Does a mileage run ever make sense?

Photo courtesy of Cedrick Ledesma

 

I was trying to find a round trip ticket on Alaska Airlines that would end up being more than 6,342 miles round trip.

This is difficult. Alaska runs a rather short-haul system, and the longest flight they run is from Chicago to Anchorage, at a decidedly modest 2,846 miles. By contrast, the longest flight by US Airways is Philadelphia to Tel Aviv at 5,771 miles.)

Longest flights on both Alaska Airlines (ANC-ORD) and US Airways (PHL-TLV)

Longest flights on both Alaska Airlines (ANC-ORD) and US Airways (PHL-TLV)

But as I am nowhere near either Chicago or Anchorage (or Philadelphia or Tel Aviv), I needed to find a different kind of trip.

Seattle is Alaska’s hub, and many long distance flights radiate from there. But even flying to, say, Hawaii, and factoring in a stopover in Seattle, it would not quite get me to the magic threshold.

After a few hours of searching, though, I realized that if one of the flights transited through San Diego, I could hit my target with a few hundred miles to spare.

And with that, it was settled: I was going on my first mileage run.

First world problems

As of today, my Alaska Airlines mileage balance for the year is at 33,658. This puts me at MVP status, and a mere 6,342 miles shy of MVP Gold status, the next elite status tier up.

You can read about the benefits of MVP and MVP Gold. MVP gets you free bags and the chance at free upgrades to First Class. But MVP Gold gets me 50% more miles with every flight when compared to MVP, among much else. This can add up: If I were to fly 30,000 miles, I would earn 45,000 miles as MVP, but 60,000 miles as MVP Gold. That extra 15,000 miles can be used for a short haul round trip, so that’s worth real money to me. I could also parlay this status with other airlines and hotel chains if I wanted, as I had done with Alaska itself last year.

So with MVP Gold tantalizingly in reach, I decided that if I could reach it by purchasing a single flight, I could use a gift certificate I had lying around, and reach my status that way.

Can travel be an investment?

Spending money on travel is almost never an investment. The value of travel, all the experiences you have because of it, is in my opinion worth much more than the money paid to make it happen, but you still never make that money back.

That said, there are a few cases in the travel hacking world when spending money on travel starts to lean into the investment category. It’s very rare, and still a bit indirect (as you don’t actually make money, only the promise of travel valued at a higher amount) but it does happen.

And a mileage run can be one such case.

What is a mileage run?

A mileage run is a flight taken where the primary purpose isn’t the destination, but instead the accruing frequent flyer miles or other benefits

Here are some examples of mileage runs:

  • A cheap ticket whose value is less than the value of the rewards earned by that flight.
  • A ticket whose mileage allows you to accrue the next level of elite status.

So if the purpose of flying is not to go somewhere, then what do you do when you get there?

Well, it depends on how much time you have:

  1. 1-4 hours: Never leave the airport, turn around and immediately fly home
  2. 5-24 hours: Go into town and wander around for a few hours or overnight
  3. 1 or more days: Have an impromptu vacation

Option 1 seems like a minimum of fun. I love flying, but that seems like a waste to me. Option 2 seems like more fun, and is good when you have a minimum of free time to spend on such a hare-brained idea as this. Option 3 seems by far like the most fun, if you can swing it.

Don’t try this at [your] home [airport]

It needs to be mentioned here that in almost all cases, a mileage run makes no sense financially. The cases where you can make more money than you spend are vanishingly rare these days, as most airlines are flying full planes and so don’t need to deeply discount fares anymore.

(A “mattress run,” the hotel equivalent of a mileage run, is more likely to make some financial sense, as it’s possibly to find buy-one-get-one deals, but this too is rare.)

There could be an argument for the intangible value of elite benefits, but not a financial argument.

Had I not had a gift certificate lying around that was about to expire, and had I not found a single round trip that would have gotten me over the threshold, I wouldn’t have given this idea serious consideration.

Doing it anyway

In my case, by spending $250 on a flight now, it would allow me to earn enough extra miles next year to offset the spending (estimating $150-$450 worth of extra miles earned, assuming a valuation of $0.01-$0.03).

Now, I’m paying for this trip entirely out of pocket because I happen to have the money saved up. And it’s not going to be super luxurious either; I’ll likely stay in a hostel the entire time.

Plus, for various reasons involving vacation time (or lack thereof), I ended up booking a ticket that gave me an eight hour layover in Seattle on the way out, and an overnight layover in San Diego. To most people, this would sound like hell on Earth, but to me it sounds like an adventure.

After all, did I mention I’m heading off to Hawaii for a few days? How much is that worth?

6,614 miles!

6,614 miles!

But enough about me. Have you ever done a mileage run?

Mike Pumphrey

Mike Pumphrey

I'm the founder and author of Unlikely Radical, a site to help people succeed with money, achieve their goals, and live intentionally.

I offer a free phone consultation to anyone who is interested in changing their financial narrative. Are you ready? Click here for details.
Mike Pumphrey
Posted on December 1, 2014