If you’ve spent time in any online travel communities, you’ve probably been exposed to the “mile obsessives” who frequent forums like FlyerTalk. I’ve certainly heard the siren call of the mile game, where things like “mileage runs” (flights with no purpose aside from accruing miles) sound like rational life decisions. It’s a topic worth exploring a bit more, and each traveler needs to decide how far into mile madness they’ll descend. For me, I’ve found that it’s worth caring a little bit – but not too much.
There are two different ways to think about airline miles: miles as currency (earning you “free” tickets) and miles for clout (earning you status). Different strategies can be used to optimize for one or the other.
Miles as Currency
We’re probably all familiar with traditional frequent flyer miles which can be redeemed for a ticket (or an upgrade on an existing flight). Usually, you earn one mile for each mile you fly. You can sometimes earn these miles through partners as well – taking a Lyft, or staying in certain hotel chains. Airlines have steadily devalued them or limited how they can be used, but it takes zero effort to accrue them passively as long as you join the relevant loyalty programs.
If you subscribe to travel deal newsletters like ThrifyTraveler, there’ll occasionally be deals where a relatively small amount of miles can be pretty valuable. Otherwise, I don’t think too much about my overall mile balance with an airline – every few years, we’ll cash out our miles to cover a domestic ticket, but that’s about the best I hope for.
Miles as Clout
Airline miles are also one component of earning “status” on airlines, which is mostly where the aforementioned “mile madness” comes into play. For example, to earn the lowest “status” (silver medallion) with Delta, you’ll need to fly 25,000 miles and spend $3,000 total on tickets. For the higher tiers, you need to fly substantially more miles, and spend substantially more on tickets.
For those of us flying economy, we tend to accrue plenty of miles, but have a harder time reaching the “spend” threshold. For business travelers flying in the fancy seats up front on a corporate account, it’s common to hit the spend level before hitting the mileage level. Thus the concept of a “mileage run,” where you put together an itinerary that maximizes your miles and minimizes your cost. For example, imagine spending a weekend flying from Minneapolis to New York, New York to Los Angeles, then back to Minneapolis, just to accrue miles flown (4100+ miles , $219 on Delta next month) and reach the next status level.
This is all (obviously) insane. But, I can almost understand the temptation. We generally make it to silver status on Delta and have gotten used to the perks. Which is how they get you.
Other Ways to Earn
There’s one more bit of complexity that often gets overlooked – partner mileage programs. If you’ve ever bought a ticket directly on the website of a non-US carrier (KLM for example) you might have noticed that when you were asked about your “frequent flyer” information, you had the option to choose from a whole bunch of different carriers. This is where the world of airline alliances comes into play – Delta and KLM are both members of the SkyTeam Alliance. That means Delta can sell you an itinerary that will also include KLM flights. It also means that you can book a flight with KLM and earn miles on Delta.
The specific conversion process can be complicated to say the least – it often involves a formula involving ticket price, fare class, distance flown, phases of the moon, etc. It can be very lucrative though, so don’t overlook that option when purchasing tickets. For most travelers, it makes sense to have an account with American (Oneworld), United (Star Alliance) and Delta (SkyTeam). Then, for any flights booked through partner airlines, accrue back to the domestic parent instead of opening additional accounts with other airlines.
There’s another whole category of “miles,” which is travel rewards credit cards. I’ll cover that next month, as it’s a whole separate rabbit hole to descend. In short, when it comes to airline miles every traveler should minimally have a few loyalty accounts and take advantage of opportunities to build miles when presented. Most of us generally prioritize ticket cost and travel time before worrying about minor differences in mileage earning or redemption down the line. No mileage runs for us any time soon.This entry was posted in Trip Tips