Let’s take a more visual example. Say I want to go to Hong Kong using my new award miles, and I want to fly business class both ways. Using United.com’s award search engine, I see Star Alliance availability for the following flight to Hong Kong on Asiana:

An award flight to Hong Kong on Asiana Airlines.

If I booked through United, an award ticket like this would cost me:

The cost of an award ticket to Hong Kong using United.com.

But how much would this flight cost me if I bought it using my credit card? If I find these exact flights on Kayak.com, the total comes to:

How much cash it would take to book the exact same flights on Kayak.

If I wanted to outright buy this trip, this would cost me $4,131.

Since I’m sure you read my Beginner’s Guide Part 3, you’ll know that, according to this chart, Business class to Hong Kong using US Airways miles (which is a member of Star Alliance and has the same flights available that show on United.com) is actually only 90K points round trip…a fantastic deal.

Let’s bring it all together now. A trip that Kayak says costs $4,131 will cost me 90K US Airways miles and about $60 in taxes. Again, the cost to get those miles was $2,400, meaning I’m up $1,731 PLUS I still have more than 40K miles leftover!

Keep in mind all the perks you now get for being a US Airways top-tier elite as well. You get 4 upgrade vouchers (2 for you, 2 for a friend) that can be used to upgrade you on international flights on US Airways, which saves you thousands over booking Envoy (business) class outright. You get unlimited upgrades on domestic flights on US Airways, and you’re first in line for those upgrades. Every flight you pay for earns the standard mileage plus 100% bonus award miles. You’re also Star Alliance Gold (top-tier). And in general everyone will just be nicer to you.

Of course there are some drawbacks and/or other considerations. Not everyone has 10 days to just spend on mileage runs, even if they are on the weekend. Not everyone can just spend $2,400 for the future benefits I named. Many will argue that instead of going through all that, just keep signing up for credit cards and take those trips for free. And particularly with US Airways, there are tons of promotions that simply allow you to buy miles outright for between 1.1-1.8 cents each.

Those are all absolutely valid points. This type of a deal is most definitely not for everyone, and really is only for a select group of people that do fly a lot on a particular airline and enjoy traveling. Hopefully seeing the math above will give you a better understanding of whether it’s worth it for you.

Note that if you’re lazy/wealthy/busy you can also buy Chairman’s Status outright for $4,000, or buy the amount of PQMs needed to attain status (this is unique to US Airways as far as I know). You don’t get the redeemable miles by buying status, however.

What do you think? Is it worth all the time and effort? Do you know any other tricks to help you attain status faster or cheaper?

_

If you enjoyed this post and the others on this blog, feel free to follow me via the link on the right side menu, on Facebook, or via Twitter @TravelSummary.

Comments

  1. I thought it was Double EQM for using the US MC and Double RDM for using any other MC. Is it now both for using the US MC?

  2. The cost of that Hong Kong award ticket is about 30,000x too much ;) :P

  3. I wouldn’t say you are UP $1,731 because most people would not pay $4,100 for a business class ticket. Even paying $2,400 for a business class ticket to HK would be debatable. Miles have to be valued at the point where you are indifferent between using cash or points. For me, the point is very low, about at $1,800 where I feel indifferent between using cash or 120K points. For others, one might pay $2,400 which values the miles at 2 cents per mile. People reading this blog would probably not even pay that much because they will be using points.. :)

    • Travel Summary says:

      I’ve always disagreed with how people value premium tickets, but you make a valid point. In any case, I think you’d still gain in dollar value with the scenario I presented, even if you value premium tickets a lot less than the actual cost.

  4. Jack Ryan says:

    Say the difference between getting miles through mileage running and a business class ticket to Asia is $2,000. In order to mileage run, it is going to cost you $20 in parking at the airport (or transit fees) and about $30 in meals on the road. That is $500 in extra spending right there.

    Now the difference in value is maybe $1,500. Plus you are looking at a cheap airport hotel, let’s say real cheap at $50 a night. ($50×10=$500). The difference in value is now $1,000.

    Each mileage run LAX-BWI is about 9 hours worth of time from leaving your home to getting to the hotel. Times that by 2 for each mileage run=18 hours. Now times that by 10=180 hours to get elite status.

    For $1,000 in savings, you are spending 180 hours of your time away from home, family, a student, etc. If you worked those 180 hours instead of flying at $25 an hour, that is $4,500.

    Oh, but you may say, the benefits of elite status! Upgrades, free food, etc! My answer is that if you have to mileage run purely from the start, you aren’t flying much to begin with. It isn’t worth the time to get a meal here and there or a few hours on your one or two flights that you would normally go on every year.

    • Travel Summary says:

      I did a couple of these LAX-BWI mileage runs myself, and didn’t have to book a hotel. As a rule, if I’m doing a mileage run then I make sure it never necessitates an overnight stay because, as you pointed out, it makes it not worth it. I could go point by point with a rebuttal but I’ll just leave it at this: I used an extreme example of why it would be to your benefit in terms of the dollars, but I agree that no one should be mileage running from scratch. It would still be worth it money-wise if you did it from scratch, but I agree that time is a separate issue.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] considered doing a mileage run at some point by attempting to get the cheapest fare possible (read why mileage running is worth it). Likewise, if you don’t travel a lot but yearn to get away somewhere for quick weekend [...]

Leave a Reply